By Jennifer Mauro, Managing Editor, and Mary Stadnyk, Associate Editor
He was a champion for life. A light in the darkness during unspeakable tragedy, a shepherd of ministries. And at the heart of it all was a pastoral call to serve the Lord and a commitment to the universal Church.
“He really wanted people to have an encounter with Jesus and believe without a doubt that the Church provided a very authentic, a very real and a very spiritual encounter with God,” Msgr. Joseph Rosie, pastor of St. Paul Parish, Princeton, said of his longtime friend, Bishop Emeritus John M. Smith.
“He was a man of intellect, but he was more concerned with pastoral theology than dogmatic theology –to translate the teaching of the Church into real experiences of people so that they could grow in faith,” said Msgr. Rosie, who first met the future Bishop at seminary in Rome in the mid-1980s.
Msgr. Rosie, who, under Bishop Smith’s episcopacy served as his priest-secretary and then as diocesan chancellor, was one of many priests, parishioners, Catholic leaders and friends to recall Bishop’s Smith’s legacy as one of faith and understanding.
‘Pastor of Pastors’
Father Cesar Rubiano, pastor of Our Lady of the Angels Parish, Trenton, recalled Bishop Smith’s concern for those in need.
“He was interested in the Church overseas,” Father Rubiano said, explaining Bishop’s partnership with the Diocese of Kasana-Luweero in Uganda, Africa, which developed in 2002 when the two dioceses joined in a Global Solidarity Partnership under the aegis of Catholic Relief Services. Bishop Smith served six years on the board of directors of Catholic Relief Services and made five visits to Africa on behalf of the board.
“’It’s not just about giving money overseas,’” Father Rubiano remembered Bishop Smith saying, “’but we can learn something from the Church in Uganda just as the Church of Uganda can learn something from us.’”
Throughout the partnership, which spanned about 10 years, delegations from both dioceses exchanged multiple visits. The contingent from Trenton had opportunities to travel to Ugandan villages to help build clinics, schools, churches and banks, train medical personnel, dig wells and update infrastructure.
“I considered Bishop Smith to be the pastor of pastors … and he and [then-Bishop Cyprian Lwanga] shared a pastorate that happened to transcend oceans and hours of air flights,” said Ellie Ancrum Ingbritsen, who traveled to Kasana-Luweero with the first delegation in 2002. She said both bishops were concerned with the question, “How do we bring the faith and the strength of the faith to our people no matter what adversities they face?”
“That resonated in their relationship,” said Ancrum Ingbritsen, who served as director of the diocesan Office of Black Apostolate and as secretary for Ethnic Ministries under Bishop Smith.
Said Father Rubiano, “Even though it was in the midst of the AIDS crisis in Uganda, there was a real joy among the people. I think being able to bring that joy back here so people who were also suffering could experience it could teach us a lot about the joy we should have as members of the Church and God’s faithfulness to us even in our struggling and challenging times.”
In Face of Tragedy
Challenging times would mark Bishop’s Smith tenure as the ninth Bishop of Trenton, especially during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which claimed more than 150 lives in the Diocese of Trenton.
“The people saw the great concern of their shepherd – how in this horrible tragedy, he was there with them. I think the theme was, ‘We’re going to get through this together,’” said Msgr. Phillip Lowery, pastor in St. James Parish, Red Bank. He explaining that five days after the attacks, Bishop Smith visited the hardest-hit parishes in the Diocese of Trenton – St. James; Holy Cross, Rumson; St. Mary, Middletown, and Nativity, Fair Haven. Middletown alone suffered the most casualties per capita than any other New Jersey town – 37.
Bishop Smith went on to establish a 9-11 fund to help meet the immediate needs of families of victims and called for a special collection in parishes a few weekends later. On Sept. 23, he took part in a prayer service at Jersey City’s Liberty State Park after visiting Ground Zero. During that visit to the smoldering remains of the Twin Towers, Bishop Smith met with iron workers and first responders.
Msgr. Lowery, chaplain to the State Police, remembers iron workers greeting the Bishop and urging him to follow them into one of the collapsed buildings. There, they showed him two beams that had fallen to form a cross.
“To them, this was God,” he said, explaining that they wanted the cross saved but city authorities wanted everything razed. “’We’re only iron workers, Bishop,’” Msgr. Lowery recalled them saying. “We really need someone with clout, one of the Big Three – President George Bush, [then-Mayor] Rudy Giuliani or you, Bishop Smith – to tell them this is divine.”
Msgr. Lowery laughed. “He never corrected them on the Big Three.”
The cross was saved.
Quality of Life
Bishop’s stewardship transcended tragedy, as he was also an everyday champion for the less-fortunate.
He supported life from conception to natural death, testified against the death penalty and worked against embryonic stem cell research.
“I appear before you today on behalf of the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey to signify our belief that the death penalty is not consistent with evolving standards of decency,” Bishop Smith said in addressing lawmakers in Trenton in 2006. “Because the State of New Jersey has other means to redress the injustice caused by crime and to effectively prevent crime by rendering the one who has committed the offense incapable of doing harm, and because we recognize the dignity of all human life, we continue to consistently and vigorously oppose the use of the death penalty.”
Said Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, “Bishop Smith’s leadership in the campaign to eliminate the death penalty was recognized and applauded by organizations such as New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, legislators and Gov. Jon Corzine, who gave public recognition to Bishop Smith at the ceremony signing into law the elimination of the death penalty in New Jersey.”
Prior to her current role as executive director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton, Marlene Laó-Collins worked as the NJCC’s director for social concerns. In that role, she often was researching issues of interest to the New Jersey bishops concerning Catholic social teaching, like hunger, homelessness, health care.
“I get a call that Bishop Smith wanted to see me. It was like being called into the principal’s office,” she said, laughing. “When I arrived, he immediately realized I was nervous and he put me at ease, saying, ‘I just want to understand this better.’ Basically, what I got from that is that we can be very jargony when we address certain issues, but let’s keep it simple because everyone sitting at the table may not be as versed on the subject. It was very humbling for me … he didn’t live in it, I did. But he wanted to understand it, and he wanted to use plain language. That was a lesson to me, and I always remembered that as I prepared documents for Bishop, understanding that for him, it was being used in a pastoral way.”
Others attested to that pastoral call, too.
“He wanted to make sure people were receiving the services they needed in the spiritual sense,” Father Rubiano said. “In the life of the youth, the divorced, those who are struggling, in the lives of the sick – how can we bring Jesus in when people are not going to Church? I think that was one of his worries.”
“He loved to see how the Church was growing among the Hispanic population, and he was truly encouraged to help them,” Father Rubiano added, saying that Bishop Smith was involved with Catholic Charities’ El Centro, and he made efforts to be present for parish Our Lady of Guadalupe celebrations.
Bishop Smith also had a commitment to the ministry of youth and young adults.
Patrick Dolan, current freelance videographer with the diocesan Department of Multimedia Production, recalled how Bishop Smith was a supporter of multimedia outreach, especially Realfaith TV, a program for teens by teens that tackled real-life issues that age group faces. Realfaith TV continued for 17 seasons, until it was replaced with more social media-minded projects.
“Bishop Smith always voiced his excitement for the work we did … and how we were bringing the Gospel message to young people,” Dolan said. “His encouragement really helped us to see our work as a vocation and an important, positive force for not just the Diocese of Trenton, but for media markets across the country. It is that encouragement that has helped me remain close to my Catholic faith as I further my career in communications.”
Neighbor to Neighbor
At the heart of Bishop Smith’s legacy, all agreed, was ministry.
Father Pablo Gadenz, who also served as a priest-secretary for Bishop Smith, recalled a story the prelate once told:
“One time, on a day off, he took a walk along the beach or boardwalk, and he was dressed casually,” Father Gadenz said. “He struck up a conversation with someone else taking a walk. After some time, the other person asked him, ‘What do you do for a living?’ Bishop Smith answered, ‘I’m a shepherd.’ Surprised, the other person remarked, ‘In New Jersey?’ He then asked the Bishop, ‘How many sheep do you have?’ The Bishop, thinking of the number of Catholics in the Diocese at the time, responded, “About 700,000!”
Father Gadenz went on to recall how that shepherding reached beyond the Diocese of Trenton, when on Sept. 10, 2001, he accompanied Bishop Smith to visit Bishop Vincent DePaul Breen of the Metuchen Diocese, who was in poor health. Bishop Smith, for six months, would go on to assume the added duty of apostolic administrator of the Metuchen Diocese.
“On our way home from the visit, we were discussing the press release that he would issue to explain the situation [of Bishop Breen’s retirement.] However, the next day was 9/11, and our attention suddenly was turned to the unfolding tragedy,” Father Gadenz said.
Christina Leslie, who is a correspondent for The Monitor and parishioner in the Diocese of Metuchen, picked up the story from there, explaining that at the same time that Diocese’s faithful were learning about Bishop Breen, the 9-11 attacks occurred. Roughly 120 from the Metuchen Diocese were killed.
“It was the biggest test of faith we had ever faced, and our own shepherd was gone,” she remembered.
On Sept. 14, there was a Mass in St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral, Metuchen, in which Leslie served as a cantor. “The place was beyond packed with shell-shocked people. The first few rows on the right were many priests, all vested in funeral white; on the left, the pews were filled with police in their dress blues, firefighters in uniform, then the rest, all sorrowing.”
“When it came time for Bishop Smith’s homily, you could have heard a pin drop. Each and every set of eyes turned toward this clerical stranger, and I remember thinking, ‘What could he possibly say to make us feel just a little better?’” she said.
“He did a masterful job. He used the analogy of the Pieta, with Mary holding the broken, dead body of her Son, and paralleled it to the firefighters who had lovingly carried the body of Father Mychal Judge [Franciscan friar and a chaplain to the New York City Fire Department] out of the rubble of the collapsed towers. He touched on our sorrow and anger, and eased them into stronger faith, peace, hope. We all left the Mass to pick up the pieces with a bit more strength,” she said.
Faith at Heart
Whether it was to those overseas, the less-fortunate, fellow priests or the faithful of any diocese, that outreach is something Bishop Smith will always be remembered for, his friends say.
“He really did try to make ‘parish’ more than just one individual parish,” Msgr. Rosie said. “He enjoyed being bishop but one of his joys was the opportunity he had as pastor, whatever role he was going to be in … because that’s what people need.”
Said Msgr. Lowery, “The legacy that Bishop Smith leaves to us and the Diocese can never be forgotten by all who have known him, worked under him, but so dearly loved him.”
Father Rubiano agreed. “He was a hard worker – but always with the spirit of a father. He made people feel respectable and important.”
Father Rubiano was with Bishop Smith much toward the end of his life, as his health complications advanced. “He kept his smile and the deep love in his eyes. I think he knew that the time was coming, but I never heard him complaining about pain or anything else. Even in his frailty, he always had his strong faith in God.”