When Fr. Christopher Smith invited the congregation to join him in reciting “The Lord’s Prayer” in their own languages, the Arboretum at Christ Cathedral swelled with nearly 1,000 voices praying in unison: English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Samoan, Chinese, and likely Korean and Tagalog, too. It was a symbol of the unity and inclusion the Catholic Diocese of Orange has strived for since it bought the former Crystal Cathedral and surrounding campus in 2012 and installed Fr. Chris as its rector.
It was also a fitting tribute to Fr. Chris to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his ordination into the priesthood, on June 3, 1978. The priests ordained and appointed to Orange County in 1978 became legendary for forming the backbone of the Diocese, which began in 1976 with 44 parishes serving about 340,000. Since then, the county and diocese have gone through a remarkable transformation culturally and demographically. The number of congregants has grown fourfold, the result of the influx of Latino, Vietnamese and other immigrant communities into the faith.
Throughout that growth and change, Fr. Chris has been a steadying influence at the forefront in numerous posts. As rector at Christ Cathedral, he is overseeing the transformation of the iconic former church and campus of late evangelist Robert Schuller’s Reformed Church of America, into a Catholic Cathedral that will be officially dedicated on July 17, 2019.
On Friday, June 1, Fr. Chris, along with family, friends and congregants who have followed the priest through the years, gathered for an afternoon Mass to help commemorate the anniversary. In attendance, also, was Bishop Kevin Vann.
During Fr. Chris’ opening remarks, he said hello to the congregation in four languages, English, Spanish, Samoan and, just a bit haltingly, in Vietnamese, for which he received a cheerful ovation.
Asked about the multi-lingual effort, Vann said, “That’s what the diocese is all about, it’s very characteristic of the church.”
Throughout the service Fr. Chris alternated between Spanish and English, with translations in Vietnamese displayed on a screen behind the altar. The music was sung by a recently formed trilingual choir. A Samoan group from St. Joseph Church of Santa Ana sang and took part in the opening procession, draping leis over the necks of the priests and the bishop.
During his remarks, Fr. Chris talked about importance of the number 40 in the Bible: the 40 days and nights of rain while Noah was in his ark, the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the Judean desert and defeating the devil, and the 40 years the Jews wandered in the wilderness.
Fr. Chris said for him the last 40 years have been “a journey of transformation and gratitude.” Fr. Chris said in that time he has been part of the most tender, painful and most jubilant moments in people’s lives.
“It has led me to say, ‘thank you,’ every day after I wake up,” Fr. Chris said.
For many in the church Friday was a day filled with memories.
Fr. Chris’ younger brother, Thadeus Smith, was one of four family members, along with three sisters, on hand.
“I was remembering the day he was ordained and what a special day that was,” Thadeus said, recalling that the class of ’78 was the first group of priests ordained into the diocese at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange, and his brother was near the front of the line.
Among the parishioners was Evelyn Gannon of Long Beach.
“I’ve followed him all over,” she said. “When he was at St. Hedwig Church (Los Alamitos) we wouldn’t let him go. We kept him an extra year. But we knew there was no stopping him.”
Maybe one of the best compliments to Fr. Chris and his big umbrella approach to multiculturalism came from Hans Antner, a member of the Knights of Columbus Color Corps that attended the celebration.
“We have (many) cultures here,” Antner said, “and he’s brought us all together.”