Father Mark Smith often tells couples that their main calling in marriage is to do everything they can to get each other to heaven.
“My job as a priest is to do everything I can to help the whole parish get to heaven,” said Fr. Smith, who recently noted his 25th priestly anniversary.
“My goal,” he said, “is to help people fulfill what the Baltimore Catechism tells us is our life’s purpose: ‘to know, love and serve God in this life and to be happy with Him forever in the next.”
Other people’s efforts to do the same for him helped him recognize his priestly vocation.
The St. Joseph, Missouri, native originally came to this diocese to study chemistry at what is now the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.
“I was going to get my PhD so I could join the faculty of a medium-size university, where I could do some research and some teaching,” he said. “I looked forward to having a wife and three kids and a dog and a house on a half-acre lot.”
He became active at the Catholic Newman Center in Rolla, where he and his friends cultivated their relationship with God together.
Shortly after he and his last girlfriend broke up, he was discussing the future with some friends at the Newman Center.
Father Charles Pardee, now deceased, who was the Newman Center chaplain, overheard them and said, “Make sure you include Priesthood in your possible plans.”
Fr. Smith started thinking about it.
“It kept coming back to me and not going away,” he recalled. “I got to the point where I was thinking about it every day.”
Upon hitting a seemingly insurmountable roadblock in his studies, he breached the subject with Fr. Pardee.
“Fr. Charlie actually dissuaded me at the time, which was the best thing he could possibly do for me under the circumstances,” Fr. Smith recalled.
Fr. Pardee could see that Fr. Smith was leaning toward a decision by default.
“That will never work with being a priest,” Fr. Pardee told him. “It has to be freely chosen.”
Fr. Smith waited a few months for the urgency to subside. He then felt much freer to consider the Priesthood again.
“The thought in my head was that I’m probably not the kind of person they want, but I’ll give it a try,” he recalled.
He researched several dioceses and religious communities before settling on the Jefferson City diocese, where he had first felt called.
At age 25, he applied to become a seminarian for the diocese and was accepted.
“Once I made the decision to explore it, I felt at peace,” he said.
He studied philosophy at Conception Seminary College in Conception, then theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis.
“Everything seemed fine and at peace,” he said. “I kept moving along and doing well and improving and becoming a more polished individual.”
Switching from science to philosophy involved a shift in mindset but not in focus.
“Scientists are sometimes labeled as Godless atheists,” he said. “Some are, but I’d like to think that for most of them, including me and the ones I hung around with, there’s this tremendous awe with what God has made.”
He paraphrased Albert Einstein’s assertion that scientists are just trying to figure out what God’s thoughts are.
“Philosophy is looking at some of God’s other thoughts,” Fr. Smith added.
The future priest spent the summer of his acolyte year assisting at St. Peter Parish in Marshall.
When it came time to write the bishop a formal letter, asking to be ordained a transitional deacon, Fr. Smith paused.
“I stalled for about a month,” he recalled. “Did I really want to be ordained?”
He spent a lot of time in prayer and in dialogue with his spiritual director.
He finally concluded: “I want to do this, no one ever said I shouldn’t do this, I think I can do this — so I choose to ask to be ordained.”
Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe, now deceased, of Jefferson City ordained him a deacon on April 28, 1995, in St. Patrick Church in Rolla.
While laying prostrate before the altar, tears of joy filled the lenses of his glasses and spilled out onto his vestments when he stood back up.
Fr. Smith spent that summer assisting the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Columbia, then returned to St. Louis to complete his studies.
On May 4 of the following year, in the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City, Bishop McAuliffe ordained him to the Holy Priesthood.
Fr. Smith remembers lying prostrate on the cold marble before the altar and praying, “Here’s what You’ve been preparing me for, Lord. Give me the graces to do what You need me to do.”
Later, his fellow priests lined up to offer him a sign of peace.
Father Donald Antweiler gave him a hug and said, “Welcome!”
“That really made an impression on me,” said Fr. Smith.
A storm moved through Rolla the next morning during Fr. Smith’s Mass of Thanksgiving in St. Patrick Church.
“I was quoting St. Paul in my homily when: Boom! There was this big clap of thunder,” he said, “and then the church was pitch-black.”
“I didn’t really need that to make today memorable,” he told the congregants, then continued preaching.
Fr. Smith spent that summer filling-in for priests throughout the diocese.
His ministries since then have been varied and fulfilling.
“I’ve tried to be of service to the whole of the diocese and the places and institutions the bishop has sent me,” he said.
He has served as associate pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Jefferson City; pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Fayette and director of Catholic campus ministry at what is now Central Methodist University in Fayette; associate pastor of St. Thomas More Newman Center Parish in Columbia; and pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Martinsburg and Church of the Resurrection Parish in Wellsville.
He spent two years studying canon law at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
He then served as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Westphalia and St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Folk; and now as pastor of St. Peter Parish in Marshall, St. Joseph Parish in Slater and the Mission of Holy Family in Sweet Springs.
On July 1, he will become pastor of Ss. Peter & Paul Parish in Boonville and St. Joseph Parish in Pilot Grove, with the St. John the Baptist Chapel in Clear Creek and the St. Joseph Chapel in Clifton City.
Joining him as associate pastor will be newly ordained Father Derek Hooper.
Cause and effect
As a priest, Fr. Smith especially enjoys teaching and helping people prepare for the sacraments and for initiation into the Church.
He often preaches homilies that challenge his listeners to examine and work on their relationship with God.
“Most of my preaching includes a message that also applies to me,” he said.
He believes his scientific background helps him develop helpful analogies in his teaching and preaching.
“I’m naturally curious and like to analyze and discover,” he said. “Whenever someone comes to me with an issue, I like to say, ‘Let’s dig down to the base here and see what’s going on.’”
Fr. Smith kept the piece of cloth that he dabbed his hands with after they were anointed with Sacred Chrism at his ordination.
He occasionally retrieves the cloth, and the fragrant aroma takes him back.
“I wouldn’t trade these past 25 years for anything,” he stated. “It has been wonderful. I look forward to as many years as the Lord sends me.”
He is grateful to his fellow priests who have taught and mentored him and given him fellowship and support.
“You’ve truly helped me know the Lord, and you’ve helped me try my best to show the face of Christ, to be the face of Christ, to all people,” Fr. Smith told his fellow priests in March.
He now asks for prayers for God to send him the gifts he needs to become the best priest he can be, and for him to be open to receiving those gifts.
He urges parents and other adults to be straightforward in encouraging young people to consider serving the Lord for the rest of their life.
He pointed to the story of Eli and Samuel, how Samuel heard God calling his name, and how Eli told him to respond, “Speak, Lord! Your servant is listening.”
“Too often, we flip that around and say, ‘Listen, Lord. Your servant is speaking,’” said Fr. Smith. “We need to be asking God what He wants of us.
“That’s the only way to a truly fulfilling, peaceful life,” he said.