‘I remember being taught that the Catholic Church had false beliefs’

The conversion of our Father Hyland Smith


Father Hyland Smith says that “God has a plan for all of us.” In his conversion story and vocation story to the priesthood, that plan is quite apparent.

Father Smith, who was born in Oklahoma City but later moved to Illinois, was raised by his mother in a church that belonged to the Southern Baptist Convention in Carrollton called Faith Baptist Church. He says that he remembers being taught that the Catholic Church had false beliefs.

His first awareness of the Catholic Church was when he saw some Dominican sisters at the grocery store in Carrollton as a child. They were stationed at the parish there at the time, and he asked his mother, “who the ladies in white were.” She explained that they were Catholic “nuns” and gave him a simple explanation that they belonged to the Catholic Church. Perhaps that moment was the first Catholic seed planted in his life.

Father Smith attended Eastern Illinois University (EIU), earning a bachelor’s in psychology and a master’s in clinical psychology. He would go on to become a counselor for junior high and high school students, but it was during those years at EIU where the wheels of faith started spinning. Catholic Times Editor Andrew Hansen interviewed Father Smith, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel in Sigel, St. Mary of the Assumption in Neoga, and Sacred Heart in Lillyville, as he shares his incredible journey.

What made you become Catholic? What were you drawn to about the Catholic faith?

I was active in my Baptist church until I went off to EIU. Then, I fell into the trap that many college students do, and I just stopped going to church unless I was visiting at home. When I was at EIU, I would go out with my friends on the weekend and that usually turned into me sleeping in on Sundays, then cramming the rest of the day to get my studying done. I didn’t make a decision to stop being a Christian, I just stopped doing anything in my relationship with the Lord. During that time, there were certain discrepancies that did pop up in my mind regarding the understanding of Christianity I was taught growing up. I encountered the study of science that reveals to us how old the planet Earth and the universe is according to scientific principles and experimentation, which did not correspond with the fundamentalist reading of the Bible that had a very specific age of the world that was in thousands of years and not billions. I began to question some of the stricter moral teachings of the Baptist tradition that prohibited even moderate drinking and other behaviors that did not seem to correspond with what was written in Scripture.

As I progressed through my mid-20s, however, I began to recognize that I was unhappy. That didn’t make sense to me though because I had everything that the world kept telling me would make me happy. Job? Check. House? Check. Interpersonal relationships? Check. Possessions? Check. Regardless of that, there was something fundamentally lacking in my life. And as I looked in the proverbial mirror, the only thing that I could identify as missing was my relationship with God.

At this point in my life, I had developed a close friendship with a family from Greenfield that were living their faith. And when I looked at them, I saw what I wanted and was lacking. They were Catholic, but I remembered enough of my Bible to remember that Jesus had once said, “By their fruits you will know them.” Now, Jesus was actually talking about false prophets there, but it works in both directions. And as I watched them live their lives in faith I thought, “If they aren’t Christians, then nobody is a Christian.” My next thought was, “I want what they have.”

I began asking questions about the Catholic Church and its teachings. At first, I told myself it was just to know them better. They provided me some books on the Catholic Church by Scott Hahn and Jim Currie and others. I began reading those books and learning about the Catholic Church. I began reading my Bible again. I began praying again. The family invited me to talk to their pastor, Father Henry Schmidt, which I was reluctant to do at first. However, I eventually did, and he began walking with me and my sponsor/”godmother,” helping me to understand more of the Catholic Faith.

During your discernment process, was there a Catholic Church teaching you struggled with or had a hard time accepting?

Now-Father Hyland Smith receives his first holy Communion in April of 2004 at 27 years old at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Carrollton from Father Henry Schmidt.

Two come to mind. First, I struggled with the understanding of Sacred Tradition as a source of Divine Revelation. I already believed that the Sacred Scriptures were a source of God revealing Himself to us. However, the idea of an unwritten Tradition that was just as important was troublesome to me. How do you know it’s true? It was just that old game of “telephone” in which the message would get all garbled up, right? Once I understood that Sacred Tradition is the living expression of the faith handed down through the generations in a public way, that I understood. This is not a private message that one person has to give to the next. This was a public expression of the faith lived from the Apostles to us, which the community protected and guarded in a public way, with the successors to the Apostles, the bishops, constantly teaching and guiding the faithful in the way that Jesus calls us to live as disciples.

Second, I struggled with the veneration of the saints, especially the Blessed Virgin Mary. In fact, I remember praying during my discernment that I didn’t get “this whole Mary thing.” But I was becoming increasingly certain that the Catholic Church was the Christian Church that Christ intended for us to have with all the gifts He wanted us to use. So, I told the Lord that I trusted He was not leading me somewhere that was bad for me and asked for the grace to help me understand. Over the years, Our Lady has made her presence, her concern, and her help for me apparent, especially under the title of the Immaculate Conception. The patroness of our diocese. The patroness of our country. The patroness of my seminary. I made a trip to Lourdes, France where Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette and told her, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” I completed a Consecration to Jesus Christ through Mary by St. Louis de Montfort. I have come to understand Mary as the spiritual mother to all of us, as Christ said to the beloved Disciple from the Cross, “Behold your mother.” Her prayers, her intercession, and her presence always leads us to know her Divine Son and to follow Him better.

Was there any moment in you learning more about the faith that “blew your mind?” Almost like a “ah-ha” moment?

I was reading the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John with a Catholic explanation. It was so clear. Jesus really said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:53-54). I realized that if Jesus said that and meant it (“Do you take offense at this … . Will you also go away?”), then the Catholic Church was the only Church I knew of that professed the Eucharist to be what Jesus said it was: His True Presence, His Body and Blood.

You became Catholic in April of 2004 at 27 years old by making a profession of faith and receiving my confirmation and first holy Communion at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Carrollton. When you became Catholic, was priesthood even on your radar?

Not at all. In fact, I have often said that God didn’t mention the whole becoming a priest thing because He is wise enough to know I would have freaked out and ran for the hills. He just revealed to me the first step forward, to be Catholic and to grow in my walk with Him through Jesus Christ. The beginning of the call to priesthood and my discernment of that came later.

Tell us about that part of your life and then being ordained by Bishop Thomas John Paprocki in 2013.

Father Hyland Smith is ordained by Bishop Thomas John Paprocki at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield in 2013.

Looking back on it, I can see how God was preparing the way. Father Henry used to suggest to me during my instruction that I was going to be a priest one day. It never consciously sunk in. But after I joined the Church and began serving as a lector and an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, people started to ask me if I had ever thought about it. Then I joined the RCIA team to help new catechumens and candidates learn about the Catholic faith, while continuing to learn more myself. I found that I really enjoyed those ministries. Eventually, all of that broke through to my conscious mind that maybe I was supposed to be a priest. It was an exciting thought to me, but it also made me nervous. I was afraid that I was just so excited about being a new Catholic that I was oversteering in wanting to be a priest. But over the next three years, God kept patiently putting it on my heart, and then not so patiently, such that I knew that I had to at least go to seminary and check it out. I reasoned to myself that even if I only went for one year and learned more about my faith, that would be worth it. So, I went, and God used all of that to bring me to where I am now.

When you look back on your story of growing up non-Catholic, then converting, and then becoming a priest, what goes through your mind?

God has a plan for all of us. “For I know the plans I have for you says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). The most important thing is that we ask Him to help us to know and follow that plan. God knows what will bring joy and wholeness to our hearts. Hint: It’s Him.

What do you love about the faith you think cradle Catholics sometimes under appreciate?

I often have cradle Catholics make that comment to me, that converts are somehow more appreciative or better understand their faith than those who were raised in the Church. But I have met and know cradle Catholics that are on fire for the Lord Jesus Christ and seek to share His love with others every day. Yes, at one point, converts have to make an intentional decision to be Catholic. I think that is the key for all of us to become disciples of Jesus. Being intentional in our faith. No matter how God brings you into the Holy People of God, be intentional in your walk with the Lord. Pray daily. Read your Bible daily. Go to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. Support your parish with your talents, time, and treasures. Talk to your family and friends about your faith. But do it intentionally.