By Theresa Carson
On Aug. 6, 2016, nine young men professed religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience at Techny, Ill., and became members of the Society of the Divine Word. They are Derek Nguyen, Zachary Smith, Carl Gales, Theodore Nguyen, Hoc Mai, Luke Henkel, Luis Panuco-Carmona, Hai Pham and Jorge Zetino. Three of them have chosen the path of the brotherhood and will pursue higher education in the fall. The remaining six will enroll at Catholic Theological Union as seminarians preparing for the priesthood.
Zachary Smith, 24, defies preconceived notions. He has ever since he was a child. He remembers the day his family realized that his grandmother was seriously ill.
"My aunt and uncle came from Washington, D.C.," recalls Zachary, who grew up in Oak Park, a suburb of Detroit. "We were in the kitchen. I was only 10 or 11. I noticed that there were two syringes for insulin and called my aunt."
His grandmother had forgotten that she had injected herself and allowed her son to give her a second injection. Zachary called the doctor who immediately directed them to go to the emergency room.
"That’s when we first realized that she had dementia," he said. "We would write notes: don’t turn the stove on, do this, don’t do that."
As time passed and she became more confused, the family organized their schedules so that she would have constant companionship.
He stayed with her on weekends to give his uncle a respite. He would set up his grandmother’s pill counter, calibrated the instrument that measured her blood sugar and call the physician when necessary. Even though he was so young, his mother and her siblings trusted him to communicate clearly with the doctors.
Given the talent that he exhibited at an early age, his mom hoped that he would become a physician. During his senior year in high school, he received offers of academic scholarships from Creighton University and Seton Hall but decided to accept a full-ride to the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied microbiology for two years.
Zachary gravitates towards logic and science. He thinks like a scientist—categorizing and making predictions. While in college, he worked in a hospital. He discovered that he felt more comfortable being the person who gave comfort to the patients than the person taking care of their medical needs.
"If I became a doctor, I would want to do research," Zachary said. "One patient she said she was having a heart attack. I realized that she just wanted someone to listen to her. I felt more confident in talking with people than bandaging them, checking their blood pressure or lifting them into a stretcher. Maybe I couldn’t help them medically, but I could help just by being there."
Socially, Zachary found that he had interests that differed from his peers. "I was not doing what my friends were doing," he said. "They were partying. Instead I went to the opera and plays. Every night I was at cultural events."
He also spent a good deal of time at the Newman Center on campus. On Sunday nights, he joined a faith sharing group called Catholics Underground.
Zachary’s path to Catholicism defied expectations, too. Church bored him as a child. He remembers the Protestant church as hot, filled with singing and a place that they couldn’t leave until the service was over. He said he wasn’t raised in a particular religion. Some family members are Christian and some are Muslim; others are agnostic, philosophic, looking and questioning.
His mom grew up in the Methodist Church. An aunt was Baptist. His paternal grandmother practiced Lutheranism. As a child, he sometimes went to a Unitarian Church with his father’s girlfriend. Attending a Catholic school left an imprint on him.
Zachary went to a Jesuit school.
In eighth grade, he was asked to speak at Mass in honor of Catholic Schools Week.
"I liked being at Mass," he said. Initially, when he asked his mom if he could go to Mass, she said no. But by age 16, he could drive and he’d go on his own. That’s when he began to consider becoming Catholic; he wanted to make it official.
"I went to my old grade school to talk with one of the sisters," he said. "The following Easter, I received the sacraments."
Although he wondered how his family would respond, they told him that if he was happy, then they were okay with his decision. "My beliefs are in line with the Catholic Church—the Trinity and Jesus," he said. "It was an easy choice because that’s what made sense to me. It clicked. Liturgy draws me. It has meaning."
He diverged from the expected path in high school, too. He wanted to read "Moby Dick" and "Tom Sawyer." Instead, his teacher gave "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" to him, saying, "Eventually, you can read those other books. You should learn more about your culture."
The following year, Zachary pursued his own interests and read "Anna Karenina" because he wanted to learn more about Russian culture.
That interest in other cultures eventually led him to the Society of the Divine Word. "Before I even started college, I thought, ‘What should I do? Maybe I should consider religious life,’" he said.
During his second year of college, he went on retreat at a monastery for a week. "I spent time with the novices. This life resonated with me."
As a novice with the Society of the Divine Word, he reflected upon the life to which God calls him and he helped Lake County jail inmates study for the GED.
"I learned that I can be patient," he said. "I became more approachable, very comfortable. It was a lesson in humility. They taught me too. I learned so much from them, such as appreciating the little things in life and learning from mistakes."
As a novice, Zachary lived with men from other ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Living in an intercultural community is nothing new to him. His hometown of Oak Park, Mich., is a community with a population of about 30,000, made up of families from the Middle East, India, Poland, Israel, Vietnam and the Philippines.
When talking about living in an intercultural community, he applies the principles that made him successful on the microbiology tract at the University of Pittsburgh.
"You can make observations, but you can’t make judgements," he said. "For instance, if you see one black sheep in England, all you can say is that there is one black sheep in England. You can’t make a judgement based on limited data. I see each person as an individual; I can’t generalize. I want to learn about them. I don’t want to impose my judgement."
That philosophy is one with which he grew up. "In school, we were all the same [regardless of ethnic background]," he said. "We were friends and that’s all that mattered."
This fall, Zachary will live at the Divine Word Theologate and begin his studies for the priesthood at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.