The first weeks of the new year have marked profound losses for Catholics in New York and beyond.
As most of you know, Father Richard John Neuhaus, a leading voice for Catholic truth through his magazine First Things, passed away on January 8th after a second bout with cancer. A former Lutheran minister, he marched with Martin Luther King for civil rights in the 60s and was a pro-life leader after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. In 1990 he was received into the Catholic Church by John Cardinal O'Connor and ordained a priest by him a year later.
Less well known on the national level, but every bit as eloquent a defender of life, was Monsignor William B. Smith, a professor of moral theology for more than 30 years at St. Joseph's Seminary (Dunwoodie) in Yonkers. The venerable monsignor died on Saturday (Jan. 24) after a 10-day hospital stay. He had been teaching his regular schedule of classes up until he was admitted to the hospital on the day of Father Neuhaus' Funeral Mass. I have word from a Dunwoodie priest that Monsignor Smith had not been feeling well for some time, and that he was conscious and aware of his dire condition the day before his death, at the age of 69. Ordained in 1966, he was a priest for nearly 43 years.
Monsignor Smith was not an influential editor or adviser of presidents, as was Father Neuhaus, but he was an inspiration to countless Catholics in the pews, particularly pro-lifers, who looked to him for guidance and encouragement for more than 30 years. Monsignor Smith was the North Star of Church teaching on contested issues such as contraception, abortion and the assorted ethical issues that have come with biotechnology.
He was known for his direct manner and what he described as "sandpaper" personality, and also for great patience with his students and seminarians. He was not impressed with himself or his position and thus was not afraid to speak his mind to those of high office.
In the 1980s, he had dialogues with New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, when the latter was loudly voicing his "personally opposed but..." stance on abortion, in opposition to Cardinal O'Connor. After one such encounter with the Governor, Monsignor Smith said that he hoped Cuomo would be voted out of office, but not for political reasons. He hoped that, away from politics, Cuomo would join Gov. Hugh Carey, a fellow Catholic, in renouncing his pro-abortion stance in the more reflective moments of retirement.
To Monsignor Smith, the state of the soul was more important than the governing of the state.
Monsignor Smith was also known for his quick wit and dry, sometimes biting humor. "I see from the fact you are here that you have escaped abortion," he would begin many a lecture. "But don't take comfort, because we are all candidates for euthanasia." It was his startling way to warn whoever would listen that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
Like an effective prophet, he often was disarming in speech and manner. Like a good priest, he loved the sacraments and conveyed this love to others. May he soon see the Lord whom he served so well, and may he pray for us, who suffer from the loss of his presence.