"Ministry, wherever it is, is about being the presence of Christ for others."
— Auxiliary Bishop Peter Smith
On chilly Sundays at St. Rose Parish in Portland, when the old boiler quit putting out heat, Father Peter Smith would walk to the basement in vestments. He'd get the heat going, then dash back up to church, wiping grease from his hands before the opening song began.
He loved it. Parish life fired him up, especially being among the people.
Now that Pope Francis has named him auxiliary bishop of Portland, Bishop Smith longs a bit for parish life. He has not been a parish priest since last June, when Archbishop Alexander Sample asked him to begin serving as vicar general of the archdiocese, essentially a chief of staff for the archbishop.
"I do miss the pastoral connections with the parishioners," Bishop Smith says, admitting that he substitutes at parishes whenever possible and will continue to do so.
But Bishop Smith — with degrees in business, civil law, theology and church law — knows his new official duties are also service to the People of God. Administration, he points out, is one of the spiritual gifts listed in St. Paul's epistles.
"Ministry, wherever it is, is about being the presence of Christ for others, as I see it," Bishop Smith says. "It is loving, serving, guiding and caring for people entrusted to your care as Jesus would."
His ministry is still rich in its opportunity for teaching. A natural catechist, Bishop Smith instructs in canon law at Mount Angel Seminary and speaks from the heart, explaining that church law is intended to help people lovingly toward salvation. At St. Rose, when it was time to introduce the New Roman Missal, he gave homilies on liturgy for eight weeks running.
With blue eyes and sensible black shoes, the bishop is an early riser. One of the first things he does each day is gather for prayer with the members of his community — the Brotherhood of the People of Praise. Part of a larger mostly-lay ecumenical charismatic group, it's a Catholic association of the faithful, an early phase of the Vatican's gradual recognition for a Religious community. He will continue to live in the Brotherhood's North Portland house.
"Prayer together lets you carry one another's burdens," he says.
The other members of his house are Father Chuck Wood, parochial vicar of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego; Father David Shaw, on staff at Central Catholic High School; and Glenn Rymsza, a lay brother and pastoral associate at St. Anthony Parish in Southeast Portland. The men of the Brotherhood who are ordained are priests of the Archdiocese of Portland.
Time for personal prayer is scarce for a parish priest, much less a bishop. But praying is absolutely vital, Bishop Smith says.
"Without prayer, this wouldn't go very far," he explains.
Even if he doesn't have something like an hour per day to spend quietly, he grabs moments all the time, sometimes on the commute to the office in his small Ford SUV. "I try to have an attitude of mind in which one turns frequently to the Lord as a friend every few minutes," he says. He aims to keep an ongoing relationship with the Almighty, instead of turning to God only when there is a crisis.
After he was named an auxiliary bishop, he had to get used to the Catholic paparazzi. Photographers and reporters have been tailing him.
"If this is being inflicted on me, you should share the burden," he tells weekday Mass worshipers at St. Rose Parish, where he was pastor just months ago and where he has been filling in this spring. The congregation laughs as they make room for another photographer.
This newly-named shepherd of the church is not impressed by his current fame. "I am nobody's savior," he says. "Jesus Christ is their Savior. This is not about me. It's about loving and guiding them as Christ would have me."
As usual at weekday Masses, on this morning, Bishop Smith asks worshipers questions to kick off his homily. That gets people thinking, he says of the habit, which he developed at Masses for school children.
"It's a way of helping people grow in the richness of our Catholic faith," he explains, noting that people at St. Rose began doing research ahead of time so they could answer his queries.
On this day, he asks what makes a marriage and later explains the history of the sacrament, touching on Jewish law and canon law, which he always makes fascinating, parishioners report.
"Our faith is dependent on us saying 'yes' day in and day out," he tells the group, explaining that when we say "no," we have wandered into sin. As Mass closes, he calls on the congregation: "Go and announce the Gospel of Christ."
"Attending daily Mass with Father Peter is like a history lesson," says Phill Colombo, a longtime St. Rose parishioner and a reporter for the Hollywood Star newspaper.
"You get a tremendous sense of the scripture from him," adds Dick Cheek, a longtime member of St. Rose. "He's a tremendous educator through his homilies."
The flourishing of St. Rose daily Mass came about during Bishop Smith's tenure. Scores of people now fill the chapel, even spilling into the hallway. During prayers of the faithful, parishioners speak genuinely. They remember a friend who has decided to stop cancer treatment, a son unable to get a job, and unborn children in danger of being aborted.
After Mass on this day, St. Rose parishioners have arranged a party for their famous former pastor, with home-baked treats and a poster with the priest's face glued onto a figure with a miter, the tall hat of a bishop.
Bishop Smith still attends a men's discussion group at St. Rose, along with the current administrator, Father Matt Libra, and another former pastor, Msgr. Richard Huneger. The group, mostly laymen, picks a topic and one of the lay members gives a presentation to get the discussion going.
Parishioners who know the new bishop call him a prayerful man. He stops to pray with people after Mass, especially those who are ill. As parish priest at St. Rose, he would lead others in the congregation to join the prayer circle, laying hands on people in need.
"He would tell us, 'To the degree that we live with each other we are in relationship with Christ,'" says Colombo.
Bishop Smith and Ray Johnson had a friendship founded on saints. Johnson, a member of St. Rose since the 1950s, had an encyclopedic mind when it came to lives of the saints. The priest and the layman discussed holy people regularly. Sometimes at daily Mass, Bishop Smith would ask the congregation what they know about the saint of the day, first telling Johnson that he would need to wait 30 seconds to give the others a head start.
Johnson became ill and Bishop Smith visited often until his death. The two were kindred spirits, especially in faith and worldview.
Peggy Johnson, Ray's widow now and a longtime teacher at the parish school, says her husband always thought of the parish priest as a son.
Ray died in 2012, only a month after Bishop Smith lost his own father. The priest was a great support to Peggy in her grief.
"He was able to get me through some rough spots," she says.
Eventually, she decided she wanted to donate something to the parish that meant so much to Ray. She and Bishop Smith settled on buying a crucifix for the daily Mass chapel where he and the priest had so enjoyed each other. The Italian-made now cross hangs behind the altar, dedicated to Ray.
Dianna Cooper, administrative assistant at St. Rose Parish, says Bishop Smith has a way with children and families. They tend to love him and his sense of humor.
When he was pastor of St. Rose, a post that includes Archbishop Howard School, he would go out at the end of each day to greet families and bid children farewell.
"Kids would just run up to him," says Cooper.
Despite a packed schedule on this day, Bishop Smith decides to visit the school, where he has many good memories. He is welcomed as a hero.
Someone has coached the children. "Hi, your excellency!" one says. Another boy kneels and makes a motion of kissing the episcopal ring.
The bishop laughs and shrugs.
"Dial it down, folks," he says quietly. "I'm a low-key guy."
In the fourth grade classroom, he greets students who are all smiles, raised hands and questions. The conversation ranges from fractions to squids.
He walks in on a birthday party among second graders who are eating doughnuts. They wonder about his pectoral cross and ask him to guess where they are going for spring break. As he leaves, he requests that the children behave for their teacher the rest of the day.
At the parish, he wears a sweatshirt over his clerical shirt. Back at the pastoral center offices, he digs out his black blazer, aware of his formal role. As vicar general, he oversees staff at the pastoral center and has special charge of Catholic cemeteries and the church's mission to uphold faith and morals in public life.
On this day, the employees of the pastoral center are his flock as he celebrates the weekly Wednesday Mass in the small chapel. He preaches a homily about Mary and Joseph, who kept assenting to God's plans. He relates that to the workers' ministry.
"If we stop saying yes, things are not going to work out," he says. "There will be days when we will want to say no."
Bishop Smith says he was just getting up to speed on the duties of a vicar general when he received the call to become a bishop. He is under no illusions. He admits that, when a church leader is learning his role, he can make some mistakes. He's confident God will see him through.