When Noah Smith, Arts ’23, walked onto campus his freshman year after graduating from Dowling Catholic High School, he had already written off the idea of becoming a priest, despite having thought about it since middle school.
“My older brother was in formation when I was in high school and it was definitely a topic my friends and family talked to me about,” Smith says. “But to be honest, I shut down the possibility because I didn’t want to follow in my brother’s footsteps. I wanted to be my own person.”
Now, four years later, Smith walked across the stage at Marquette’s 2023 Commencement ceremony, steps closer to the Jesuit priesthood.
Smith enrolled at Marquette because he wanted to attend a Catholic institution and was enamored by Marquette’s urban campus. But what really intrigued him was the Jesuit community.
Unfamiliar with many of the Catholic religious orders, Smith says he was intrigued by the community and made an effort to learn more about the Jesuits on campus.
He went to Mass every Sunday, joined Campus Ministry and learned the language associated with the Jesuits, further growing his curiosity. A relationship was forming.
After taking classes instructed by Jesuits, Smith says he sought out encounters that helped him get to know the priests better — in particular, the Rev. Ryan Duns, S.J., his theology professor.
“He has been absolutely instrumental in my success here at Marquette and in my formation,” Smith says. “He had a super profound influence on my discernment and my own interest in the Jesuit order.”
Father Duns said with how gifted Smith is, he could excel in any field he wanted. But, rather, Smith found himself discerning not what he wanted to do, but who he is being called to become.
“It takes dialogue: prayerful searching, conversation with others and patience,” Father Duns says. “I don’t know that I offered any profound wisdom, but I think our time together gave him the space to raise the vital questions.”
As his relationship with Father Duns blossomed, Smith says the idea of the priesthood became more appealing to him.
“I knew I liked the Jesuits, and I liked the Church’s sacramental beliefs and the ability to which a priest can be channel of God’s grace,” Smith says. “That was beautiful and profound to me in a way that resonated with me in a way deeper than I was able intellectualize or rationalize.”
Like the long vocational journey of St. Ignatius of Loyola after his cannonball moment at Pamplona, Smith says his connection with God and a possible life in the priesthood was a slow burn, gradually becoming a powerful fire inside him.
“The appeal of the priesthood was a gradual realization for me, and it came from taking classes with the Jesuits and learning more about the order,” Smith says. “It was like unveiling a large painting. By the time the veil has completely been removed, you can see it in its entirety and appreciate it for what it is.”
Should Smith be ordained, Father Duns said he will be the sort of priest the Church needs today — one with integrity, a sharp mind and a heart able to be touched by others’ needs.
“Priests can become very legalistic, so fixated on being right, that they forget their call to be good ministers to the people they have been called to serve,” Father Duns says. “As he grows, he will integrate his wit and intellect in a way that will proclaim the Gospel in a manner that cuts through hollow platitudes and offers the people the spiritual sustenance they crave.”
Now, after reams of paperwork, many interviews, days of discernment and a long walk across the stage at Fiserv Forum, Smith is ready to begin the journey towards becoming the priest Father Duns envisions.
What does Smith hope to achieve in his formation? An open mind and heart.
“A priest at my high school gave me an adage about entering the priesthood; he said, ‘Don’t anticipate, just participate,’” Smith recalls. “I try not to frame it as what I want out of the formation process, but instead to being open to the experience.
“However, I hope to be able to know and love a wide range of people who come from different walks of life, different intellectual backgrounds, different faith backgrounds and different experiences with the Catholic church because that has been an enriching experience for me at Marquette and what I’ve come to appreciate about the Catholic faith.”