By Anthony Barich
Father Richard Smith was drawn to the altar since he was eight.
He always had a calling that this was where he was meant to be.
In becoming a Catholic he realised, while he worked at Myers in secular employment to pay his living expenses, just how strong that calling was. It was a time in his life when he wasn’t able to offer the Eucharist, which he had done since his ordination as an Anglican priest in 1977.
Fr Richard, now 60, grew up in North Curl Curl – 18km northeast of Sydney – attending Anglican High Church-style parish and Sunday school that used the traditional liturgical colours to illustrate the significance of Sundays and feast days until he was baptised at 13.
That is the definitive memory Fr Richard has, along with his vibrant parish that had many interesting visitors, especially missionaries talking about their work abroad, which were key factors that drew him to the priesthood.
For Fr Richard, the very lives of people that Christ enriches and touches through his ministry of the sacraments and his love, are that which enrich him as a priest.
“People have invited you to this holy space, be it their wedding, baptism or confession. It’s really nice to be a part of that moment and be able to share the sacrament,” he says.
“Following a vocation is about being open to the possibility and letting things happen.”
Born in 1948 – a ‘baby-boomer’ – he grew up in a very tribal church existence. There were the Irish Catholics and the English Protestants, and the animosity extended into the business world, which he found out when he worked in the Commonwealth Bank and then the retail industry upon leaving school.
Even so, the Catholic Church was alive and vibrant, full of overseas priests with many and varying personalities; schools were staffed by priests and consecrated Religious and Novenas and Benediction were regular family events. The Anglican Church was similarly alive.
“There was the expectation that kids would consider the priesthood or Religious life as a possibility among their career possibilities in life,” he recalled to The Record.
Through the 1960s to the 80s, the exposure to publicly clad Religious and priests became less and less, and “youngsters could go right through the Catholic education system without ever seeing a priest”.
This, he says, is part of what is needed for the renewal of vocations in the Church – visible witnesses to the faith by their garb and their personality, aside from the good works they do.
“Parishes and Religious orders need to expose youngsters to Religious people,” he says. “If you put before them the potential and the possibility to become one, then at least it’s on the horizon for them. That opportunity has to be there. We have to encourage people to at least think about serving Jesus as a priest or religious.”
His own formation in the Anglican Society of the Sacred Mission, which he joined in the Adelaide Hills in 1972, drew him more into the mysteries of the faith. The order’s founder Fr Herbert Kelly intended to train men for ministry not by learning things by rote but to be thoughtful and prayerful about their vocation. SSM students were expected to search things out for themselves.
He calls his formation at St Michael’s House in Crafers, in the Adelaide Hills, as “very Catholic” in that it gave him a sense of belonging to an ancient story that is very much alive today.
“I enjoyed the lifestyle at St Michael’s – praying five times a day, daily Mass, meditation, Morning Prayer, Midday Office (prayers of Intercession said with the Psalms), Evensong and Compline…the prayer regime was similar to the Benedictines,” said Fr Richard.
His parents were not religious and were startled and even concerned about his vocation, as they feared he would always be poor as a church mouse.
He met his wife Pam in Perth and around 1990 they had discussed the possibility of becoming Catholics together. He never assumed this would automatically mean he would become a Catholic priest, but that was his hope all the same. He was, after all, drawn to the altar.
In what he described as literally a “leap of faith”, Fr Richard decided during 1997, in a God-given gap in his career, to act on the ‘talk’ and make contact with Bishop Robert Healey, who had mentored him and Pam since 1990. He was due for long service leave and this was an opportune moment for Fr Richard after five years at Kwinana Anglican Parish and two locums to follow his dream and become a Catholic.
Once he left the Anglican Church he and Pam had nowhere to live until, through family, he and Pam found a unit in North Beach, where they also found their spiritual home at Our Lady of Grace Parish. Archbishop Barry Hickey appointed Dominican Fr Jordan Perry, who looked after them and guided them into Holy Mother Church, and on October 25 they were received into the Catholic Church at Our Lady of Grace, North Beach.
In 1998 he applied for Catholic ordination to Archbishop Hickey, who presented his case to Rome, and on Palm Sunday 1999 the prelate shared a meal with the Smiths and told them he’d been accepted, but had to complete a couple more years’ studies at Notre Dame University and St Charles’ Seminary. Subsequently he was ordained a Deacon on October 12, 2002 and then ordained a priest on March 22, 2003 just in time for Easter.
“I really wouldn’t be happy not being a priest,” he says. “I discovered that when I worked for Myers. I knew I was where I was supposed to be.
“To be a priest is a very privileged occupation in which one discovers a great depth of love, and a place I personally feel called to be in. Vocation is as much about exposure as anything. We have to actually want to do it and be happy doing it. The ‘prayer thing’ goes hand in hand with the life of being a priest. There are good and not-so-good days of the prayer life, but I’ve learned to be still and to be reflective, which stems from my training at St Michael’s.
“Priesthood is about service, not being lord and master. Priesthood is a space that is wonderful to be in. I would recommend it wholeheartedly and without reservation.”