The following homily was delivered by Father Jan Michael Joncas at a vigil remembering Father David Smith on Sept. 15, 2022. Father Smith was a longtime faculty member and staff member in Campus Ministry at the University of St. Thomas.
The Archdiocese in general and the University of St. Thomas in particular have lost two wonderful priest-teacher-scholars to death this past week. This morning Father Peter Wang, long-term member of the Theology Department here, was laid to rest from the chapel of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Tomorrow we will celebrate the funeral eucharist and burial for Father David Smith. My task at tonight’s vigil is to acknowledge our grief at David’s passing, to remind us of at least a few things about his life here with us, and to commend him to God for eternity.
I hope none of you will be shocked that I call him “David.” When as an undergrad I first encountered him, he was “Father Smith.” The change to “David” really marked the transition from thinking of him as my teacher and coming to know him as a colleague and friend. (Also, I think “David” is more respectful that the nickname his priest-classmates gave him – “Dithers” – and what more than one undergrad named him – “Ichabod Crane.”)
If I had to give David a title in addition to “Father” and “Doctor” and “friend,” I would call him the “Priest of Paradox.” On the one hand he was a magnificent and meticulous scripture scholar, so much so that Msgr. Jerry Quinn, one of the earlier giants of scripture scholarship from our Archdiocese, footnoted David in his own writings. On the other hand, David was able to reach the most recalcitrant undergrads with his compassion and tenderness, caring less about how they did on his tests than how they were shaping their lives. On the one hand, he was a somewhat eccentric introvert, stripping carpets from his rooms, wearing undyed clothing, and eating fascinating mixtures of grains to alleviate his allergies. On the other hand, he was a proud long-term member of the People of Praise with their distinctive communal enthusiastic response to the movements of the Spirit. On the one hand, he was passionately committed to the Church’s teachings on social justice, founding and chairing a Justice and Peace Studies department here at UST. On the other, he was unfailingly respectful and open to discuss perspectives other than his own without compromising his commitments. Where others would see a world of “either-or” choices, David embodied the Catholic instinct of “both-and.”
If David is for me a “Priest of Paradox,” I think it is because he knew that our God is a “God of paradox”: utterly transcendent from this world of space and time, yet profoundly imminent in a world “charged with the grandeur of God;” a God of judgment and justice, yet a God of mercy and compassion; a God who in Jesus becomes one of us yet dwells eternally with Father and Holy Spirit in unapproachable light.
St. Paul, whose writings David so deeply studied, revels in the paradox of the Cross in the passage from his First Letter to the Corinthians we have just heard: “Where is the wise person?… Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?… God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe… For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” The wisdom of this world is that physical death terminates what is deepest and truest and realest and best about us; that only oblivion awaits us all; that the our lives is something only we create and disappears with our death. The wisdom of God is that through the Cross Jesus has broken through to a new way of being human, one no longer bound by this world of time and space: Christ beckons to us from beyond the horizon of history to join him in a life of eternal infinite Love.
Our Gospel this evening cites Jesus’ own preaching, in the familiar parable of the sheep and the goats. Who are the Father’s blessed? Those who give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, friendship to the stranger, clothes to the naked, those who care for the sick, and visit to prisoners. David took this teaching extremely seriously, thus demonstrating how he embodied yet another paradox: to champion both charity -- concrete benevolence to those in need, and justice -- addressing the underlying systems of oppression that diminish human dignity and augment human need. His charitable acts included offering an undergraduate three weeks at a family cabin in Maine for vocational discernment free of charge as well as being willing to loan his car to other undergraduates on their way to a retreat at New Melleray Abbey. (Learning that David’s car was a stick-shift effectively kept the undergrads from taking him up on the offer.) His work for justice continues to influence the many students applying Catholic social teaching in the particular circumstances of their lives and communities.
I’d like to conclude this time of reflection by citing another priest-teacher-scholar, Blessed John Henry Newman. His “Prayer for Holy Rest,” even though intended as petition before going to sleep, seems to me a beautiful and appropriate prayer as we accompany David into God’s eternity:
May Christ support us all the day long,
until the shadows lengthen,
and the evening comes,
and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then in your mercy,
grant us safe lodging,
and a holy rest,
and peace at the last.
Dear David, your busy world is hushed, the fever of your life is over, and your work is done. May you find safe lodging, holy rest, and peace at the last. Amen.
- Father Jan Michael Joncas
September 15, 2022
St. Paul, MN