Megan Fleming: Father Smith, why don’t you tell us about where you grew up and how you first learned about Maryknoll?
Father Smith: I grew up in Northwest Indiana, very close to Chicago in a town called Highland. It’s the same town where my father grew up. It’s actually the largest town in Indiana. I was there in the mid ’50s through the ’60s. That was for high school. Then went to Purdue University, also in Indiana, for my undergraduate work.
Megan Fleming: Growing up, did you live on a farm or anything like that, or was it more like just a city? It sounds like it might have been more towards a city kind of life.
Father Smith: Well, it’s a town, more of a suburb type because most of the people working in that area would be employed by the steel mills and the oil refineries. In fact, that’s how my father ended up there. His father was originally a miner and came from England, went to the iron mines in Northern Minnesota. He was involved in trying to form the first unions.
Megan Fleming: Wow.
Father Smith: God blackballed, so he couldn’t get a job. He then heard about this crazy guy who was paying exorbitant salaries over in Detroit named Henry Ford. He went over to Detroit to try out that employment for a while. The story in the family is, I don’t know how true this is, but they say he worked for one day. He didn’t like the guy standing over him with a stopwatch, so he said, “Nuts to this,” and he moved to Indiana, which is there the iron ore from Minnesota was shipped. My grandfather and four of his sons all worked in the steel mills. My father was the youngest of the sons. He also had a sister, one sibling younger than him. When my father was young enough that he was able to go to World War II, but at the middle of World War II, it was when he became 18 and he could join the army. That enabled him after the war to use the GI Bill. He was the first one in our family to get a college education, and he became a lawyer. Then he and his classmate from Notre Dame became the first two lawyers in our town.
When he retired some 35 years later, there were 50 lawyers in the same town.
Megan Fleming: It sounds like you could’ve gone a few different paths, right? You could’ve followed your father’s path of law, or maybe with oil, or the Army. Did you feel like you were being called to God, because I know you also have the business background as well in computer science. Walk us through your journey.
Father Smith: Okay. My mother was a scientist as well. She wanted to be a doctor, a medical doctor, but back then in the late ’40s, early ’50s, women were not being allowed into medical school. She even had the US senator for Illinois write a letter on her behalf to try to get into the state medical school in Illinois, and she was still refused. She went on to become a research biologist. Later on after getting married and having children, she stayed home to take care of the kids, as was the common practice in those days. When we were old enough, she went back to become a school teacher. She taught biology in the Catholic high school near our town. She had a big influence on my interests.
I grew up especially in school, high schools, enjoying things like mathematics, chemistry, physics. I started at Purdue as a physics major. After a while I switched my major to computer science. Later on I went to grad school at MIT in Cambridge, Mass and studied artificial intelligence. It was very unusual that Maryknoll was never allowed into our home Diocese of Gary. My understanding is the bishop was always afraid that Maryknoll would steal his vocations. So, I was never introduced to Maryknoll during my growing up, but as fortune would have it or fate would have it, the only Maryknoller engaged in campus ministry was at Purdue in the whole country, Father Phil Bowers. He was very active, very dynamic guy. I remember one weekend he brought in a team of Maryknollers, probably priests, brothers, sisters, lay missioners, to give a presentation at every mass. I thought, “Oh, these guys are doing good work,” so I signed up to receive the magazine and become a sponsor for $1 a month.
Through my college years, I would receive the magazine. I’d flip through it, look at the pictures and think, “Oh, yeah, they’re doing good work,” and send in my dollar, but I didn’t give it much thought till my senior year of college. I started thinking, “Well, now, what to do I really want to do with my life?” I guess having looked at the magazine enough, it made an impression that I did clip out a coupon in the magazine and send it in saying, “Yeah, I’m interested in some more information about a vocation to Maryknoll.” Before I got an answer, I had graduated. Then I moved to Boston, and there happened to be a Maryknoll house in a suburb of Boston.
I contacted Maryknoll again, and they invited me over. I started going over every month for a dinner usually at the Maryknoll house, talking to the missioners who were there, hearing their stories. After a couple years, I decided, “Yeah, I think I want to give this a try.” It was rather shocking news to all my professors at MIT.
Megan Fleming: I’m sure.
Father Smith: But they all assured me that I could come back if it didn’t work out with Maryknoll. I did go on a mission exposure trip with Maryknoll to have a better understanding of what I would be getting involved with. I spent three weeks in Guatemala, and it was a great experience. It was really helpful to have that experience before going to the seminary because it always gave me an understanding of what I was working towards.
Father Veneroso: What years were these, in the ’70s?
Father Smith: This would’ve been the summer of ’79 when I went to Guatemala. I wasn’t too aware of the political situation, but I do remember the drive from the airport to the Maryknoll house in Guatemala City and then later walking around the city a bit. I was rather struck by the number of military men walking around the streets with machine guns, something I’d never seen before in my life in America.
Megan Fleming: Right.
Father Smith: Most of the three weeks was spent in the mountains in very rural areas. In fact, one of the highlights of that three weeks was when I was paired with another young vocation prospect, and we were sent to a parish. Father Bob Crohan was the pastor there. He had planned for us to go off to some remote villages on horseback. That’s the only way you could get there.
The other young man got sick, so Father Bob had to stay with him in the parish. He sent me off with the Spanish speaking catechist with me not being able to speak Spanish on our horse journey overnight to another village.
Megan Fleming: Had you ever ridden a horse before?
Father Smith: Yes, I had.
Megan Fleming: Oh, okay.
Father Smith: That was fine. But just being among the people, and I couldn’t speak a word, it was a tremendous experience because I had to communicate in other ways. I learned a few words here and there. It was such a positive experience.
Megan Fleming: It a positive experience, but at the time were you scared? Were you nervous, because here you are going on horseback with someone you really don’t know that well, you don’t know the language, and you’re going up to the mountains of Guatemala.
Father Smith: I don’t recall being nervous at all. I was more excited.
Megan Fleming: Good.
Father Smith: I was really enjoying it. I was very happy to be there. I was enthralled with the faith community that I encountered, how they were celebrating, how they were welcoming me. We went off and had services, services without a priest of course, but prayer services. They always invited me to say a few words. I don’t know how much they understood, but they always were happy that I was there visiting their homes, sharing food with them.
Adam: You went from an institutional educational environment in technology to the remote part of the world where you didn’t know anything, anyone, literally from opposite ends of the spectrum.
Father Smith: That’s right. I really was enthralled with it, like I said. Later on when I was asked where I wanted to go for our overseas training period, I knew I wanted to go to a rural area. As I mentioned earlier, my mother being a biologist, I’d grown up experiencing nature. We would always go on vacations to natural wilderness settings. I most profoundly experienced God in wilderness areas, when I’m close to nature.
That’s why I really wanted to do mission in rural areas, again, being close to the land, being close to the trees, water, and being with people who live their lives like that, who have to farm, take care of the animals, things like that. When I went off to Africa, that was certainly the case.
I spent most of my years in very rural villages where I covered 2,000 square miles by motorcycle, 30 different villages, going out one village a day and then spending the day there after the mass visiting people’s homes, sharing meals with them, maybe blessing graves if someone had died since my last visit, celebrating baptisms, marriages.
Then blessing fields, blessing harvest, and seeing that despite how poor they were, their faith was incredible.
Megan Fleming: Father Smith, did you feel as if you had some type of transformation, because I’m picturing this young guy in college in graduate school at MIT, like Adam said, doing very strict academics and things like that, to total change where you’re in rural Tanzania or Mwanza, riding a motorcycle with no road signs. I’m imagining on dirt roads that probably if it rains really bad, you probably are not sure where you are.
Father Smith: Oh, it was less than a dirt road. It was often just a cow path. You’re right, when it rains, it became a problem. Some people thought it was a major transformation. I remember when I started telling my family and closest friends about deciding to enter the seminary, some were surprised, but most were not.
Megan Fleming: Why is that?
Father Smith: Because even when I was at Purdue and at MIT, a lot of what I was doing was involved with helping people, doing different volunteer work. At MIT, I was a dorm counselor. My dorm happened to be mostly freshmen. They would come to me with their problems, their struggles, and just talk to get advice. At Purdue, I was in a fraternity. Again, I was known as the philosopher or the person you go to with questions about life. We’d have all these long discussion with many different people.
Megan Fleming: See, I would’ve thought you were the treasurer.
Father Smith: I was also. Yeah, I was the treasurer first of the fraternity and then later the president of the fraternity. All the bonds were more on a deep human level rather than a scientific technical level.
Father Veneroso: Once you joined Maryknoll, I’m very intrigued by two incidents you mentioned earlier. Which prepared you most for life as a seminarian? Was it a man standing over you with a stopwatch, or was it artificial intelligence, or was it both?
Adam: Or was it the machine guns?
Father Veneroso: It was the machine guns, really.
Megan Fleming: Or maybe the troubles of the freshmen at the dorm.
Father Veneroso: Ah, yes.
Megan Fleming: The complaining I’m sure.
Father Smith: Wow.
Father Veneroso: I think the question is, given the silliness of it, the question is, because Father David’s path mirrors my own, the seminary years were the biggest jolt. Life in the missions were fine and before, but it’s almost like a grinding of gears to go through the seminary program.
Father Smith: I do recall the seminary experience was challenging in that it was unlike any experience I’d had before. It was somewhat a very regimented, lots of rules, though in my day I guess it was much less strict than the stories I hear from guys who preceded me, or even nowadays it seems like it’s gone back somewhat to be more strict. But it was not what I was accustomed to. I remember turning in one paper. It was the final paper for the semester.
It came back with a B+ on it. I went to the professor and said, “Well, what could I have done better?” I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something like, “Well, you didn’t say this, and this, and this.” I said, “But you didn’t tell us that we had to share those things or write about those things.” I said, “Coming from my scientific background, if the assignment is to do X, Y, Z, and you do X, Y, Z, you would get an A. You’re saying because I did X, Y, Z, but I didn’t do A, B, C, which was in your mind understood in this culture that that’s expected, that that’s why you gave me a B.” Actually, he relented and he said, “Oh, yeah, that’s true, I didn’t say that. I understand where you’re coming from,” and he gave me an A.
Father Veneroso: There you go.
Father Smith: I thought it was interesting that there are a lot of assumptions about the culture that I was not familiar with.
Father Veneroso: The United States culture?
Father Smith: The seminary culture.
Father Veneroso: Seminary culture.
Father Smith: Yes. We went to church every Sunday, but I wasn’t real involved in church. I was never altar boy. I didn’t know any priests personally. I didn’t know any nuns personally. I always felt that in a sense that to me affirmed my vocation. Even when I was making the decision to become a priest, I didn’t ask a lot of input from family and friends. I was talking to various priests, various religious orders, going to some retreats and things to consider it, but I wanted to make sure it was my decision and it wasn’t being pressured by family or friends to go one way or another. I always felt that it was a decision coming from my own discernment.
Father Veneroso: If we could go back to Africa in the discussion, many of our listeners, and I’d probably even include me, when we hear Africa, we think of the war. We think of refugees. We think of famine. I’m sure your experience was much deeper and richer than that. What did Africa teach you?
Father Smith: Africa taught me that life is all about human relationships. As I mentioned earlier, extreme poverty so poor that most Americans cannot even conceive of it. People lived in houses made of mud. The floor was dirt. The roof was grass. They lived off the land and were totally dependent on the land by taking a hand hoe to farm a few acres, and I mean two, three, four acres. They had to hope and pray that the rain would be enough that year, and many times it wasn’t. They would be so dependent on God’s providence that their faith in God was unshakable. It was amazing. It was a witness to me to see how strongly they believed. Their sense of community, the worst punishment in Africa is to be cast out of the community, to become a loner, whereas in Western culture, everybody wants to be independent. That’s not an African value. The strong bonds of community, relationships with one another, knowing that you can’t survive by yourself, that you have to depend on other people and depend on God, that was such a counter value to what was coming from in the American culture.
Megan Fleming: When you arrived to Africa, I’m just thinking your vast science mind, and very intelligent, when you got there, were you thinking, “How can I help these people when it comes to farming or medical?” How did you decide which projects to do first to help tackle their problems? I’m sure you had time to think when you were on your motorcycle.
Father Smith: Well, the problems are so vast that it’s very difficult and sometimes can be overwhelming for someone coming from Western culture to see the situation and to try to think, “What can I do to change everything, to make everything better?” I concluded after being there a while that the best way would be through education because when you education people, they can improve their own lives, they can improve their family’s lives, they can improve other’s lives, and they can pass that education on to their children, grandchildren, neighbors, etc.
Megan Fleming: You’re enabling them and giving them that power, that ability.
Father Smith: I spent a lot of time helping people obtain education either through helping them get into schools because even high school is not universally available there. They only provide through seventh grade. That’s what the government provides usually. Then they would have a test to see if someone would qualify. It was only about 5% would then get to go to high school. Of the 5% who went to high school, maybe only 5% went to university because there were only two or three universities in the entire country. Seminary was also another avenue for getting education, so many young men went to seminary. They’d need a letter of recommendation from the pastor. I probably helped dozens go to seminary. They got a good Christian education. Seminaries were often among the best educations available. Seminaries were high schools, and they would compete in national exams. They always were among the top scoring in the national exams. Some who went to the seminary then decided to go on to the major seminary to become priests. I know that four young men that I sent to seminary became priests and are still priests over there. I believe there are two women who were sisters who I sponsored to go to school and then joined different religious orders there.
Megan Fleming: How did you start the College of Health Sciences? Did that evolve from this need that you saw for education?
Father Smith: My understanding, that was one of the last works I did during my 27 years in Africa. The bishops were looking to do something about the healthcare situation. At that point, I believe there was one doctor per 30,000 people in Tanzania. There was only one medical school in the country. There was not a single Catholic medical school on the continent of Africa. With the urging of our regional superior, John Sivalon, he encouraged the bishops. Then our Father Peter Le Jacq was here in the United States doing fundraising. He also has a medical degree, so he has contacts at Cornell Medical School. He got a lot of funding and sponsorship from Cornell to start a medical school. While he was raising money here in the States, they needed someone on the ground back in Africa to actually start doing the work of creating a medical school. They got one professor of medicine, African professor of medicine, who became the first dean of the college. He and I arrived in Mwanza, which is right on Lake Victoria, at a big hospital, Catholic hospital. We were given one floor to the hospital to convert into a medical school. For about six months, we were a university of two people.
After six months, we finally got a secretary. He and I were working on various things. They wanted to model the education system on a computer-based learning system, so that was part of my expertise. I helped create the computer lab and set up the programs that the future students would be using, modeled after the system they use at Cornell Medical School. I was helping at that time design the library and the layout for the classrooms, even the layout for dormitories, things like that. The professor and I, I was basically doing everything that he didn’t want to do. He would be writing up notes on all these applications to the government to get approval to open a university, and I’d be typing them up, and formatting them, and going back and showing him. Finally, we submitted our application, and we got approval after another six months. Then we started with a class of 10. That was in our second year there.
The next year we took a class of 25. Nowadays I believe they’re always taking class of 50, but they’ve graduated several classes since I began there. Some of those very first students, of course when there’s only 10 students, you get to know all of them very well. I was very pleased, one of them recently came to New York, came to visit me. He was in this country because he is now one of the few ophthalmologists in Tanzania. He came to attend the conference of American ophthalmologists. That was nice to see that he has done so well and he’s helping so many people.
Megan Fleming: Right. Was it specifically ophthalmology, or was it general medical [inaudible]?
Father Smith: Our college at Bugando was the basic medical degree.
Megan Fleming: Okay.
Father Smith: Then several of them would go on to-
Megan Fleming: To specialties.
Father Smith: … To become specialists, so he went on to specialize.
Adam: This is really interesting. I’d like to know if the observation I have is pretty accurate. I know a lot of people might be saying to themselves, “This is a guy who was an AI major at MIT and goes to become a priest,” where most of the interviews we do with the other missioners, there’s some type of divinely inspired calling. But with you it almost seems that logic and reason just made sense because it sounds like to me, and I may be wrong, but it sounds like to me the model that has inspired you, your framework, has been going from chaos to order and going from, “Okay, this makes sense. Let’s do the math. Okay,” which ultimately is, if we go back to earlier in the discussion where you say you feel most close to God among the trees, and the water, and close to nature, which algorithmically is just math. It’s going to order. Maryknoll would be the path to that, so everything just made sense. Am I accurate in that?
Father Smith: Yes, I would say that’s a good description, though throughout my early life it was like I never had a faith crisis. It was always a good foundation.
Father Veneroso: Even after you joined Maryknoll?
Father Smith: I always had a good foundation, went to church. I went to public school. I didn’t go to Catholic school, but did go to CCD classes once a week. Went through the normal stages of receiving various sacraments, and basically believed the Catholic teachings. So, I felt comfortable in that. It’s sort of like the seed of vocation was growing very slowly, but it was there. Maybe not visible for a long time. I could feel an attraction, especially when I really started considering, “All right, what do I want to do with my life?” When I was at Purdue, my summer jobs for five summers, high school and beginning first couple years of college, I was a lifeguard because I was a swimmer, swimming team in high school.
Last two years of Purdue and first year at MIT for my summer job I went to a high tech company in California that recruited me to work there for the summer. It was an ideal job for someone who was studying computer science and artificial intelligence, so I had a good understanding of what that life could be like if I continued down this path. It was a marvelous job setting where you set your own hours, even days of work as long as you get the job done. Very, very high pay for a college student back then. It should’ve been ideal, but it just didn’t fulfill me. It left me thinking, “Do I really want to do this for the rest of my life? Isn’t there something more meaningful that I want to do with my life?” That fed the growing seed to think more and more about answering a call from God.
Adam: Did you finish your degree at MIT?
Father Smith: No, I did not. I decided that, “Okay, if I’m going off to be a missioner, I don’t think this degree is going to help me any.”
Adam: It’s not too often that you get the opportunity to talk with someone who went to MIT studying AI and they become a priest. What’s your opinion of the emerging technology in robotics and some of the fear around that or the emergence of AI and where it collides with spirituality and faith?
Father Smith: I’m not sure I can exactly answer your question, though I do recall from my experiences in the mid ’80s, I was ordained in 1985, I believe in 1986 or 1987 I brought the first laptop computer among the Maryknoll missioners to Africa. All my other confers, the priests and brother Maryknollers said, “Oh, that’s a stupid idea. What are you going to do with that in Africa? You don’t need that.” I said, “Well, we’ll see.” Literally within three or four years they all had computers, and they were all asking me how to use them. I have seen in Africa the whole issue of education. When I first got there, we had trouble getting a blackboard and chalk for the teachers. I would buy special paint that they would paint on a piece of plywood, and that would serve as the blackboard for the classrooms. Now they’re all studying computers. It has amazed me how fast the technological revolution has reached into even the villages of Africa.
When I first got there, I would sometimes drive my motorcycle 20, 30 miles off to a village expecting to have mass because I’d sent a written note with somebody weeks ahead of time, only to arrive and find nobody’s at the church. I’d drive around to look at the catechist, and he’d say, “Oh, we never got the note.” Nowadays they all have cell phones in every single village. Every single day I receive WhatsApp messages from my friends in Africa. Technology has certainly changed the world. But it’s interesting, for Africans it’s still all about the relationships, keeping connected.
Having a cell phone, that fit right into their culture because they’re always on the cell phone now. I still follow developments in AI. In a sense, I’m a little disappointed that it hasn’t advanced as quickly as early predictions were saying. I think we’re still a long way off from having a machine that truly thinks. Things we’re calling AI are very specialized programs right now. The machines aren’t thinking. They aren’t conscious. Yet I also am a big fan of science fiction, so I read stories or see movies where the theme is that the machine has become conscious. Once the machine becomes conscious, then the next question is, does the machine have a soul? How is mind related to soul? I think it’s an intriguing question. I certainly don’t have any answers. I believe that the Church will be continue to be challenged.
Early on when the internet was just starting to become popular, John Sivalon again sent me to Rome to find out what’s the Church going to do about using the internet for evangelization. I met with the people in Rome who were working on the Vatican website. At that point, they didn’t have a whole lot of plans, though they were and still are, I believe, one of the premier sites in terms of multilingual presentations for their website. They are thinking a lot about using the internet for reaching people. It would be interesting to think about how would you use AI for evangelization. I imagine other religions are thinking about the same thing.
Adam: That concern of exponential self-learning, its singularity though is the one that the people who are in the theological space are concerned about, that all of a sudden once it hits that point, self-learning goes exponential. Then all the questions come up.
Father Smith: Exactly, yeah, because at that point the worry is does the computer, the singularity, still believe that humans are relevant? If the computer far exceeds human intelligence and if it has the capability of continually improving itself, it would improve itself so fast that humans would become mere ants to it.
Father Veneroso: But then in at least the Catholic point of view, the cross, we’re looking at it as perfection and intelligence as being the goal. What about vulnerability? What about mortality? It’s in wrestling with our mortality that our humanness gets perfected. Will a machine contemplate its own mortality, or will it try to overcome it? In fact, many human beings, the way we were taught, a lot of the addictions and what not that human beings get into is precisely to avoid their mortality. When we face our mortality, that’s when these other things come out. That’ll be the crossroads, as it were, between human intelligence and artificial.
Father Smith: That’s true, and again, it is one of the themes in science fiction. There’s a very famous story, which became a Robin Williams movie, the Bicentennial Man, where he is a robot that becomes more and more human-like until he has to petition the court for the right to die.
Adam: Tesla or Harley? Tesla or Harley motorcycle, which would you prefer?
Father Smith: A Tesla.
Adam: Okay. When you were in Africa, what kind of bike did you ride?
Father Smith: Well, it was a trail bike of course because we were going through mud and sand. It was a Honda.
Megan Fleming: Well, thank you, Father Smith. We appreciate you making time.
Father Smith: Oh, thank you. I enjoyed talking to you.
Father Veneroso: You’ve been listening to the Maryknoll podcast Among the People. To learn more about the work of Maryknoll around the world, visit our website, maryknollsociety.org. Or if you’d like to subscribe to our English or Spanish magazines, visit maryknollmagazine.org. You know, we’d really like to hear what you have to say about this episode, so please leave your reviews, comments, or questions below. Feel free to share this podcast with friends or anyone you feel may be interested. This has been Maryknoll Father Joe Veneroso, along with co-host Megan Fleming for Among the People. Till next time.
Megan Fleming: The views and opinions expressed by those we interview in this podcast do not necessarily reflect those of the Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers and the hosts of Among the People. This podcast offers unique insights and personal stories of people from all walks of life as we explore unfamiliar perspectives and the unique experiences of mission from around the world.