Standing in the Breach

Rep. Chris and Marie Smith defend life, human dignity for half century

April 14, 2024 at 7:00 a.m.
Rep. Chris and Marie Smith capture a moment with Bishop O’Connell during their interview in the diocesan Chancery. EmmaLee Italia photo
Rep. Chris and Marie Smith capture a moment with Bishop O’Connell during their interview in the diocesan Chancery. EmmaLee Italia photo

By EMMALEE ITALIA
Contributing Editor

To dedicate one’s life for the protection of something or someone – this concept of “standing in the breach” from Ezekiel 22 has been the ever-present mission of Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ, 4th District) throughout his 44-year congressional career.

Marie and Rep. Chris Smith meet with Pope John Paul II in January 2001 as part of a delegation presenting the pope with the Congressional Gold Medal. Courtesy photo

Ranking first among all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives in number of laws authored, and chair of 620 congressional hearings, Smith is not one to shy away from a fight. And the fights he wages have been monumental, including in the arenas of pro-life, human trafficking, child exploitation, veterans’ benefits, genocide relief, antisemitism and many others.

But he and his wife of almost 47 years, Marie – his stalwart champion and teammate – have held fast to the wisdom of St. Pope John Paul II, whose quote hangs above their desks where they can see it every day: “Never tire of firmly speaking out in defense of life from its conception, and do not be deterred from the commitment to defend the dignity of every human person with courageous determination.”

Solid Foundation

A New Jersey native, Smith was born in Rahway; his family belonged to St. Cecelia Parish, Iselin. Smith attended St. Cecelia School and St. Mary High School, Perth Amboy. At St. Cecelia, he and his two older brothers were Boy Scouts, altar servers, and “really got a great formation,” he said.

His family and Catholic faith were “all-important” to shaping his path forward, Smith said. His maternal grandfather, an attorney in Montclair and father of 11, was a stalwart Catholic who worked on civil rights in the 1950s, long before the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“He did pro bono work for Chinese people coming out of Formosa [now Taiwan] and reunited a lot of families,” Smith remembered.

“My father was a combat veteran in World War II and was very tough, not accepting hypocrisy of any kind, and was a very good speaker,” he noted. “My mother was the kindest person I’d ever want to meet. And that was inspiring almost in the extreme – they were such good people.”

Smith claims his work ethic came from working in his family’s sporting goods wholesale business, which his father and mother started in Colonia not long after the war.

“We worked six days a week, the whole family,” he said. “The idea of being meticulous, always getting it right … always double-checking, I do now with legislation.”

Lifelong Partner

Marie and Chris are members of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Whiting. They first connected via the pro-life movement at Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey), Ewing – at Mass.

“Chris had founded the pro-life group on campus in 1972 with Marty Dannenfelser – whose wife Marjorie is now the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America,” Marie explained. “He was at Mass looking for volunteers, and I was there with my two roommates.”

It wasn’t long before Chris made Marie treasurer of the student organization. The two would travel to nearby high schools – both Catholic and public – giving pro-life talks.

“We formed a lot of groups,” Chris said. “I became the state director of the youth pro-life coalition, [trying] to get as many presences on college campuses as humanly possible,” with a goal to educate and to promote pregnancy care centers as an alternative to abortion. “And we always had the dual message: Protect life, and make sure the mother is helped.”

Throughout her husband’s political work, Marie has remained an invaluable support and resource, lobbying with him at the New Jersey State House and in Washington. She served as director of the Parliamentary Network for Critical Issues (PNCI), a nonpartisan global outreach of Gospel of Life Ministries that works to identify, unite and strategize with pro-life groups, lawmakers and religious leaders to advance respect for life in law and policy.

From College to Congress

Smith found himself in the political sphere almost by happenstance.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., speaks during a hearing he chaired on genocide in Iraq and Syria held Oct. 3, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington. CNS photo/Erin Granzow, House Office of Photography

“It was through a public speaking class – I got the abortion issue,” Smith said. “And when I researched it, I couldn’t believe the cruelty of the actual act.”

During his speech, he was met with vehement rebuttal from three classmates – “all harsh, personal, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, have I hit a chord.’” He responded by forming a pro-life group on campus, of which Marie became president after him.

In 1976 he became the executive director of New Jersey Right to Life and composed a comprehensive pro-life bill for the N.J. legislature that was passed with bipartisan support. Then-Gov. Brendan Byrne vetoed it. The Smiths watched in the Assembly as the clock ran out on the session and the Democratic supporters refused to override the veto.

“We were numb,” Chris remembered. “I said, ‘I’m going to run for office. I’m going to get in there and I’m going to fight like crazy.’”

In 1976, after working on Ellen McCormack’s presidential campaign and as campaign manager for Steve Foley for Senate, Smith decided to throw his own hat into the ring. He lost in 1978 but ran again and won in 1980. He has been reelected ever since.

Hands-on Approach

Chris is the proud owner of his ideas. Jokingly calling his wife “Rewrite,” Chris finds it important not only to write his own speeches but also to put them in her hands for retouching. “I give it to her, and it becomes a far better speech,” he said.

“He’ll write factually, and I’ll [say], ‘You need a little bit more emotion, to set the scene,’” Marie acknowledged, “just to connect more with the audience.”

Chris also noted that if someone asks a good question, having written the speech makes it easier to provide a good answer. “A lot of people make mistakes – I make them too – but I go all out to avoid them.”

That approach has contributed to his doggedness, always seeking the most accurate arguments for his hearings and caucuses. One recent piece of legislation that benefited from this determination was the 2019 signing of his Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act, which built on his original landmark legislation, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.

“Talk about legislation neither side wants – no one wanted a trafficking bill,” Marie recalled. “They said, ‘you’re composing a solution to a nonexistent problem.’”

Smith proved them wrong. After the bill died several times in 1999, he brought Russian victims of trafficking in to testify.

“You could have heard a pin drop – they were so persuasive, so eloquent,” he recalled. “That’s when I became convinced that everything we do has to be trauma-informed and victim-centered.”

Finding Inspiration, Setting Priorities

Prayer, their Catholic faith and the teachings of St. Pope John Paul II have remained “the absolute bedrock” for the Smiths in their work to protect the vulnerable.

“We pray a lot – for wisdom, courage to be restored after another defeat,” Chris said.

Marie said they pray “The St. Michael Prayer for protection for our whole family, and we are praying the nine-month novena to Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., speaks May 29, 2017, with children who, along with members of their family, fled South Sudan for safety at the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Arua, Uganda. Photo courtesy of Rep. Smith office / Helen Manson photo

Chris commended Trenton Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., for his constant, accessible teaching and leadership.

“It’s always inspiring, the way he does it – every time I hear him speak or read his homilies every week … he brings in the scholarly part of it, and you can understand it.”

The Scripture verse that best sums things up for Marie is Micah 6:8: “What the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, love goodness and to walk humbly with your God.”

“My priority [in this order] is God, family, work,” Chris said. “But I think you do the work better because of the first two. … I make mistakes all the time, get angry – but I always know where to go: the Act of Contrition, or Confession.”

Smith also feels connected to St. Thomas More, patron saint of statesmen, and his advice: “You must not abandon the ship in a storm because you cannot control the winds. What you cannot turn to good, you must at least make as little bad as you can.”

“I have long admired the work of Congressman Chris Smith and his wife Marie,” said Bishop O’Connell. “Their efforts to promote the pro-life cause have been a source of inspiration to the citizens of New Jersey and our nation. As Bishop, I have a special regard for these deeply committed Catholics of our Diocese.

“Congressman Smith, among the longest-serving members of the U.S. House of Representatives, has traveled the world, speaking truth and justice to and on behalf of populations in the greatest need,” the Bishop continued. “He has never hesitated to be a spokesperson for the principles of his Catholic faith, even in the face of unrelenting opposition from his political colleagues. How blessed we are to count Chris and Marie among the faithful of our Diocese.”

Fighting the Good Fight

Besides authoring hundreds of pieces of legislation, Smith has chaired multiple bipartisan congressional caucuses like combatting antisemitism and physical health concerns, including as co-founder of caucuses on autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Lyme disease and human trafficking. He wrote a bill on the forced organ harvesting of Uyghurs imprisoned in detention camps in China and held a November 2023 hearing on the Chinese Communist Party’s use of forced child and adult labor in cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Some fights are an uphill battle.

“It’s hard dealing with so many people who have abandoned ship,” he said, “particularly in our own party.”

Another concern, he said, is the unwillingness to believe incontrovertible evidence. “I’ve raised all these issues, and I’ve been shocked at the anti-scientific view. … The intellectual dishonesty is frightening.”

“They won’t go beyond their pre-set notion or their agenda,” Marie added.

But that hasn’t stopped Smith from trying, time and again, to get his ideas heard and passed into law. In his second run for Congress, Smith leaned on the passage from Hebrews 12:1-2, “Run with endurance the race before you, your eyes fixed upon Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.”

“That has animated what Marie and I have done throughout the years – never quit, no matter what. Without your eyes on Jesus, you’re like Peter when he got out of the boat – you sink, you get demoralized. Of course, we have setbacks in this job; you just dust off the dust and you give it back to the Lord.”

Hope for the Future

Many public servants find that the daily slog of politics is too much to bear, both for themselves and their families. Yet the Smiths have found a way forward.

“This is where God has placed us,” Marie said. “It’s an exhausting battle at times … but He’s brought us to this point, and it’s being faithful to the mission.”

She quoted William Wilberforce, a British politician and leader of the movement to abolish slave trade, saying, “It would merit no better name than desertion if I were thus to fly from the post where Providence has placed me.”

“I would like to make an appeal to our young people,” said Chris, “to think about [going into] public service at various levels … and to not leave their faith at the door.”

He said too many politicians might personally be opposed to certain agendas, “or they’re influenced … by the political coalition they think is necessary to win.”

“Stand up to that coalition and try to persuade them,” he continued. “Think about politics as a ministry.”

The Church needs quality Catholic journalism now more than ever. Please consider supporting this work by signing up for a SUBSCRIPTION (click HERE) or making a DONATION to The Monitor (click HERE). Thank you for your support.


To dedicate one’s life for the protection of something or someone – this concept of “standing in the breach” from Ezekiel 22 has been the ever-present mission of Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ, 4th District) throughout his 44-year congressional career.

Marie and Rep. Chris Smith meet with Pope John Paul II in January 2001 as part of a delegation presenting the pope with the Congressional Gold Medal. Courtesy photo

Ranking first among all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives in number of laws authored, and chair of 620 congressional hearings, Smith is not one to shy away from a fight. And the fights he wages have been monumental, including in the arenas of pro-life, human trafficking, child exploitation, veterans’ benefits, genocide relief, antisemitism and many others.

But he and his wife of almost 47 years, Marie – his stalwart champion and teammate – have held fast to the wisdom of St. Pope John Paul II, whose quote hangs above their desks where they can see it every day: “Never tire of firmly speaking out in defense of life from its conception, and do not be deterred from the commitment to defend the dignity of every human person with courageous determination.”

Solid Foundation

A New Jersey native, Smith was born in Rahway; his family belonged to St. Cecelia Parish, Iselin. Smith attended St. Cecelia School and St. Mary High School, Perth Amboy. At St. Cecelia, he and his two older brothers were Boy Scouts, altar servers, and “really got a great formation,” he said.

His family and Catholic faith were “all-important” to shaping his path forward, Smith said. His maternal grandfather, an attorney in Montclair and father of 11, was a stalwart Catholic who worked on civil rights in the 1950s, long before the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“He did pro bono work for Chinese people coming out of Formosa [now Taiwan] and reunited a lot of families,” Smith remembered.

“My father was a combat veteran in World War II and was very tough, not accepting hypocrisy of any kind, and was a very good speaker,” he noted. “My mother was the kindest person I’d ever want to meet. And that was inspiring almost in the extreme – they were such good people.”

Smith claims his work ethic came from working in his family’s sporting goods wholesale business, which his father and mother started in Colonia not long after the war.

“We worked six days a week, the whole family,” he said. “The idea of being meticulous, always getting it right … always double-checking, I do now with legislation.”

Lifelong Partner

Marie and Chris are members of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Whiting. They first connected via the pro-life movement at Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey), Ewing – at Mass.

“Chris had founded the pro-life group on campus in 1972 with Marty Dannenfelser – whose wife Marjorie is now the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America,” Marie explained. “He was at Mass looking for volunteers, and I was there with my two roommates.”

It wasn’t long before Chris made Marie treasurer of the student organization. The two would travel to nearby high schools – both Catholic and public – giving pro-life talks.

“We formed a lot of groups,” Chris said. “I became the state director of the youth pro-life coalition, [trying] to get as many presences on college campuses as humanly possible,” with a goal to educate and to promote pregnancy care centers as an alternative to abortion. “And we always had the dual message: Protect life, and make sure the mother is helped.”

Throughout her husband’s political work, Marie has remained an invaluable support and resource, lobbying with him at the New Jersey State House and in Washington. She served as director of the Parliamentary Network for Critical Issues (PNCI), a nonpartisan global outreach of Gospel of Life Ministries that works to identify, unite and strategize with pro-life groups, lawmakers and religious leaders to advance respect for life in law and policy.

From College to Congress

Smith found himself in the political sphere almost by happenstance.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., speaks during a hearing he chaired on genocide in Iraq and Syria held Oct. 3, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington. CNS photo/Erin Granzow, House Office of Photography

“It was through a public speaking class – I got the abortion issue,” Smith said. “And when I researched it, I couldn’t believe the cruelty of the actual act.”

During his speech, he was met with vehement rebuttal from three classmates – “all harsh, personal, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, have I hit a chord.’” He responded by forming a pro-life group on campus, of which Marie became president after him.

In 1976 he became the executive director of New Jersey Right to Life and composed a comprehensive pro-life bill for the N.J. legislature that was passed with bipartisan support. Then-Gov. Brendan Byrne vetoed it. The Smiths watched in the Assembly as the clock ran out on the session and the Democratic supporters refused to override the veto.

“We were numb,” Chris remembered. “I said, ‘I’m going to run for office. I’m going to get in there and I’m going to fight like crazy.’”

In 1976, after working on Ellen McCormack’s presidential campaign and as campaign manager for Steve Foley for Senate, Smith decided to throw his own hat into the ring. He lost in 1978 but ran again and won in 1980. He has been reelected ever since.

Hands-on Approach

Chris is the proud owner of his ideas. Jokingly calling his wife “Rewrite,” Chris finds it important not only to write his own speeches but also to put them in her hands for retouching. “I give it to her, and it becomes a far better speech,” he said.

“He’ll write factually, and I’ll [say], ‘You need a little bit more emotion, to set the scene,’” Marie acknowledged, “just to connect more with the audience.”

Chris also noted that if someone asks a good question, having written the speech makes it easier to provide a good answer. “A lot of people make mistakes – I make them too – but I go all out to avoid them.”

That approach has contributed to his doggedness, always seeking the most accurate arguments for his hearings and caucuses. One recent piece of legislation that benefited from this determination was the 2019 signing of his Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act, which built on his original landmark legislation, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.

“Talk about legislation neither side wants – no one wanted a trafficking bill,” Marie recalled. “They said, ‘you’re composing a solution to a nonexistent problem.’”

Smith proved them wrong. After the bill died several times in 1999, he brought Russian victims of trafficking in to testify.

“You could have heard a pin drop – they were so persuasive, so eloquent,” he recalled. “That’s when I became convinced that everything we do has to be trauma-informed and victim-centered.”

Finding Inspiration, Setting Priorities

Prayer, their Catholic faith and the teachings of St. Pope John Paul II have remained “the absolute bedrock” for the Smiths in their work to protect the vulnerable.

“We pray a lot – for wisdom, courage to be restored after another defeat,” Chris said.

Marie said they pray “The St. Michael Prayer for protection for our whole family, and we are praying the nine-month novena to Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., speaks May 29, 2017, with children who, along with members of their family, fled South Sudan for safety at the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Arua, Uganda. Photo courtesy of Rep. Smith office / Helen Manson photo

Chris commended Trenton Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., for his constant, accessible teaching and leadership.

“It’s always inspiring, the way he does it – every time I hear him speak or read his homilies every week … he brings in the scholarly part of it, and you can understand it.”

The Scripture verse that best sums things up for Marie is Micah 6:8: “What the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, love goodness and to walk humbly with your God.”

“My priority [in this order] is God, family, work,” Chris said. “But I think you do the work better because of the first two. … I make mistakes all the time, get angry – but I always know where to go: the Act of Contrition, or Confession.”

Smith also feels connected to St. Thomas More, patron saint of statesmen, and his advice: “You must not abandon the ship in a storm because you cannot control the winds. What you cannot turn to good, you must at least make as little bad as you can.”

“I have long admired the work of Congressman Chris Smith and his wife Marie,” said Bishop O’Connell. “Their efforts to promote the pro-life cause have been a source of inspiration to the citizens of New Jersey and our nation. As Bishop, I have a special regard for these deeply committed Catholics of our Diocese.

“Congressman Smith, among the longest-serving members of the U.S. House of Representatives, has traveled the world, speaking truth and justice to and on behalf of populations in the greatest need,” the Bishop continued. “He has never hesitated to be a spokesperson for the principles of his Catholic faith, even in the face of unrelenting opposition from his political colleagues. How blessed we are to count Chris and Marie among the faithful of our Diocese.”

Fighting the Good Fight

Besides authoring hundreds of pieces of legislation, Smith has chaired multiple bipartisan congressional caucuses like combatting antisemitism and physical health concerns, including as co-founder of caucuses on autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Lyme disease and human trafficking. He wrote a bill on the forced organ harvesting of Uyghurs imprisoned in detention camps in China and held a November 2023 hearing on the Chinese Communist Party’s use of forced child and adult labor in cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Some fights are an uphill battle.

“It’s hard dealing with so many people who have abandoned ship,” he said, “particularly in our own party.”

Another concern, he said, is the unwillingness to believe incontrovertible evidence. “I’ve raised all these issues, and I’ve been shocked at the anti-scientific view. … The intellectual dishonesty is frightening.”

“They won’t go beyond their pre-set notion or their agenda,” Marie added.

But that hasn’t stopped Smith from trying, time and again, to get his ideas heard and passed into law. In his second run for Congress, Smith leaned on the passage from Hebrews 12:1-2, “Run with endurance the race before you, your eyes fixed upon Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.”

“That has animated what Marie and I have done throughout the years – never quit, no matter what. Without your eyes on Jesus, you’re like Peter when he got out of the boat – you sink, you get demoralized. Of course, we have setbacks in this job; you just dust off the dust and you give it back to the Lord.”

Hope for the Future

Many public servants find that the daily slog of politics is too much to bear, both for themselves and their families. Yet the Smiths have found a way forward.

“This is where God has placed us,” Marie said. “It’s an exhausting battle at times … but He’s brought us to this point, and it’s being faithful to the mission.”

She quoted William Wilberforce, a British politician and leader of the movement to abolish slave trade, saying, “It would merit no better name than desertion if I were thus to fly from the post where Providence has placed me.”

“I would like to make an appeal to our young people,” said Chris, “to think about [going into] public service at various levels … and to not leave their faith at the door.”

He said too many politicians might personally be opposed to certain agendas, “or they’re influenced … by the political coalition they think is necessary to win.”

“Stand up to that coalition and try to persuade them,” he continued. “Think about politics as a ministry.”

The Church needs quality Catholic journalism now more than ever. Please consider supporting this work by signing up for a SUBSCRIPTION (click HERE) or making a DONATION to The Monitor (click HERE). Thank you for your support.

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