From his 11-floor office in the Tower of Hope, Father Christopher Smith can savor a panoramic view of Orange County and beyond.
“That’s where I was born,” the seventh-generation Californian said, pointing out St. Joseph Hospital, a speck in the distance.
Directly in his view just outside his window stands the iconic Christ Cathedral, which Fr. Christopher played a key leadership role in transforming from the former Crystal Cathedral into the spiritual home of the Bishop of Orange and a major center of Catholic worship on the West Coast.
Over the last decade, as episcopal vicar and rector of Christ Cathedral, Fr. Christopher has lived and breathed the administration, development and carrying out of the mission of the 37-acre parish, which is comprised of the Christ Cathedral, Arboretum, Our Lady of La Vang Shrine, Cultural Center, Tower of Hope, parish school and other assorted facilities.
With the recent announcement of his retirement, Fr. Christopher is preparing to hand over the role of rector to his successor, Fr. Bao Thai, the current pastor of St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Tustin.
Fr. Christopher was the first staff member of the Diocese of Orange assigned to the cathedral after the Diocese purchased the campus and its buildings in 2012 from Crystal Cathedral Ministries, led by the late Rev. Robert H. Schuller.
And he was there for the completely renovated and updated Christ Cathedral’s dedication in 2019.
It’s time to step down, he says. But the transition won’t be easy.
“I’ve been honored to have a significant say in the development of this campus,” he said, adding that he got emotional when announcing his retirement at Masses celebrated Feb. 12-13.
His voiced wavered when he told parishioners: “Since the year 2012, from our venerable origins as St. Callistus Parish, we have been on a once-in-a-lifetime journey together in the founding and development of Christ Cathedral.”
“My life has been transformed by the patience, generosity and zeal of parishioners and all who have been part of this great journey.”
In his office which he will vacate in a few months, Fr. Christopher got wistful.
“There are very few people who can say they’ve been a founding part of a cathedral, and all of our parishioners can now proudly say that,” he said.
FR. CHRISTOPHER SMITH RECENTLY ANNOUNCED HIS RETIREMENT FROM HIS POSITION AS EPISCOPAL VICAR AND RECTOR OF CHRIST CATHEDRAL. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DIOCESE OF ORANGE
FATED TO SERVE
Fr. Christopher, one of seven children of the late Gene and Joan Smith, seems fated to have overseen the development of Christ Cathedral. His grandparents lived next door to the drive-in theater where Rev. Schuller began preaching.
Equally fated appears to be the appointment of Fr. Bao, who while in the seminary shadowed Fr. Christopher, who at the time was pastor of St. Joseph Church in Santa Ana.
“He’s been an excellent priest over the years and has exercised some good pastoral ministry and leadership,” Fr. Christopher said of his successor.
Fr. Christopher is a member of the Diocese of Orange’s first class of seminarians who were ordained priests on June 3, 1978.
After July 1, he will retain the title of rector emeritus of the Christ Cathedral parish and work on special projects, including the establishment of the St. Callistus Chapel to be built under the cathedral within its undercroft, as well as the relocation and restoration of the parish outreach center.
PRAISE FROM BISHOP VANN
After Fr. Christopher announced his intention to retire in a letter to Bishop Kevin Vann, the latter sent him a two page response.
“It’s the kind of letter any priest would dream of getting from his bishop,” Fr. Christopher said.
Bishop Vann recapped his many accomplishments and assignments, which include associate pastor at St. Hedwig and St. Bonaventure churches, diocesan vicar for religious education from 1987 to 2004, and vicar for priests from 2004 to 2012.
“Truly, only God knows the full extent of how many souls you touched, taught, and inspired by your leadership to the be better disciples of Jesus Christ,” Bishop Vann wrote.
Fr. Christopher will celebrate his 44th year as a priest on June 3, and he turns 70 on June 28.
When his schedule significantly frees up, he plans to devote more time to his lifelong passion of music. He began taking piano lessons at age 6 and, like Bishop Vann, plays the piano and organ. He has a restored 100-year-old upright Monarch player piano at his home.
Fr. Christopher was a member of a group of priest musicians, “The Second Collection,” which included Msgr. John Urell, a fellow classmate in that first group of seminarians
who were ordained in 1978 and who also is retiring this year as pastor of St. Timothy Catholic Church in Laguna Niguel.
Fr. Christopher 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 church bulletin into a book. Most are one-page reflections on Sunday Scriptures.
Public speaking and continued tours of the cathedral also are planned.
Over the years, Fr. Christopher has taken as inspiration the words of Pope Benedict 16th, “Deus caritas est” (God is Love), written in his first encyclical and an echo from the First Letter of John, “We have come to believe that God first loves us.”
“When you believe you are first loved by God, that sets the whole path of your life,” Fr. Christopher said. “Over the years, the focus of my priestly ministry has been to do
whatever I could do to help people believe they are first loved by God. And I will take that philosophy into my retirement.”