The call and the blessing
Andrew Smith had been an Air Force officer for only a short time when he received a life-changing spiritual message: a disembodied voice inviting him to consider the priesthood.
Several years later, he’d been a seminarian for only a short time when he received a life-changing message of a more material kind: He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
But although his path toward the priesthood has been unpredictable, his goal is certain.
“I plan to be ordained in 2018,” said Mr. Smith, a third-year theology student at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary of the West.
He was raised in Beavercreek, the fifth of seven children in a family belonging to St. Luke parish. After entering the Air Force via the ROTC program at the University of Dayton, he was assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base with responsibilities for what he calls “the business side” of the drone program – purchasing, contracting, training, equipment testing.
One evening during that period, at age 23, he heard the voice.
“It was one day after work,” he remembers. “I was in the basement on the computer, just reading news or something normal, when I heard God’s voice saying “Andy, maybe you’d be happier being a priest.’”
“Surprised,” he recalls, laughing. “But I know what I heard.”
He didn’t, however, drop everything and enter the seminary. For starters, there was the matter of his Air Force contract, which required more than five more years of service.
Nor was the voice a “road to Damascus” mandate. “It was an invitation, not an order,” Mr. Smith says.
“I began thinking about it. I loved the Air Force, loved my job, and I still owed the Air Force time,” he said. He began a discernment process, under no pressure to decide right away.
Over time, his attraction to the priesthood ebbed and flowed. He served deployments in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and was assigned to logistics for the F-16 program at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, where he rose to the rank of captain.
The crunch finally came as his military obligation approached its end.
“I had to make a decision,” he says. “Either suppress it, which didn’t seem like a good idea, or give everything to God.”
But having cleared the hurdle of indecision, he’d progressed only about a year-and-a-half at Mount St. Mary’s when confronted with multiple sclerosis, a mysterious, chronic, and potentially debilitating disease. Such a diagnosis can be especially a blow to someone as physically fit and active as Mr. Smith. (At right is Mr. Smith, on the left, climbing New Hampshire’s Mount Washington — the highest peak in the northeast United States at almost 6,300 feet — a couple of years ago.)
MS is a condition in which the body’s immune system attacks the central nervous system. The disease usually exerts no significant effect on life expectancy, but symptoms are various and unpredictable, ranging from mild to disabling.
“The biggest problem for me is fatigue,” Mr. Smith says. “Even with eight hours sleep, I have to take like a three-hour nap.”
He also suffers severe pain in his feet, another common MS symptom.
“I have to wear sandals instead of shoes,” he says. “I tell people If Pope Francis can wear sandals, I can too.”
The cause of MS is unknown. Since Mr. Smith’s case could conceivably be related to his military service, his Veterans Affairs benefits cover treatment.
A future challenge will involve managing his symptoms amid demands he’ll face as a parish priest.
“I do think about that quite often,” he says. “I try not to dwell on it. As a parish priest I won’t be able to do everything people want me to do. I’ll need an understanding parish staff. I’ll probably have to be assigned to a smaller parish.”
But the disease also has brought spiritual enrichment. He thinks of its burdens especially when he contemplates the fourth Sorrowful Mystery, the Carrying of the Cross, and what he calls “the experience of loss and pain.”
“One blessing is that it’s knocked my ego down,” Mr. Smith said. “I can’t do everything I want to do. I can’t be the superstar. It’s made me put everything in God’s hands.
“Even just being American, or being a man, a lot of value is placed on what I can do, what I can produce,” he says. Having MS “has forced me to have a deeper prayer life and an understanding that my identity comes from being loved by God, not by what I can do.
“I’ve always looked at this a blessing from God. He is in control, so I think about the future but I don’t worry about it.”
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