Mass of Christian Burial: Homily
Rev. Albert J. Smith, Jr., OSFS
December 31, 2018
Above all other,
One and only noble tree,
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peer may be.
These lyrics begin the 8th stanza of “Pange Lingua” by St. Fulgentius.
Dear Father Provincial, beloved brothers, cherished family and friends,
There is no better way for me to express my perception of Fr. Albert Smith than to say that the silver profession cross, laid over his shoulders at his first taking of vows, bloomed joyfully, prodigiously, and vibrantly his entire life.
Al was a cherished only son. I met him in junior year at North Catholic. I was awed when told me that he did 50 pushups every night! What’s more, that he got tea and a snack before 9:00 o’clock bedtime. Al threw the javelin for North Catholic’s track team. Once, a football player thought he would have some fun at Al’s expense. He grabbed the long, pointed pole and hurled it. It tanked. The javelin event took skill, not just strength. Al played baseball, too. He was given an athletic scholarship for it to Villanova. Al was an eagle scout, a lifeguard, and played guitar. He was also a sacristan as was I. Most of us entered the Oblates or went to St. Charles, the diocesan seminary. I could not then find in myself anything comparable to Al Smith’s talents, but he extended to me the gift of a lifetime of friendship. Both he and I had long and successful ministries in secondary school and as campus ministers.
In retirement, I joined Al at Villa de Sales and took stock of the man I had known for 65 years. When I arrived, he had been saying Masses for the Medical Mission Sisters and the Christian Brothers. He toiled sweat-hard on our four acres of land, making war on kudzu, planting new trees and bushes, and buying a birdbath. He got our pizza and cheese steaks faithfully every Friday night. And he was good for stories, long stories. They captivated many.
Al used Asian and native American spiritual traditions in his life of prayer. He liked praying outside on sunny mornings in the four directions. He had a Tibetan singing bowl in the prayer corner of his room. Framed Asian calligraphy silently spoke their wisdom from his walls. And I know that there’s Eagle’s feather tucked in there, somewhere.
On Alaska vacations, Al released the pent-up, caged huskies for the Iditarod and went trekking through Denali Park. He was the only priest on earth to run electric trains through an Alaskan village on a platform in his bedroom.
Al had developed multiple interests. He had gone to clown school. As a certified Tai Chi instructor, he exercised their graceful moves beside our carriage house. He printed two books of his poetry. Al joined a local barber shop group that practiced almost every Sunday in the great room of our house. He sang karaoke on Thursdays at the Whitemarsh Inn. He became a member of the elite Rittenhouse Singers. They with others came to him at the Villa a few weeks ago during our open house and sang exquisitely arranged carols. Though Al had already become weak, they got him to join them. It became a moving farewell.
A closer look at Al’s life reveals unrecognized generosity. As swim team moderator, Al had to rise at 5:00 AM for years while teaching a full load. When involved in athletic department work, he often had to miss the community dinner. At our home, Al had no second thoughts on getting up in the middle of the night to rake leaves from the sole drain that floods our parking lot. He worked as an instructor of Tai Chi for Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia and at Morris Arboretum. His teaching was gentle, compassionate, and flexible. His students, mostly ageing and fragile persons, many of low income, loved him.
Al was devoted to all his friendships, the graying members of the Ireton musicians and swimmers with Harry as their coach. Al has been the most requested Oblate by Ireton graduates attending the school when the Oblates staffed it. His trips to Alaska were made to see Dorothy, a sister of St. Joseph who directed catechesis for a diocese. While there, Al often took priests’ masses to give them needed rest. He recently gave a retreat for kids out on the Aleutians. His trips to Boston over several years were to keep the bonds he made with the brothers of Caroline, a School Sister of Notre Dame who, like him, died suddenly of cancer. Al took his friend Kathleen, a former cardiac surgical nurse, suffering from Alzheimer’s, while using a wheelchair, to comforting places outdoors, and to movies and dinners.
In Al’s day, the Oblates promised him “A Happy Way of Life.” He got it and shared it with so many. He lived in the shadows of God’s wings. Shouting for joy, his soul clung fast to God whose right hand upheld him. I heard, by phone, that he was the kindest man a person ever met; by email, that he always smiled; in person, that there wasn’t a mean bone in his body. In my entire life, I never heard him say a hateful thing. Never so much as a “damn,” his speech was always G-rated. He was a superb priest who smelled of his sheep.
When Al found out that his cancer was terminal, he entered the kitchen, opened wide his arms and silently said through wide eyes, goodbye. No hugger, he hugged me for the first time. Though stunned, Al accepted his swift death with abandonment. St. Francis de Sales speaks of Calvary as the Academy of Love. In his dying, Albert Joseph Smith completed what he began the day he received his cross. He shall now see God with his own eyes, and not another’s. In dying to self, he produced much fruit. He rests from his labors, and his works accompany him.
May God Be Blessed.