By Jennifer Mauro | Managing Editor
They traveled from north and south, from each county of the Diocese, across the state and around the nation – faithful, clergy, religious, family and friends – to pay their respects to Bishop Emeritus John M. Smith during funeral services held Jan. 25 in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton.
“Grant him a place of happiness,” was the prayer issued during the Rite of Reception of the Body, as Bishop Smith’s casket was carried into the Cathedral and blessed with Holy Water by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., before being placed at the foot of the sanctuary, where it lie in state during the afternoon prayer service and Mass of Jesus Christ the High Priest later that evening.
Photo Gallery: Rite of Reception of the Body of Bishop Emeritus John M. Smith
Photo Gallery: Bishop Smith's Vigil Mass of Jesus Christ the High Priest
“The Holy Father was saddened to learn of the death of Bishop [Smith],” Bishop O’Connell read from a letter on behalf of the Apostolic Nunciature and Pope Francis at the start of Mass. “He offers heartfelt condolences to you and to the clergy, religious and lay faithful of the Diocese.”
Indeed, hearts were heavy as congregants, dignitaries and more than 50 priests of the Diocese gathered to reflect on Bishop Smith’s life. But there were smiles and tears of happiness, too, as fond stories of his life, ministry and sense of humor were shared.
“There was a man named John. Sent by God who came as a witness to testify to the Light,” Msgr. Lewis Papera, a priest of the Newark Archdiocese and longtime friend of Bishop Smith, said during his homily, quoting from the evening’s Gospel Reading, John 1:6-18.
“Like John the Baptist, John Mortimer Smith pointed to the Light. The Light that is Jesus Christ. Why can I say this?” Msgr. Papera asked. “Because this is what he did for me as a young priest, and I witnessed him doing the same for so many people over the years.”
Explaining that he met Bishop Smith more than 40 years ago when he attended priestly prayer group gatherings during their time together in the Newark Archdiocese, Msgr. Papera smiled as he recalled how Bishop Smith was a storyteller who “was always welcome to make fun of himself.”
He recounted a story of getting a telephone call from the police department after offering Bishop Smith the use of his family home in Point Pleasant.
“‘You live in Point Pleasant?’” he recalled the police asking. “‘Are you a good friend of Bishop Smith? And do you have a home security system in your house?’ “Then I knew where this was going,” Msgr. Papera said to laughter.
Turns out, Bishop Smith had forgotten to enter the home security code before entering. When the police arrived, they stood him against a wall and searched for a weapon.
Msgr. Papera remembered Bishop Smith telling the story. “He said, ‘but I’m the Bishop of Trenton.’ They responded, ‘and I’m the Pope’s chauffeur,’” Msgr. Papera said to more hearty laughter.
Turning reflective, Msgr. Papera admitted he felt overwhelmed when Bishop O’Connell invited him to give the evening’s eulogy. Bishop Smith, he said, was always the “primer for the pump” – he knew how to encourage others and put them at ease.
“I know what he would have said to me as I prepared his eulogy,” Msgr. Papera said. “‘Lew, don’t take yourself so seriously. Just be yourself. Don’t give somebody else’s story. Tell your story, as you experienced it.’ And I felt at peace.”
He went on to discuss how those who knew Bishop Smith would remember how he could relate the Gospel directly to one’s life. “People felt that he was speaking to them. The Scriptures came alive, not just by an event that happened years ago, but by an event that was happening in the hearts of all of us.”
“I would not call Bishop Smith a joke-teller, but a good storyteller who was able to see humor in life,” he continued, speaking of Bishop Smith’s evangelization. “He disarmed people, and in the midst of the laughter, they would drop their defenses, and they were open to the message of God’s Word.”
“In dozens of different ways, Bishop Smith pointed to the light. “And he tried as best he could to do so in the spirit of his episcopal model,” Msgr. Papera said, going on to quote one of Bishop Smith’s mottos: “Serve the Lord with Gladness.”
“In a culture that is becoming ever darker, we need more John the Baptists who live in the Light,” he concluded. “Not just bishops and priests, but all of us. May the life of Bishop Mortimer Smith challenge each of us to use our unique personalities and circumstances to point to the Light.”