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Led by Holy Spirit to the diaconate

|   By Joe Pisani
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SHELTON—Brad Smythe’s path to the Catholic Church took a few twists and turns and an occasional detour. But step by step, the Holy Spirit led him to where he was meant to be—an ordained deacon at 65 years old.

He and his two younger sisters were raised Congregationalists by devout parents, and from an early age he was active in the church youth group and choir.

“When we graduated from Danbury High School, both parents said that it was our choice what to do about our faith, so I stopped practicing any religion and decided to go live my life,” he recalled.

He enrolled in what was then Norwalk Technical College and got a degree in tool manufacture and engineering (he eventually received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering) and in 1966 he was hired by GE, where he worked for eight years. He later joined the Ethyl Corporation, a manufacturer of household products and pumps for fragrances, and managed plants in Chicago and Bridgeport.

In August 1970, he began dating a practicing Catholic who became his wife a year later. Brad and Marianne were married in the old St. Edward the Confessor Church. He was Protestant, she was Catholic, and for nine years of their marriage, they didn’t go to church.

Their first daughter, Lindsay, was born on March 2, 1976, and when they went to a pre-baptism class the priest said, “I hope you’re not just using us to get your kid baptized—and we’ll never see you again.”

That’s exactly what happened. Deacon Brad, who serves at St. Joseph Parish in Shelton, always shares that story with young parents who want to baptize their children. It is, he tells them, a lesson about what not to do.

“Most of them aren’t practicing either,” he said. “I tell them they’ll be asked, ‘Do you understand your responsibility to raise this child in the faith before God?’ Hopefully, their answer is honest. How can you raise a child in the faith if you, yourself, aren’t practicing it? Think about it and pray about it. And ask yourself, ‘Do I need to change how I’m living my life?’”

In 1979, Ethyl Corporation transferred him to Chicago, and that’s when his life began to change spiritually.

“We were there a couple of months and sitting on the neighbor’s porch in an Irish Catholic neighborhood, where the average number of kids in a family was about five … and we had one,” he recalled. Their neighbor told them, “You guys gotta get going here.”

The man continued to admonish them and asked, “So, Marianne, are you going to wait until Lindsay gets married before you go back to church? I know you’re not practicing, and they’re hearing confessions right now.”

Marianne went home, changed her clothes and walked to the church, which was a block-and-a-half away. There in the confessional, she told the priest, “It’s been nine years since my last confession.” To which he responded, “Welcome back.”

Brad and Marianne got involved with the parish and started going to Mass, and soon their second daughter, Megan, was born. A year later, they moved back to Connecticut and began attending Mass at St. Lawrence Parish in Shelton. That’s when the Holy Spirit made his next move.

“In 1984, I was at a funeral in New Jersey for a guy I had worked with who was Catholic,” he said. “I was sitting there, and during Communion I had the realization I needed to become a Catholic. Now I realize it was the Holy Spirit at work.”

He went home and told Marianne, who throughout 13 years of marriage had never asked him to convert. He received eight months of instruction, and on November 2, 1986, he became a Roman Catholic at the age of 40. Since he had been baptized in the Episcopal Church at three months old and confirmed at 14 in the Congregational Church, all he needed was to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and First Holy Communion.

“I was 40 years old when I made my first confession, and I really didn’t understand my own sinfulness,” he said. “By rights, I should have been in confession a few weeks.”

Ten years later, they moved to downtown Shelton and began attending St. Joseph Parish. From 1986 until 1993, he was going to Mass every week, but he says, “It was surface level and not very deep.” Then, something happened that accelerated his spiritual growth. In May that year, Marianne made a Cursillo. She encouraged Brad to do the same in October.

The Cursillo Movement, which began in Spain, centers on a three-day retreat weekend run by a team of religious and laypersons who give presentations and invoke the Holy Spirit with the goal of knowing Christ better.

“Marianne came back still Marianne, but there was something different,” he said. “She had a peace about her, a joy and enthusiasm about the faith that she never really displayed before. I saw that and said to myself, ‘I want that.’

“All I knew was that I was 47. I had a beautiful family, a good job, a nice house, cars and money in the bank—all those material things the world says should be enough and yet there was something missing,” he said. “It was a personal relationship with the person of Jesus Christ, and that is what I found on my Cursillo. I had a profound conversion. It changed my life. If I hadn’t made a Cursillo, I wouldn’t be a deacon today.”

He changed in many ways. He was more peaceful, he stopped swearing at work, his management style was less autocratic, he tried to do the right thing, he began openly discussing his faith, he listened to other people’s problems, and if they asked to pray with him, he would.

People noticed the changes and told him, “Wow, something really happened to you in a good way.”

In May 2005, he and Marianne gave a talk at a Cursillo day of reflection and afterwards, the facilitator approached him and said, “Every time I saw you today, I heard the word ‘deacon.’”

“I knew the Lord was talking to me through her and I could no longer say no,” he said.

Deacon Brad Smythe was 60 years old when he started formation. After four years, he was ordained in 2011.

This August, he and Marianne will celebrate 47 years of marriage. Today, Lindsay lives in Beverly, Mass., and she is executive director of two Boys and Girls Clubs. Megan is an RN who works as school nurse at Shelton High School. She and her husband have three children.

Why did he become a Catholic? Deacon Smythe says that throughout his life, the Holy Spirit was directing him to the Church, which has “the fullness of faith.”

“This is where I need to be,” he said. “I love our faith in spite of our human weaknesses. I know that the Lord, through the Holy Spirit, will continue to make it prevail until he comes again.”

Today, he shares his faith with believers and non-believers alike, not to mention lapsed Catholics. He understands their indecision and indifference—and he knows their needs because he was once where they are in their spiritual journey.

“The happiest you can be in this life is in direct correlation to how much you have conformed your will to God’s will,” he says. “I’m still working on it. The closer I get to the Lord, the more I put his will before mine. That’s all I need. I don’t need a whole bunch of other stuff.”