This is the fifth in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their anniversaries of profession this year. The Province’s 2019 silver and golden jubilarians will be honored in June at a special Mass celebrated in New York City. The previous newsletter issue featured Vincent Laviano, OFM.
NEW YORK — Despite being raised in a devout Irish-Catholic family – where faith was central to home life for him and his nine siblings – and serving as an altar boy and attending parochial grade school, religious vocation wasn’t even an after-thought for Brian Smail, OFM.
His faith was an important part of his being, but the native of Stoneham, Mass., a suburb of Boston, had “absolutely no desire” to join the priesthood. In reality, religious vocation was likely always calling Brian. It just took a 15-year detour in a corporate career before he responded.
The fourth eldest of 10 children, the Boston College graduate earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration that he parlayed into a successful livelihood in the banking industry. While working as a computer systems analyst at a major financial institution in downtown Boston, he began teaching religious education to eighth grade students at his boyhood parish of St. Patrick.
“I think the signs of vocation were present, especially at BC when theology and philosophy were my favorite subjects. But teaching religious education – that’s when vocation started coming into focus,” said Brian, who is celebrating the 25th anniversary since his first profession as a Franciscan friar.
“There was something about teaching the faith to young people that was so much more meaningful than my job. That was the beginning of discernment for me,” Brian said during an interview from St. Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street in New York City, where he has been serving as parochial vicar since 2014.
If teaching religious education awoke his vocational slumber, it was lunchtime and after-work visits to St. Anthony Shrine in Boston that drew him to the Franciscans and Holy Name Province. The Shrine on Arch Street, says Brian, was his spiritual home, more so than his parish. “The programs are tailored to working people and their schedules,” he said.
But Brian also saw something special in the friars. “Down to earth and welcoming, and kind and genuinely concerned about one another and the people they ministered. They made you feel like one of them,” he said, recalling the moment he tore an ad for a Franciscan vocation from a bulletin board in the Shrine’s lobby and stuffed it in his briefcase, where it stayed for two years until the day he decided to take the plunge – and apply.
From Banking to Urban Ministry
Leaving behind a successful 15-year career, Brian, at age 38, entered the Province as a postulant in 1992 at Holy Cross Friary in the Bronx, N.Y. He was received into the Order the following year at St. Francis Novitiate in Brookline, Mass., and in 1994, he made his first profession at the cathedral in Providence, R.I. (where the novitiate had been relocated). Brian professed his final vows in 1998 and was ordained on May 15, 1999, both events taking place at St. Francis Church on 31st Street.
While he was studying for his master’s in divinity degree at Washington Theological Union, Brian participated in a summer ministry at a hospital chaplaincy program in New York City. He lived at the 31st Street friary where he met Gerald Carr, OFM, and Mychal Judge, OFM, whose encouragement and kindness, he said, had a lasting impact.
After his ordination in 1999, Brian chose the Shrine and its urban ministry as his first assignment. “I guess you can say I came full circle. I asked to go to Arch Street because I wanted to be there for working people, just as the friars were there for me,” said Brian, who became part of the Shrine’s “faith works” ministry.
“I knew the significance of the Shrine as a spiritual resource. I was one of those working people in the pews for 15 years – knowing the struggle, paying rent, having a demanding job, and dealing with clashes and personality issues in the workplace,” said Brian, whose experiences in his first career helped form his ministerial life because he was able to connect with working people.
He added, “Most importantly, I understood the challenges of incorporating faith into the workplace with all of the secular obstacles. I showed working people that it is possible to be a person of faith where they worked.”
Getting to know the friars when he was a member of the workforce drove his interest in the Franciscans and his passion for urban ministry. Michael Carnevale, OFM, was the first friar he met at the Shrine. Brian said it was Michael, along with Vincent Carroll, OFM, and Fergus Healey, OFM, who modeled friar life for him.
Brian also acknowledged Christopher Coccia, OFM, and Joseph Quinn, OFM, who were assigned to the vocation office at the time of his discernment, as friars who helped him navigate the process.
“They understood that it was a difficult decision. They knew I loved my job and that this was going to be a radical change. One minute you have a secure job, living in your own apartment – and the next minute, you’re living in a house with people you don’t know in a place you’ve never been before. They helped me understand that God clearly was guiding this,” Brian said.
While at St. Anthony, Brian completed a post-master’s certificate program in the practice of spirituality at his alma mater Boston College – which resulted in him ministering as spiritual director to dozens of individuals over the years. Fluent in Spanish, he also became the spiritual director for the Shrine’s expanding Hispanic population, for which he started a weekday Spanish language Mass. In addition to being part of the sacramental schedule, his undergraduate degree in business administration and his life experience came into play when he was assigned to manage the finances at the Shrine.
Impacting the Future
In 2008, Brian was asked to fill the Province’s vocation director position – and although he was leaving his comfort zone of urban ministry, he looked forward to taking on a role that affected the future of the Order.
“It was an abrupt change, but an easy transition. When you love being a friar and believe in what we do, it’s natural to share your enthusiasm with those discerning vocation,” Brian said. “The satisfaction is seeing guys from the very beginning to their solemn vows, knowing that you played a small part in God’s plan.”
As vocation director, his innovations included the launch of digital social media platforms to reach a diverse audience, increase accessibility to information about the Province and vocation events, and communicate more effectively with HNP’s regional vocation directors.
Based out of the Provincial Office on 31st Street, where he also sporadically helped out at St. Francis Parish, Brian was on the road several times a month interviewing prospective candidates, visiting universities, and hosting “come and see” hospitality and fraternity weekends at Franciscan ministry sites.
After seven years of service in vocations, Brian was asked in 2014 to remain at St. Francis as parochial vicar. It was a return to a full-time urban ministry that has many similarities to Arch Street. Brian maintains a robust schedule at 31st Street, hearing confessions and performing other pastoral duties, and serving as spiritual director to working men and women.
Three years ago, at the request of pastor Andrew Reitz, OFM, Brian restarted a parish bereavement ministry, an eight-week program that provides participants with the spiritual tools they need to move on with their lives after suffering the loss of a loved one. Brian also leads pilgrimages to the Holy Land, helping participants experience their faith more intensely at places where the Scriptures took place.
Voice for Forgotten and Castoffs
Brian says the attributes that attracted him to the Franciscans more than 25 years ago remain a great source of pride in being a friar.
“We serve as a voice for the forgotten and castoffs,” says Brian, which he called a distinct trait found at every turn of Franciscan ministry – whether giving a proper burial through the Lazarus ministry in Boston to someone who died alone in this world, feeding the hungry every day at the St. Francis Breadline at 31st Street, providing a sanctuary to the mentally ill homeless at St. Francis Friends of the Poor, or being there for working people whose struggles are overlooked because they blend into the landscape unnoticed.
He added, “It’s what we do as Franciscans. It’s one of our strengths as friars, being there for people, no matter what state they find themselves. We don’t wait for them to come to us. We meet them where they are.”
One of his most gratifying ministries has been hearing confessions. “That’s what makes urban ministry so rewarding. People know they can come here and be anonymous,” he said. “Watching a person leave the church feeling more connected and at peace with God – that’s at the heart of what we do. For me as a friar, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Among his hobbies, Brian is passionate about languages (he spent time in Mexico just so he could learn to speak Spanish authentically) and astronomy – the latter an interest acquired from his father, a navigator during World War II who would sit on the porch late at night with Brian, pointing out the stars. Brian also enjoys large family gatherings, especially a long-standing tradition in which his nine siblings and their families gather every Christmas Eve at one of their homes.
More so than many friars, Brian knows what he would be doing if he weren’t in religious vocation because he did it for 15 years. “After 25 years of profession, I can’t imagine not being a friar,” he said.
— Stephen Mangione, a writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y., is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.
“Picture Yourself in Brown’: Theme of New Vocation Brochure” – Aug. 1, 2012, HNP Today
“Vocation Director Builds Momentum Promoting Friar Life” – Feb. 18, 2009, HNP Today
“Witnessing the Resurrection” by Brian Smail, OFM