Dec. 10, 2013 – As a married man with three children, Father Stephen Smith never imagined being ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. But on July 14, 2002, he was welcomed to the church with open arms.
Smith had been ordained as an Anglican priest in 1984 after attending seminary school for eight years. During his schooling Smith met his wife Marilyn, and the couple was married in 1986. Soon afterward they became parents to Timothy, Terry, and Kathryn.
The Anglican pastor had never anticipated converting to Catholicism. But one night in 1997, while working on his weekly sermons, Smith confided to Marilyn that his heart felt uneasy. He felt as though he was being tugged in a different direction and he was not sure what that was, or why.
“Marilyn just looked at me and said, ‘Steve, it sounds like you want to be in the Catholic Church’,” Smith smiled.
“I knew right away that she was right. This had been growing in my heart for a long time.”
At that time, Smith did not consider becoming a Catholic priest. He was married with three children, which went against celibacy vows of the church.
Becoming Roman Catholic, then, would mean leaving both the Anglican Church and priesthood to become a lay person in a new denomination. In the summer of 1999, Smith met with St. James Parish priest Father Jack Bastigal, to discuss the procedure for converting the entire family to Catholicism.
“We began the RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, and we were guided through the process of moving toward Catholic Church life,” Smith explained.
Then, in December 1999, tragedy struck the Smith family.
“My entire family was in a horrific accident just before Christmas. Marilyn was air lifted to Foothills with severe brain trauma and broken bones, and the kids were taken to Alberta Children’s Hospital with serious injuries.”
The children were released from hospital three days later, but Marilyn still had not regained consciousness.
Despite the anxiety and the stress the family faced, Smith decided to continue taking the RCIA classes.
“I needed to continue my journey, and my faith was stronger than ever. I was doing this for Marilyn,” Smith said.
Five months later, Marilyn received a day pass to leave the Foothills Hospital with her nurse and attend the Easter Vigil ceremony at St. James Parish in Okotoks, where the entire Smith family was baptized and welcomed into the Roman Catholic Church.
“Our conversion was a bit of a bumpy ride,” Smith said.
“What started out fairly normal grew into something entirely different.”
Their journey had just begun. Shortly before the Smiths became full members of the Roman Catholic Church, Bastigal had approached Smith to suggest he become a Catholic priest. Smith was shocked.
“I didn’t think it was remotely possible,” he exclaimed.
With Bastigal as sponsor and guide, Smith met with Bishop Frederick Henry of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary in February of 2000 and began the process of becoming a Roman Catholic priest. It took two years for Smith to be ordained. The long months of waiting included meeting with several priests in the Calgary area, completing paperwork, taking courses in Catholic theology, and training under Bastigal as a high school chaplain at Holy Trinity Academy in Okotoks.
Throughout the entire process, he was also dealing with moving his family from Calgary to Okotoks and helping them heal physically, emotionally, and mentally from the car accident.
“The journey became two-fold. I tended to Marilyn’s needs and recovery at the same time as I prepared for my vocation as a Catholic Church priest,” Smith related. “It was the end of Marilyn’s career and the beginning of a new one for me.”
In February 2002, Smith and Bastigal were summoned to the bishop’s Calgary office for a meeting. Smith’s documentation had been received and approved by Rome.
Smith was ordained quietly in a small ceremony at St. James Parish in Okotoks on a sunny Sunday afternoon in July 2002.
“It’s not that [my situation] is unusual in the church, but the media would turn it into something abnormal, which the Catholic Church wanted to avoid. So we kept it all under the radar.”
The community in Okotoks was accepting, although at first some found Smith’s situation odd in a traditional congregation. After some time, it became normal.
“I still meet people who aren’t sure how to react though,” Smith laughed. “Some say things like, ‘Oh, that’s all right,’ or ‘How’s that going for you?’
“And some say things like, ‘It’s about time the church moved forward’.”
In a second stroke of misfortune, Smith’s time as a full-time Roman Catholic celebrant was unexpectedly cut short when he became ill in 2009. One year later, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
The progression of the disease brought intense fatigue, which meant Smith had to handle stress differently and adjust his timetables and schedules to suit his fluctuating daily ability.
St. James Parish made him a dominical vicar, meaning he may perform Sunday Mass and special occasions such as weddings, funerals, or baptisms.
“I still visit homes, hospitals, and the hospice from time to time. I can’t be a 24 hours per day person in the church any more, but I’m still useful.”
After just ten years in his new calling, Smith now finds himself living the life of a retired priest. Every day is filled, but he is never as strictly scheduled as he used to be. Even with only one Mass to deliver every week or two, Smith must remain mindful of his intellectual and physical exertion, and is always careful to moderate his activity.
Mass preparations can take hours per week, with a minimum of 100 pages of reference materials to read and draw from, in addition to the constant processing of life experiences and current events.
“It’s a constant dialogue in your mind. And that can be tiring for someone like me.”
Although the schedule has changed, and the work is different, the retired Roman Catholic officiant still finds himself busy with church life and pondering the presence of God in everyday life.
“It’s not a career you retire from and just quit one day. Once you’re a priest, you’re always a priest.”
Priests are ordained for their entire lives, regardless of whether they step away from being full-time celebrants. In fact, according to Smith, some find themselves busier in retirement than in their clergy life, especially in cases where several officiants share a parish.
“There’s an old clergy joke,” Smith said with a smile.
“When a priest retires, he just goes out to pasture. That’s spelled pastor.”