When he was a young boy, Christopher Smith and his two older siblings, Teresa and Timothy, would visit their grandparents on Sundays and explore the orange groves by their house next to the Orange Drive-In Theatre.
Often, they’d see a man standing atop the drive-in’s snack bar preaching to the faithful in their cars near what is now the 5 Freeway and State College Boulevard.
That man turned out to be the Rev. Robert Schuller, who would become the world-famous leader of the Crystal Cathedral in nearby Garden Grove. Prophetically, Christopher would grow up not only to become a Catholic priest, but also a key leader of the Christ Cathedral campus after the Diocese of Orange finished its purchase of the former Crystal Cathedral campus in 2012.
“For him to end up as rector and episcopal vicar of Christ Cathedral is a clear sign of God’s plan, which is just so amazing,” said Teresa “Tita” Smith, the eldest of the seventh-generation Californian members of the Smith clan, who descended from one of the original land grant owners in California, the Jose Cristobal Dominguez family of San Pedro.
Now, following his retirement on July 1, 2022, Fr. Christopher is starting to adjust to life after decades of serving as a leader not only of Christ Cathedral, but the Diocese itself.
He was among the first group of seminarians to be ordained priests in the newly formed Diocese of Orange on June 3, 1978.
He has held numerous strategic positions during his 44 years as a priest, including director of the Office for Religious Education, vicar for Religious Education, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Santa Ana, episcopal vicar for priests and director of the Ministry to Priests Office.
And his fingerprints are all over the remodeled Christ Cathedral, which was dedicated on July 17, 2019.
As episcopal vicar, Father Christopher oversaw the administration, development and carrying out of the mission of the Christ Cathedral campus, the spiritual home of the Bishop of Orange and a major center of Catholic worship on the West Coast.
As rector of the cathedral, he was responsible for the pastoral ministry of Christ Cathedral Parish.
“Knowing him, it probably is tough to walk away,” said Tita, former executive director of Catholic Charities of Orange County who served as mayor of Orange from 2012-2018.
Fr. Christopher said it’s too early to describe how he’s feeling now that he’s officially retired.
One of the first things he did was go on a two-week vacation to Newport Beach, a Smith family tradition started by his late parents, Gene and Joan.
And he’s not exactly leaving Christ Cathedral.
With the new title of rector emeritus and episcopal vicar for special projects, Fr. Christopher, on Aug. 10, reported to his new office in the Pastoral Center for a string of meetings.
Bishop Kevin Vann has asked him to shepherd, over the next couple of years, the establishment of the St. Callistus Chapel to be built under the cathedral within its undercroft.
He figures he’ll be in his office 10-12 hours a week.
Never the retiring sort, Fr. Christopher, who celebrated his 70th birthday on June 28 with family and a close friend, Msgr. John Urell, at Roma D’Italia in Tustin, has other plans, too.
Young Christopher’s exposure to Rev. Schuller at the Orange Drive-In Theatre wasn’t the only factor that played into his decision to become a priest.
His love of music — playing the piano and organ — was another.
A very bright and cheerful child, he always was looking around to engage in something.
So, it’s no surprise that he took up the piano. His grandparents had a player piano, and Christopher started fiddling with it as soon as his legs were long enough to reach the pedals.
Soon, he started picking out melodies on his own. When he was 6, his parents started him on piano lessons, and he excelled at it.
When he was 12, Christopher started playing the organ at the Smith clan’s parish, Holy Family Cathedral in Orange (no surprise there, since Holy Family was the home cathedral of the Diocese until its purchase of the former Crystal Cathedral).
Young Christopher was in heaven when Holy Family purchased a pipe organ. A talented musician, Sister Patricia Tierney, took him under her wing to teach him how to play it.
GREAT UNCLE WAS A PRIEST
Another influence in Christopher’s decision to enter the seminary was a great uncle, George Robert Dodson, a Benedictine priest who became abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey in Shawnee, Okla.
“He was instrumental because I was around him a lot,” Fr. Christopher said. “He showed me the human side of being a priest, and that was helpful for me.”
FR. CHRISTOPHER SMITH IS PICTURED ON THE FORMER CRYSTAL CATHEDRAL CAMPUS ON MARCH 19, 2012. PHOTO BY RICK BELCHER/DIOCESE OF ORANGE
But what really drew him to the ministry was his love for God and the “enthusiastic, faith-filled and interesting people that I experienced as part of the church,” Fr. Christopher said.
FRONT ROW FROM LEFT, BISHOP KEVIN VANN, DR. FREDERICK SWANN, REV. CHRISTOPHER SMITH. BACK ROW FROM LEFT, KEVIN CARTWRIGHT, PIERO RUFFATTI, DAVID BALL, GABRIEL FERRUCCI. PHOTO BY STEVEN GEORGES/DIOCESE OF ORANGE
A key moment was a weekend he spent while a sophomore at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana.
“The Augustinian priests ran the religion department at Mater Dei and held a retreat in Ojai,” Fr. Christopher recalled. “It was the late 1960s, and everything in the Church was changing. Masses now were being celebrated in English instead of Latin, and the introduction of contemporary music instruments tapped into the musical part of me.”
The retreat turned out to be an “ah ha” moment for him.
“I was really taken by the style of the retreat, the interaction of the participants, and the music,” Fr. Christopher remembered. “During that weekend, I started taking my faith more seriously and started thinking of becoming a priest.”
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT, FR. CHRISTOPHER SMITH, ARCHBISHOP JOSE GOMEZ, BISHOP KEVIN VANN AND BISHOP TIMOTHY FREYER VISIT CHRIST CATHEDRAL DURING ITS CONSTRUCTION PHASE IN MARCH 2019. PHOTO BY THE DIOCESE OF ORANGE
A MEMORABLE MOMENT
One of Fr. Christopher’s most memorable experiences as a priest happened when he was pastor of St. Joseph’s.
On a rainy afternoon, he anointed a 17-year-old boy he knew who was bleeding in the gutter from a gunshot wound to the head.
“I knew at that moment that my life as a priest would be forever defined either as a bitter man who would never dare to hope again or as a hopeful man who would dare to invite people to hope in God, even though the evidence of the moment might suggest doing otherwise,” Fr. Christopher said. “I chose the latter.”
As a priest, he’s strived to live up to the spirit of his favorite line of scripture: “The gift you have been given, give as a gift.” (Matthew 10:8)
Father Bao Quoc Thai, the former pastor of St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Tustin, is the new rector of Christ Cathedral.
While in the seminary, Fr. Bao shadowed Fr. Christopher, who at the time was pastor of St. Joseph Church.
Nineteen years ago, three days before he was ordained a priest, Fr. Bao heard Fr. Christopher’s homily at the annual priest June convocation in 2003.
“He gave us three points: love, joy and spontaneity,” Fr. Bao recalled. “I still remember them today. Now as the second rector of Christ Cathedral, I see that Fr. Christopher has lived out his ministerial life with these three characteristics.
“They are so true to him because he has served Christ and his people throughout the Diocese, especially at his last assignment, with all of his love and joy and always being spontaneous and without an agenda.”
He thanked Fr. Christopher for “all the great work he has done for us and the Christ Cathedral campus. I now have big shoes to fill.
“Enjoy your retirement,” Fr. Bao added. “God loves you, and so do I.”
Michael Nguyen, who is very active at Christ Cathedral and is the current president of the Parish Pastoral Council, an advisory board to the rector that serves as the eyes and ears of all O.C. parishes, has worked with Fr. Christopher since 2013.
“He’s just a wonderful person to work with,” Nguyen said. “He’s easy to talk to and has an open-door policy. I don’t have any reservations going to him with any issue because he will listen, and that’s the quality of a leader: being able to listen first.
“He’s very open to people’s suggestions,” Nguyen added. “I also like the fact that he’s direct. If he doesn’t think something’s correct, he’ll let you know. With him, you always know where you stand. He just knows how to lead people.”
PACKING A LOT IN
Fr. Christopher, who holds a master’s degree in divinity from St. John’s Seminary as well as a master’s in religious education from Fordham University, always has been very active in causes that benefit the poor, the hungry, and the disenfranchised, and he plans to remain so.
Over the decades, he’s been on numerous directorial and advisory boards, including the Board of Directors of St. John’s Seminary, the Advisory Board of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange Educational Network, the Advisory Board of the Vatican II Institute, the founding Board of Taller San Jose Hope Builders, and the Board of Concern America.
Now, Fr. Christopher plans to devote more time playing his piano at home, and hopefully see family more.
His sister, Tita, praises him for his skills as a cook, especially his prowess at roasting and barbecuing.
A skilled planner of liturgical as well as social events, Fr. Christopher anticipates helping at parishes as a visiting priest and is hoping to schedule retreats and evenings of spiritual renewal.
He also will spend more time on his spiritual writings and is considering turning the 170 or so “Rector’s Columns” he has written for the Christ Cathedral (and former St. Callistus Parish) bulletin into a book.
“I don’t know how he accomplishes so much,” Tita said. “He can pack a lot of things into a day. He’s a great manager that way.”
LISTENING TO GOD
As his typically heavy daily load of responsibilities as rector and parochial vicar at Christ Cathedral become a memory, Fr. Christopher is finding more time to read.
He’s currently enjoying a book recommended by a former leadership coach, “The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul.”
“It’s about moving from responding to external responsibilities like work to paying attention to what God is telling you in your soul,” he explained.
For now, God is telling Fr. Christopher to relax a bit – to run a bit less and instead walk, which is fine with him.
“My daily goal is 30 minutes,” Fr. Christopher said of getting his steps in. “Usually, it turns into more than an hour.”
He said one thing he’s learned over the years is the “miracle of the small” – say, picking up a book and only reading a few pages a day instead of not picking it up at all because of the perceived heavy amount of time it will take to finish it.
“That way,” Father Christopher said, “the small grows into something quite large, actually.”
Just like his legacy.