Faith in Action
Published on 12 July 2016
Christopher Smith ’08 doesn’t remember a transformative moment when God called him closer. There were no bolts of lightning or a definitive sign from above or the sort of epiphany that can lead to a life of prayer and reflection. He was a young man, already a graduate of St. Louis College of Pharmacy when, little by little, life—and the pull of something bigger than himself—seemed to be nudging him in a different direction.
Smith had been practicing pharmacy for six years. "I enjoyed working as a pharmacist," Smith said. "When I think back over my time working in pharmacy, I felt most fulfilled when I was talking with a patient one-on-one, and not necessarily making a measurable impact on the entire scope of their health care needs. They approached me with their problems, and sometimes it wasn’t even something I could fix with my pharmacy knowledge, but I was able to help them in a way that they weren’t finding anywhere else. I was someone who could say, ‘You’re doing okay. You’re doing the right thing. Stick with it, and it’s going to get better.’"
When he was a senior in high school, he started working at Walgreens and continued to do so while obtaining his Pharm.D. degree. His high school chemistry teacher had suggested pharmacy, and it all seemed to fit and make sense given Smith’s aptitude for math and science.
"I appreciate the education I received," Smith says. "I enjoyed my time at STLCOP, and felt it did a good job preparing me for practice."
Smith moved to St. Louis 18 years ago, after spending much of his childhood near Los Angeles. His family was Christian, attending a nondenominational church sporadically, doing due diligence on Christmas or Easter. "I always felt like I had a relationship with God, even when I wasn’t practicing my faith," Smith said. "That’s always been part of who I am."
Smith is a pensive, soft-spoken man who exudes warm interest and kindness. In the halls of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, he is decidedly approachable to his fellow classmates of theology. He enrolled in the fall of 2014, when he began his discernment to be a priest.
During his fourth year at STLCOP, Smith was invited to a Mass by a friend. Even in that very first Mass, there was something about the Catholic Church that resonated with him. The tradition, the liturgy, the music—everything about it spoke to a deep-rooted part of himself that he didn’t even know was missing or that he’d been looking for. He spent a year learning more about the Catholic faith, going through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, and then joined the church. After a couple of years of sitting in the pews on Sundays, he started to get more involved in activities at his parish. By then, he’d graduated from STLCOP and, after attending a retreat, he felt called to serve the church in a deeper way. "I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but I felt I needed to do more," Smith said.
"I started praying more about that and, after another two years of staying involved in the church, my thoughts began shifting toward the priesthood. After I’d been a practicing Catholic for about four years, I was pretty sure that I wanted to at least try the seminary."
Smith’s most significant encounter occurred during a pilgrimage to Rome in 2010. Someone gave him tickets to a concert at the Vatican. Divine intervention or not, Pope Benedict (who was in attendance at the concert) came directly to the section where Smith was sitting and shook his hand. The call to serve was becoming louder, and he needed to take the intuition he’d been feeling to the next level. When he returned home, he met with the vocation director for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, who walked him through the application process, the first steps of discernment, and figuring out his calling. Yet his journey, in some ways, began much earlier with an unexpected illness.
When he was 12, Smith was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Based on his symptoms, Smith’s doctors had scheduled what they thought was a routine appendectomy but instead discovered the inflamed bowel tissue. He was already septic, and the disease was so advanced, portions of his small and large intestines had to be removed. He spent two weeks in intensive care and was hospitalized for four weeks after that.
Over the course of the next year, Smith endured two more surgeries. His health care team worked with him for another two years, attempting to find a medication regimen that would keep the Crohn’s disease under control. Smith’s prolonged recovery and struggle to regain his health fueled his interest in pharmacy, and there is no escaping the influence it has had on his relationships. "It gave me a unique perspective, to be able to empathize with patients, to meet them where they are. I think having that experience is invaluable as a pharmacist and in the future, God willing, it will be as a priest. "I’ll be able to sit down with someone and say, ‘I know what it’s like to feel like it’s not going to get better and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, but there is,’" he said.
At Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, Smith attends classes with about 100 other seminarians. Right now, he’s in the second year of pre-theology studies. There will be ample time and discussion during the six-year program for Smith to determine if he is truly called to be an ordained priest. He meets every two weeks with a spiritual director, a priest who can be a sounding board and confidant. Once a month, he also meets with a formation advisor, who reports on Smith’s progression. At the end of each year, Smith will sit down with administrators of the seminary, along with his formation advisor, to discuss evaluations from teachers and classmates.
By the end of his fifth year of studies, he will be ordained a deacon, and it will be presumed at that point that he will be ordained a priest after another year of classes. "There’s someone supporting you or helping you ask questions," Smith said. "It’s designed in every step."
Smith is fully aware of the responsibilities of priesthood as well as the questions and resistance he might get from others, including his family. "If I weren’t Catholic, I wouldn’t understand why someone who went to pharmacy school and had a high-paying job would give that all up," Smith conceded. "My parents never said, ‘Absolutely don’t do this.’ I know they want me to be happy, to see me succeed and flourish in whatever I do. It was more of a struggle for them initially. But it’s definitely gone from being asked every time I see them, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ to ‘If this is where you feel called, keep doing it.’ There’s been a softening, an opening up to it."
Smith plans on maintaining his pharmacist’s license. But if everything goes according to God’s plan, he probably won’t be able to practice pharmacy once he’s involved in full-time ministry as a priest. At the same time, you never know. "I am interested in bioethics and have been looking into getting my certification," Smith said. "I could see myself as either a hospital chaplain or doing consultation on bioethical issues. My pharmacy education and expertise would very easily lend itself to these roles." Smith’s experience working as a pharmacist played an important part in his journey, empowering him to discover a passion for helping people by relating to them in meaningful ways.
"As a pharmacist, I had the opportunity to empathize with patients, meet them where they were, and ease their suffering. In the future, God willing, I hope to do that as a priest," Smith said. "I’m not turning my back on pharmacy. If I hadn’t gone to pharmacy school, who knows if I would have even become a Catholic, let alone become a priest. Something I’ve learned is that the obvious and simple track in life—the path of least resistance—is very rarely the most fulfilling and not the direction we need to take.