A few weeks ago, I had the chance to talk with Fr. Regis Smolko, St. Brendan’s current Priest in-Charge, about his journey into the priesthood as a young Catholic and his recent return to the priesthood within the Episcopal Church. Since he was first called to this vocation, Fr. Regis has been a Capuchin Franciscan friar, a teacher, a dean of students, a chaplain, a priest, a family counselor, a clinical director, an adjunct professor, a consultant—as well a loving husband and uncle—and he is now a priest again. Yet throughout all his professions, what has remained consistent is Fr. Regis’s call to serve and minister to the people around him. This is Regis’ story, as abstracted from our fuller conversation:
At age 13 I left for the seminary—that's how Catholic boys did it back then. I had just finished grade school, eighth grade. There were three boys from my class in Catholic school who all felt that they had vocations, so we told our parish priest that we had this desire, and the priest said, fine, he'd tell the bishop. Then we got this letter in the mail that said, “You’re going to St. Fidelis Seminary,” and that's all we heard from them! When the day came, my parents took me down to the seminary. I remember my mother just crying in the back of the car, but as a Catholic mother and father back then, they felt that if their son had a vocation they had to do that kind of thing. She told me years later that that was the hardest day of her life. So, that's how it all started.
It was when I was assigned to Pittsburgh, to St. Augustine's in Lawrenceville, that I began to see that maybe it wasn't the best idea for me to go away to a seminary as a young kid. I was really glad I was ordained a priest, but I was also craving a committed, exclusive relationship; I was in love with Ken and he was in love with me. It just deepened in time and so I decided to leave.
Ken and I moved in together and married each other—over thirty years ago; of course, we weren’t legally married in those days; we made a private commitment to one another. We've been together 34 years! I was a family counselor at a treatment center and eventually became the clinical director, while also teaching at several universities as an adjunct professor. I was doing some public speaking as a priest, and my jobs were always jobs that took me out to speak to people. I was having some success with that so I decided to go out and start my own business. I started a consulting firm; I guess that was about 20 years ago, and I ended it when I started to intern at St. Brendan’s. It was really a successful business, and I went to all kinds of interesting places. In the meantime, we helped raise three of our nieces and nephews. Bridget is now an oncology nurse and has a son, Dylan, and Kate is a card dealer in Las Vegas. Kenny, the oldest, died 5 years ago. He had a heart attack. It was terrible experience. He was a really beautiful soul.
However, I never felt like I left ministry. In fact, when I left the priesthood, the first major talk I did, and this was really accidental, was to a group of priests! I thought that was so ironic. It seemed I was always ministering to priests throughout my business career, doing conflict management training and all kinds of stuff like that. Being a counselor and a therapist, then a clinical director, I was always very people oriented. And so, I understood that I was still ministering, but not in a certified priestly way. I never expected to return to the priesthood because I thought it was something that could never happen.
When Kenny died, we still considered ourselves to be Catholic, but eclectically Catholic. In addition to being one of the most sensitive and caring people I know, Kenny was totally comfortable being a gay man—and delightfully on the flamboyant side. He had no qualms about such things, and he was pretty much out there. He wore a rainbow flag pin all the time in life, and we wanted this significant symbol on his body at the funeral. However, for Catholic Church reasons, the request was denied. Then there were a few things we were advised not to do or say during the service, and so Ken and I decided we were finished with this denial-type of living.
We decided not to continue in that expression, but we wanted to feel some kind of connection to a church. So, we went to East Liberty Presbyterian church, which was very accepting, and we loved it there! We became the hospitality ministry, and the senior pastor there preached at our wedding when we got our marriage blessed! I was thinking about going into ministry then, but there was no ministerial place yet in the Presbyterian Church that seemed to fit for me. Then Ken went out to breakfast with a friend of ours—he was a former Catholic priest too—who was considering becoming an Episcopal priest. Ken suggested maybe I would want to consider that. I started thinking, “Oh, my God, maybe this is a place a person like me could return to active priesthood! … Wow!”
So, we went with it! There were a lot of different times when we thought, ”Oh, this process is crazy, there’s too much confusion going on here,” but we stuck to it!
I really don't feel like I ever left the priesthood. I just got into ordinary life due to the laws of men. But what I love about being a recognized priest again is that people are able to connect to God in a special way through my ministry. That has nothing to do with me; it’s just that official recognition brings a different dimension to it. I am just blessed to be able to channel what people's faith is looking for. It’s just amazing to me how meaningful simply being able to say the words and do the actions of worship and liturgy is to people—and to myself. You know, I have these moments of “wow” when I just thank God for all of this. It’s so beautiful.
There are just so many wonderful things about my time at St. Brendan’s. It’s beautiful to be here. I really wanted this for so long; I never thought that I'd be able to do it again. Both Ken and I feel that this is just such a great place to be.
In our nearly hour-long conversation, Fr. Regis shared many rich stories that I do not have the space to include here. (You’ll have to hear the rest over a cup of coffee with Fr. Regis himself!) However, I do especially want to share part of his response when I asked what advice he had for us at St. Brendan’s:
I have always found ministry much more compelling when I ask questions than when I think that I have to control things. Not long ago, I spent time with an old friend I hadn’t seen for a couple years, and I was thinking, at the end of the whole thing, I hardly said anything except, "and then what happened” and "oh, is that the case"—just those kinds of things. And, at the end, he said, “One thing about you, Regis, is that you always have the right things to say.” Well, I thought to myself, the only thing I helped him to do is to say the things that he needed to say!
It’s those types of experiences that have helped me not to judge people as I once would have. Just asking questions, learning from seeing the giftedness of other people—that just brings out new dimensions of myself. There is a tendency for us—for me I know it's been a tendency—always to prejudge. Instead, we should hold back on those things and ask questions rather than make conclusions—try to be open to others.
Grace and peace,
A member of St. Brendan's since 2014, I enjoy being a part of this welcoming and giving community of faith. However, I am not a theologian, biblical scholar, or official spokesperson for The Episcopal Church. If you read anything on this blog that is inaccurate or contrary to the teachings of The Episcopal Church, please let me know! If you have any questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.