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An Interview with Father Tom Smolich, S.J.

Updated: Jun 12, 2022

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism

Dr. Knight: Could you tell us about your call to the priesthood? How did your work inform your priesthood?

Father Tom: I am a product of Jesuit education. I went to Jesuit High School in Sacramento, California, and I was impressed by the Jesuits I met there. They were dedicated, alive, deeply committed. That was the start of my vocation. I went to Florida for college to test it; I still felt the invitation, so after a year, I joined the Jesuits at the age of 19---not uncommon then.

Dr. Knight: You seem to really enjoy your ministry as the International Director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). What sustains and supports you in this challenging task?

Father Tom: Ultimately, I believe this is Christ’s work. Forcibly displaced people – refugees who have left their countries and people forced to leave home within their own countries – are ignored and disparaged of our time. This is the reality of Matthew 25—the Parable of the Kingdom. Without prayer and a sense of call, JRS and my work in it is not sustainable.

I am also inspired by Servant of God Pedro Arrupe SJ, who founded JRS in 1980 while he was the Superior General of the Jesuits. He wanted our accompaniment of refugees to be “human, pedagogical and spiritual.” Isn’t that what Jesus tried to do?

Finally, our neighbor Pope Francis is incredibly inspirational. (Our offices are in the Jesuit Curia, two blocks from St. Peter’s.) From his first visit outside Rome to Lampedusa to his words of compassion and mercy whenever he speaks, he is a pastor to the marginalized. Given what he says and does, how can we not do what we are called to do?

Dr. Knight: What are the issues in your ministry that are of primary importance at this time in the history of the Church?

Father Tom: The church has always had important outreach to the marginalized. Look at the first miracle in the Acts of the Apostles; Peter and John healed the crippled beggar at the Beautiful Gate. That concern has been specifically articulated via the Church’s social teaching for almost 130 years.

At this moment, refugees are the test of our willingness to preach and act as Jesus did. To listen to some world leaders, they have no right to live a life of safety and hope; the watery grave of the Mediterranean, the arid grave of the Southwest US desert, the living grave of human trafficking--- these have all become acceptable “solutions” to the lives of those asking for a chance. Pope Francis speaks of the “globalization of indifference,” and in responding to displaced people, the church needs to show that love is better shown in deeds than in words.

Dr. Knight: Have you worked in other dioceses? Tell us about the diocese.

Father Tom: My first assignment as a priest was at Dolores Mission Parish in Boyle Heights, just east of downtown Los Angeles. Our parish then was made up of housing projects, and the issues of poverty, immigration, crack cocaine and gang violence were daily realities. The parishioners there taught me how to be a priest, and for that, I am ever grateful.

Much of my Jesuit life has been in administrative capacities, with eight years each in the Diocese of San José and the Archdiocese of Washington DC. I really enjoyed helping out in various parishes in both places. One of the gifts in Washington was regularly hearing confessions at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew – doing that at least once a month for eight years made me a better confessor and a better human being.

Dr. Knight: As a person working with refugees what part of your ministry do you most enjoy? Is the administration of the program difficult? What are the barriers?

Father Tom: As the International Director of JRS, I do not work directly with refugees. When I visit our work around the world (we are currently in 57 different countries), I am touched by the hope and resilience of the people we accompany share with me. Often, these sisters and brothers of ours have been through hell and back – and out of that experience comes a deep hope believe that God is with them.

I really enjoy working with our staff… those who directly serve and those who help make it all work. I like helping people discern what God is calling us to do and then decide on the steps we need to get there.

There are always challenges and graces in administration. Worrying about money is part of the deal and praying for our benefactors gives me consolation and joy. All of us want to improve our programmes, to offer those we serve the best future possible; and even when our programmes are not perfect, the difference they make in people’s lives is tangible.

Dr. Knight: I am part of the RCIA program and I often reflect on how we can assist the next generation in being good Catholics. How does your parish engage the young adults?

Father Tom: Not being in a parish, I don’t have a lot of experience in this area. My sense of young people interested in JRS is that they want to be inspired – they want to give their lives to something greater than themselves, deeper than what they see in the world. How can we help young people see Jesus Christ as that inspiration? How can we give them the experience of his message and mission giving shape to their lives? It’s the experience, not dogma or catechism, that will inspire the next generation of Catholics.

Dr. Knight: The Catholic School system in our archdiocese is struggling to figure out the use of our resources in the best way. What has your parish done to alleviate the burden of cost to the local community?

Father Tom: The Catholic Church as a whole has not figured out a way beyond the “virtually volunteer labor force” of sisters, brothers, and priests who staffed our schools in previous generations. Let’s face it – our schools are under-resourced. In most dioceses, we’ve gone the way of closing schools rather than increasing resources. There are some creative solutions sponsored by generous people: the Drexel Fund that invests in promising schools and works with tax credits, the Specialty Family Foundation making a difference for inner-city Los Angeles Catholic schools.

But I think the long-term solution is more investment. Other church communities give 10%; Catholic communities, as a rule, give less than others. How do we change that picture?

Dr. Knight: The social media of this day and age has provided some wonderful aspects of communication as well as drawbacks. How can we use social media to assist others in knowing/loving/serving God?

Father Tom: The world of social media is the place where good and evil spirits are battling it out these days. Whatever we want to do must be intentional, it has to respond to real needs, and it should offer an alternative to the darkness that is a reality of the online world.

I think of someone like Fr James Martin SJ, whose media presence gives hope around the world. Bishop Robert Barron has that down as well. Another brother Jesuit, Fr. Robert Ballecer SJ, is working with the Vatican on the Minecraft server where positive gaming can take place.

You would be amazed at the number of trolls who are trying to undercut that positive offering-- a real sign that something good is taking place in those efforts.

Dr. Knight: What part of your past ministry has been meaningful to you?

Father Tom: As I said earlier, my seven years at Dolores Mission Parish taught me to be a priest. This parish community… mostly poor, often undocumented, facing problems that would boggle most people… welcomed me. How can anything be more meaningful than that?

Dr. Knight: What are your hopes for the future of the Church in light of the abuse scandal?

Father Tom: Christian hope believes that God has a future for us, a future that we cannot see or understand at this time. In the context of the sexual abuse crisis, that future will only come when everything comes to light… and that is going to happen. In this era of the Internet and social media, there are no secrets, and pretending otherwise only forestalls the inevitable.

Those who have been hurt have the right to cry out. The ineptitude and coverups must be acknowledged. The key transition for us as a church is to realize that keeping young people safe is more important than keeping our good name. When we get to that point throughout the church, we will begin to see what God has in store for us.

Dr. Knight: What books do you enjoy that you would recommend to our readers?

Father Tom: I’m a big fan of Jim Martin SJ. This Our Exile is about his time working with JRS, so I will definitely recommend that! My Life with the Saints is a classic.

On the non-religious side, I just finished a very provocative book: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It offers the insight and tools to work on some habits that I’ve wanted to change for a while.

Dr.Knight: What recent movie such as “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was one you enjoyed?

Father Tom: Here in Italy, I don’t see as many movies as I should! That said, I just saw The Two Popes and recommend it. It is fiction, not a documentary…and I think you can see the Holy Spirit moving in the story that is told. Going back a couple of years, I’d recommend Ladybird… and not just because I’m originally from Sacramento! It gives one of the best snapshots of Catholic education and religious sisters that I’ve seen in a while.

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