YONKERS, N.Y. — With a calm, disarming wit that always drove home the point, Msgr. William Smith opened many a public lecture by observing that it was evident his listeners had survived the abortion battle. “But don’t take solace,” he would add, “we are all candidates for euthanasia.”
A teacher of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (known locally as Dunwoodie, for the section of Yonkers it is in) in the Archdiocese of New York for more than 30 years, and a guiding light of the pro-life movement, Msgr. Smith died on Jan. 24 at the age of 69, from complications stemming from double pneumonia, after a short hospital stay.
With the passing of Cardinal Avery Dulles on Dec. 12 and Father Richard John Neuhaus on Jan. 8, Msgr. Smith’s death marked the passing of the third internationally renowned New York priest in a little more than a month.
Ordained in 1966 at the beginning of an era of theological dissent following the Second Vatican Council, Msgr. Smith became a nationally known figure of fidelity to the Church’s magisterium, particularly on the issues of contraception, abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research and an array of other ethical challenges brought on by biomedical science.
He hosted a number of shows on the Eternal Word Television Network, including “Catholic Morality and the Catechism”; addressed moral and canonical issues for Homiletic and Pastoral Review; engaged in dialogues with New York politicians, including Gov. Mario Cuomo who voiced a “personally opposed but …” stance on abortion; debated dissenters on television; was a founding member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars for those faithful to Church teaching; and served as a popular speaker for conferences and retreats throughout the United States.
Yet for all his intellectual acumen, Msgr. Smith was first of all a priest who served God’s people with an open heart, said Father Donald Haggerty, who delivered the homily at the Mass of the Holy Eucharist on Jan. 27 at the Dunwoodie chapel.
Dozens of New York priests concelebrated the Mass with Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Walsh, the seminary’s rector, while more than 100 laypeople and religious brothers and sisters filled the chapel to overflow capacity.
“With his powerful mind, he was also humble intellectually, a man who loved to study and to learn,” said Father Haggerty, a professor of moral theology at Dunwoodie who studied under Msgr. Smith.
The funeral Mass was offered the next day by Cardinal Edward Egan at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Scarsdale, N.Y., where for many years Msgr. Smith celebrated Sunday Masses as a weekend assistant.
Wide Range of Influence
The Masses at Dunwoodie and at the Scarsdale parish showed the wide range of Msgr. Smith’s influence. Missionaries of Charity from the South Bronx said that he visited their convent twice a week, offering Mass, hearing confessions and delivering a one-hour meditation each Friday.
Mother Agnes Donovan, superior general of the Sisters of Life, said that Msgr. Smith taught her community a full range of theology courses since the order’s founding 17 years ago by Cardinal John O’Connor.
“He was our most reliable reference point on all matters having to do with the sanctity of human life and moral theology,” Mother Agnes said.
Deacon Donald Quigley recalled that Msgr. Smith taught for more than 20 years for the permanent diaconate formation program. Deacon Quigley, formerly the director of social services at a nursing home, also called on him often for guidance on medical ethics.
“He was always willing to take however much time I needed, and he always explained in full detail what the Church teaches, while at the same time, he was very considerate to the family involved,” said Deacon Quigley.
John Kang, a former parishioner at the Scarsdale parish, came to the seminary to pay his respects.
“He probably didn’t know me, but I always called the parish to find out what Mass he was saying, because I love to hear his homilies,” Kang said. “He was the most persuasive speaker for what I have come to believe in my Catholic faith. He explained things clearly and logically.”
Also at the seminary was Christopher Bell, director of Good Counsel Homes for single mothers.
“He had a tremendous impact on all pro-lifers for decades and really provided the intellectual groundwork and moral encouragement that we needed to keep going,” Bell said. “He influenced not only the priests and other leaders, but the laypersons in the pews, and spent a great amount of time talking with anyone who would call him seeking guidance on personal issues.”
In remarks at the Dunwoodie Mass, Bishop Walsh said that the seminary had suffered a great loss and that “the large number of priests here testify to the great esteem we have for him in the Archdiocese of New York.”
In a deeply personal homily, Father Haggerty said that Msgr. Smith “was really a sort of father” to him.
“He was a father to my priesthood. Dunwoodie will experience an absence that will not be lifted for a long time.”
He added, “We have lost a great priest not only of our time, but in the history of the Archdiocese of New York. The larger Church has also suffered a great loss.”
To underscore his point, Father Haggerty read messages that were sent to the seminary by members of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.
Gerard Bradley of the University of Notre Dame wrote that Msgr. Smith was a “model of devotion to the intellectual apostolate in the Church.” Kenneth Whitehead called him “a tower of strength” on life issues.
Father Haggerty also recounted a story that has been passed on in Dunwoodie lore. As a newly appointed teacher at the seminary in the early 1970s, then Father Smith visited the Vatican with other priests.
In a brief meeting, Pope Paul VI asked the young priest what he taught at the seminary. When he answered “moral theology,” the Holy Father asked him in what manner he taught the subject. Father Smith replied with the Latin words meaning “thoroughly and completely.”
The next day, Father Haggerty said, Father Smith received a signed copy of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth), the 1968 encyclical on contraception that many prominent theologians had rejected.
“We should ponder the value of Catholic faithfulness that [Msgr. Smith] was dedicated to,” Father Haggerty said. “Faithfulness was the fruit of love. A deep love for Jesus Christ.”
Stephen Vincent writes from