A former pharmacist and a carpenter from a farming community entered the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis on May 23 and emerged as priests ordained for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
It was a joyous occasion for Fathers Christopher Douglas Smith and Dane Joseph Westhoff, despite a smaller than usual congregation and social distancing measures in place because of the current health pandemic.
Archbishop Robert J. Carlson — who 50 years ago to the day was ordained a priest — conferred the Sacrament of Holy Orders upon the men, reminding them of the words from the Gospel of Matthew, in which the rich man asked Jesus what good he must do to gain eternal life.
“You both had successful careers, but in your journey of faith you both received the grace,” he said. “You both dared to ask Jesus the same question, ‘What good must I do?’ Jesus said to you, ‘Follow me.’ Unlike the young man who went away sad, you gave up what you had and followed Jesus — you heard the call.”
Archbishop Carlson highlighted the gift that priests receive in renewing the “marvel” of the Eucharist, instituted by Christ at the Last Supper and handed on through his His successors — bishops and priests. He called upon them to minister to the people as spiritual fathers, willing to lay down their lives after the example of Christ, the Good Shepherd.
“It is this that today you are called, but you had a choice,” the archbishop said. In the ordination rite, the men were asked if they would be resolved to consecrate their lives to God for the salvation of His people, and to unite themselves more closely to Christ, the High Priest.
“It is an invitation to rediscover in prayer the face of Christ, ever new, and the authentic content of the mission,” the archbishop said. “It demands the willingness to abide with Him as the Lord’s anointed.”
Father Christopher Smith
Father Christopher Smith was raised as a nondenominational evangelical. In college, he fell away from going to church, when a friend had invited him to a Catholic Mass. “The first time I went, I knew there was something about the Mass — the liturgy, and everything that came with it,” he said. “It’s hard to say there was one thing, but I knew there was something there that I had never experienced before.”
Father Smith entered the Catholic Church in 2007, while a student St. Louis College of Pharmacy. He began attending St. Joseph in Cottleville, which eventually became his home parish. The following year, he finished school and jumped into a new life as a pharmacist. He continued to attend Mass every Sunday and volunteered where he could, continuing to grow his career.
He was invited to attend a Christ Renews His Parish retreat, where be began to sense that God might be calling him to something more. “I came off that retreat feeling like I needed to do more than just showing up for one hour a week,” he said. “I started to get more involved and volunteering at the parish.”
He met with Father David Skillman, at the time an associate pastor at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in St. Charles, to discuss the possibility of priesthood. Father Smith was hesitant to give up his life — a nice career, a car and vacations — but the more he prayed about it, he became more open to the possibility. Father Skillman referred him to then Msgr. Edward Rice, who was Vocations Director for the archdiocese at the time.
Father Smith said he sees a correlation between his former work as a pharmacist and how he will minister to the people of God as a priest. He brought the two vocations together, when last year he completed a certification in medical ethics through the National Catholic Bioethics Center. He said he hopes to serve as a resource to people with questions as they relate to the faith, and to bring healing through the sacrament of reconciliation.
As a pharmacist, “when people would come to the consultation window, we would have frank conversations and get to the bottom of what they were struggling with,” he said. “You have to listen and decide what the problem is — and is this person ready to receive the treatment that I’m going to prescribe? I look forward to expressing that in the role of priest as a spiritual physician.”
Father Dane Westhoff
Upon graduating from high school, Father Dane Westhoff began a career as a carpenter. He planned on becoming an iron worker, but ended up finding good work helping to construct commercial buildings, such as schools, churches and restaurants.
While on the job, he’d encountered co-workers who questioned his Catholic faith. One was an atheist, and several others were Christians of various denominations. Father Westhoff found himself brushing up on his Catholic knowledge to respond to their comments and questions — everything from “There is no God,” to “Why do you have a pope?” He found guidance from The Great Adventure, a Catholic Bible study program offered through Ascension Press.
Westhoff had given a talk on the Seven Last Words of Christ at a Crossroads young adult gathering in St. Charles. Afterward, he approached Father Joe Post — an associate pastor at St. Joseph in Cottleville at the time — and asked what he thought of the presentation. “I was worried whether I was saying something not in line with Catholic teaching. So I asked, ‘Was all of that good?’” Father Post paused and asked in response: “Why aren’t you a priest?”
It was the first time someone had invited him to consider the priesthood.
Father Westhoff began to experience an internal tug of war. He had a pretty good career, a nice place to live and overall was doing well in life. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that he wasn’t where God was calling him to be. He met with Father Dan Shaughnessy, who at the time was associate pastor St. Patrick in Wentzville, for guidance.
Father Westhoff cited the passage from the Gospel of Matthew when the rich young man approached Jesus and asks how he may achieve eternal life. Jesus told the man to obey the commandments. When the man responds that he already observes them, and asks what else he can do, He added, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to (the) poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).
“I was always trying to deepen my relationship with Jesus, but I will be the first guy to say, ‘Now what do I do?” Father Westhoff said. “I had some grief — selling a house and giving away my dog and a vehicle. But I thought, if this is what God’s asking of me, how can I tell others to do this if I cannot?”
One of the highlights for any priest is to be able to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. But beyond that, Father Westhoff said he looks forward to offering the sacrament of reconciliation as well as teaching opportunities. As a seminarian assigned at Immacolata in Richmond Heights, he enjoyed teaching fifth graders. This year as a transitional deacon assigned at St. Monica Parish in Creve Coeur, he met with eighth graders for questions and answers on Catholicism. His approachability is a gift that he hopes will help others to better understand the faith.
“People have told me that I am able to explain it well and make the faith very practical,” he said. “For some, that faith can be very deep, spiritual and prayerful — everything we want it to be — but most people are not in that realm. I like helping people who don’t know where to start, helping them in little ways.”