After his Vigil Mass, the body of Msgr. William B. Smith was carried out the main doors of St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, for the last time, and I wondered how many thousands of entrances and exits he had made through those same doors since he had first arrived as a seminarian. It was not far from home, as he had grown up in Yonkers (with his two brothers) in St. Denis parish, where Msgr. Joseph O’Connor was a venerable model to him, as he had been to countless others since becoming pastor back in 1921. When Bill came home each day from Xavier High School downtown, he would cut through Carlyle Field at the Bronx city line in Van Cortlandt Park, with the homework the Jesuits had assigned him, regularly protesting that he did not want to become a Jesuit because he "didn’t want to be a teacher."
At St. Joseph’s Seminary, the dogma professor was the saintly Father Austin Vaughan, eventually an auxiliary bishop — providential, because his towering intellect provided daily summaries of the new ecumenical council in the Vatican. Father Vaughan’s entire perspective on the council, when popular analysts were speaking of a rupture in Church history, was what a future pope would describe as a "hermeneutic of continuity." At the same time, Monsignor Smith’s moral theology professor was Msgr. Daniel Flynn, who had once trained him to be an altar boy.
Still convinced of a vocation to parish work, Monsignor Smith became a curate in Mt. Kisco in northern Westchester, after Francis Cardinal Spellman ordained him in 1966. The cardinal’s successor decided, however, that he would pursue doctoral studies in moral theology. Monsignor Smith got his passport ready for Rome but, at the last minute, Archbishop Terrence Cooke yielded to a complaint from the president of the Catholic University of America that "New York never sends us anyone unless there’s a war on" — and, as Monsignor Smith remembered, "I found myself going down the New Jersey Turnpike, which is not the way to Rome."
Graduate school in 1969 was a baptism of fire, when Humane Vitae had become an issue more political than theological, and the Catholic University was at the heart of the maelstrom. For Monsignor Smith, "the silly season had emerged," and he began his theme that lasted all his teaching life: "The new morality is nothing more than the old immorality." So began one of the most distinguished careers of any moral theologian of his generation.
In a brave new world, he tackled all the issues in every possible forum, and always with pellucid wit and grace: contraception, abortion, stem cell research, and the politicized tangle of eugenics that has strangled moral discourse in these days. After one meeting with Mario Cuomo, who constructed a Rube Goldberg kind of ecclesiology, Monsignor Smith said he felt the need to take a shower. He could be as congenial over tea at my parents’ kitchen table as discussing liberation theology with me on Bill Buckley’s Firing Line. The three of us debating that subject sounded more like Metternich than Che Guevara. (How one misses that hour-long program of real conversation, so very distant a cousin to our current "talk shows" with the usual suspects screaming rehearsed sound bytes at each other.)
In audience with Pope John Paul II, Monsignor Smith explained that he taught moral theology. The pope said, "I used to teach moral theology." Monsignor, seldom without the last word, replied, "I believe Your Holiness still does." The pope, even less often without the last word, answered, "You should be a diplomat." The teacher who said he never wanted to be a teacher did not abandon the parish: For decades, he preached on Sundays in Scarsdale and was a chaplain to the Missionaries of Charity in the South Bronx. Mother Teresa often asked his advice and had him preach Christmas retreats for her and the sisters in Calcutta in 1983.
Monsignor helped arrange the preliminaries for my program of study in Rome for ordination, and so I enlisted in the long ranks of those he has fostered through labyrinths, academic and spiritual, toward the altar. In a different age and ambience, his dying was like Mr. Chips awakened from sleep: "I thought I heard you say ’twas a pity, a pity I never had children. But you’re wrong. I have thousands of them . . . thousands of them . . ."