The Rev. Perry Smith
What’s the best background for becoming an Episcopal priest? A stint as a teenage toreador? A year in a Trappist monastery? Counter-intelligence in Vietnam? CIA operations in Latin America? Two decades with the FBI?
For 67-year-old Rev. Perry Smith, all these were steps along the path that led to where he is now: canon for pastoral care at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Jacksonville, Fla., where he ministers to the sick and dying. “To me, these were all part of a life of service,” he says.
The Kentucky-born Smith, who last fall published his memoirs, The Unlikely Priest, left evangelical Protestantism for Roman Catholicism in his teens. Inspired by the writings of Ernest Hemingway in American lit class, he went to Mexico after high school and tried, briefly, to break into bullfighting.
With his years as a teenage aficionado long behind him, Smith does not defend the cruel bloodsport. But he does see some similarities between the ritual of the corrida and ritual of the mass, in which two very different types of priestly figures don beautiful garb and perform a series of practised and solemn moves.
“The centrepiece of bullfighting, whether we like it or not, is ritual killing-sacrifice. And the bull is feared and revered at the same time,” he says. “All of the taurinos and professional bullfighters I know are in awe of the bulls and find them to be majestic and amazing creatures of God.”
Similarly, at the centre of Christian orthodox worship is sacrifice-the sacrifice of the mass, which is relived every time it is celebrated. “The solemn beauty and ritual leading up to the moment of truth, the breaking of the bread (the body) in the mass, for example, can be transcendent. Then we realize we are experiencing something so grace-filled and beautiful that nothing else matters,” Smith says.
In 1966, at age 21, he entered the Kentucky Abbey of Gethsemani, whose most famous resident was the Christian mystic Thomas Merton. Ill-suited to the silence and meditation, however, the action-oriented Smith left the monastic life in just over a year and immediately was drafted into the U.S. Army. The year 1967 saw him assigned to military intelligence with the 9th Infantry and sent to Vietnam.
It was later, during his CIA career in Central America, that he began his journey to the Episcopal church. “It was Archbishop Marcos McGrath, a Roman Catholic, who suggested that my social conscience and sensibilities would be a better fit with the Anglican Communion,” says Smith. “Back then, it had a broader sense of social awareness and concern.”
Smith was particularly supportive of women’s rights and birth control. “I was seeing a lot of abject poverty in the environs and women who had many children in the home by multiple fathers,” he recalls. “Yet the Catholic church continued to prohibit birth control, and I felt that was socially unconscionable.” He broke from Catholicism in 1977.
In Central America he befriended a British Anglican priest from a nearby mission and eventually made his way to England, where he explored the Anglican church. Returning to the U.S., he became an Episcopalian and was made a deacon in 1989.
In 2001, as he was contemplating retirement after 22 years with the FBI, a priest friend nudged him toward theological school and Smith was ordained in 2002.
The Unlikely Priest is available in e-format and trade paperback at amazon.com.