Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald staff

Since graduating from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, with a biology degree, Andrew Smith had committed himself to the path of becoming a pediatrician. After three years of medical school at Des Moines University, he has committed this year to intentional discernment of diocesan priesthood.

Smith, whose home parish in the diocese is St. Joseph’s in Amery, is its newest seminarian. With him, the diocese – as with all dioceses in the United States – also sets itself on the new path laid out by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for seminarian formation.

The 6th edition of the Program for Priestly Formation, taking guidance from Pope Francis’ 2016 document, Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, sets forth universal norms for priestly formation. For Smith, and others entering formal discernment of the diocesan priesthood, what that means is that before starting any of the college or graduate studies, one year – called propaedeutic – is spent introducing these men into discernment and community life.

The 26-year-old sees this “next step” as one more in a line of steps and commitments he has made since beginning to take his faith more seriously during his undergrad years at St. John’s. Through involvement with FOCUS missionaries on campus, Smith felt his heart was “lit on fire for directing the desires of my heart properly.”

He began a routine of regular daily prayer: “It became the ebb and flow of my life and has continued to be so.” Parallel to the experience of feeling his deeper desires fulfilled, Smith has grown in friendship and intimacy with Jesus Christ, which led to desiring still more.

Assenting to the church’s teachings as paths to flourishing, Smith shared that he has “found a ton of joy in the sacraments, especially in the Mass, Penance and adoration.” While he still felt drawn to study medicine but with a growing love for the Lord in his heart, he has also intuited the Lord pulling on his heart with thoughts of the priesthood.

After beginning medical school in Iowa, he sought out a vocations director for some advice. He put Smith in touch with a spiritual director, what he called “a game changer.”

“I would totally recommend anyone, especially those discerning a particular vocation, but just anyone who wants guidance in prayer and spiritual life,” he said, noting that every Catholic is called to holiness.

He continued, “People are so gung-ho to see a counselor or doctor” for things that are ailing them. “Why don’t we go to someone for spiritual guidance and help, since that is the eternal and most important aspect of our lives?”

This was a “massive step” for Smith in his early process of discernment. Entering that relationship helped him by “speaking it into the air,” making the thoughts and experience of being drawn toward priesthood more intimate, but also more tangible.

Another step was in the summer of 2022, when with the help of his spiritual guide, Smith made two intentional connections – with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in New York City and the vocations team for the Diocese of Superior.

Throughout his third year of medical school, he experienced a stronger pull towards the diocesan priesthood placed on his heart by God, stemming from his roots in Amery and the Diocese of Superior.

“I love home. I love the family aspect of the parish,” Smith said. Having planned on being a pediatrician, this love for family stirred a strong attraction to the beautiful service of “walking with the laity in the setting of a parish family.”
Through further conversation with vocations team member Fr. David Neuschwander and a visit with Fr. Adam Laski and then-Dcn. Isaiah Schick in Rice Lake, Smith decided to take the 2023-2024 academic year off to dive deeper into his discernment process.

“I got to a point where I needed to take some time and be more intentional” about vocational discernment, Smith said. He expressed how grateful he is to Bishop Powers for allowing him to take this opportunity to “make discernment much more tangible, incredibly beautiful.”

Smith also shared his thoughts that discernment needs to be more and more normalized, like a dating relationship. “Going to the seminary is like entering a dating relationship with the priesthood. You have this initial attraction and desire for this thing that is good; very, very good,” but need time to get to know and see what fruits come from the Holy Spirit.

The seminarian also acknowledged that the most important thing is the desire and willingness to say yes to God, whatever he calls someone to, adding, “I think every faithful young man should at least ask God the question: what do you want for my life? Not just what do I want.”

He noted that many push the question aside because they assume the priesthood is too hard or not fulfilling enough like marriage and family would be. Smith said both no vocation is without challenges and that every priest he looks up to have affirmed just how fulfilled they are in their priestly life.

Support from family is also something Smith is very grateful for. He shared, “It moved me to tears when I first told my parents and heard their response. Tears of joy.” His two brothers have also expressed their readiness to support and stand by Smith in this process.

“I realize not everyone has that,” he said.

Asked about his first impressions of the propaedeutic year, Smith noted it’s been a blessing and gift. He described this year as “time set aside to enter into the prayer and spiritual life of the priesthood – daily Mass, Holy Hour with Liturgy of the Hours.

“It’s been very fruitful to enter into deeper relationship with the Lord and not to feel rushed to do so, trying to squeeze it into a busy school or work schedule. Prayer is built right in and the time to discern is very plentiful and tangible.”

Smith has enjoyed the five classes they take, each once a week. He said the classes cover foundational subjects like reading spiritual classics and the catechism. One of his favorites has been studying the narrative arc of the Bible with the program director Fr. John Paul Mitchell, who has a doctorate in Scripture. It’s like “diving deep into this beautiful story of our lives. Everyone is looking for their story, but it’s right there.”

The other class Smith commented on is the one about priestly identity, saying he leaves that class “amped up every day.” Learning about both the gifts and challenges of priesthood has him energized and fully engaged with the ongoing process of discernment. “This year is giving me the change to see if my heart has been fashioned to love as a priest loves,” Smith concluded.

Learn more about Andrew Smith through the Q&A at at the “Our Seminarians” page under the tab “The Seminarian.”

Andrew Smith