By SHAWN McCARTHY
MIRAMICHI — This year marks a dual milestone for Bishop Robert Harris, the 50th anniversary of his ordination, as well as his resignation as bishop of Saint John at age 75. The New Freeman sat down with the bishop to discuss his tenure in ministry, his time as bishop, and his future plans.
Born in Montreal, Bishop Harris attended local schools, and undertook secondary studies at Cardinal Newman and St. Pius X high schools. Regular attendance at mass was part of his family life, and was reinforced by his taking part in the music ministry as a member of the Boys’ Choir. Always possessed of what he refers to as a ‘missionary heart’, he joined a social action group in high school and took part in its weekend activities. In college, he spent four months with the Benedictines in the Black Hills, South Dakota as part of Project Christopher. It was to be an event that profoundly influenced him and led to his receiving the call to religious life in his second year of pre-medical studies.
After four years in seminary at Grand Séminaire du Montréal, he was first appointed as a hospital chaplain, due to his previous interest in medicine. He likened his ordination to a marriage — “a couple knows that the world is frightening, but they’ve got each other, so how much more confident could I afford to be, knowing my life’s travelling companion would be the Lord?”
There followed Canon Law Studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and work in the bishop of Montreal’s office as an Ecclesiastical Lawyer at the Montreal Regional Marriage Tribunal. While performing this important work, the then Father Harris retained a call to active ministry and an enjoyment of interacting with people in a more down to earth way. As a result, he undertook parish work on evenings and weekends for five years before eventually becoming pastor of St. Raphael’s Parish, Montreal in 1980. While working at the Grand Séminaire of Montreal as director of Pastoral Formation in 1991, he took a a sabbatical and did pastoral work in San Diego. For four summers (1995-98) he gave aid in Mexico, living with families, doing street ministry and working with the missionaries of charity.
Appointed auxiliary bishop of Sault Ste. Marie in 2002, and Bishop of Saint John in 2007, he noted that while there might be regional and geographical differences in his various appointments, when viewed through the context of living there was no radical change. The bishop’s focus has always been on people, and on his divinely inspired mission. Moreover, the Saint John diocese was not unfamiliar, as he drove through it on a number of occasions when visiting friends, and spent time in Saint John itself when working as a waiter on board the rail line from Montreal.
A highlight of his time as bishop has always been confirming young people, his talents of communication often remarked upon by parents and friends of those confirmed. He noted that since his days in the seminary he often visited schoolchildren, as part of his work, and engaged with them about their faith formation. That experience has given him some insight on how best to approach young people, and the things they might need to hear. Realizing the need the newly confirmed have to better know God’s love for each of them, he takes the time to talk to each of them individually. Though he often might touch on an important point unknowingly, addressing something a particular candidate needed to hear, he is quick to credit his speechwriter, that is, the Lord, for any success or profundity his words might have.
Obviously, in the last year, the Revitalization and Realignment of the diocese has been a great undertaking for the bishop, as well as a number of others. He noted that though much of the work of realignment has been achieved, the revitalization of each of the 28 new parishes has yet to be fully realized. It remains for each parish to learn to live within itself, and to discover the contributions each component part can make to the overall community. Amidst signs of new life, he hopes that each parish will fully commit and keep moving forward in order to become a church that addresses real issues.
Looking to the future, Bishop Harris asks all in the diocese to pray for the succession process , as well as for that person chosen to succeed him as bishop of Saint John. It is his hope that all the parishes will assist the new bishop in continuing the work of revitalizing the diocese and support him in the fulfillment of making the diocesan church new.
As to his own future, Bishop Harris is looking forward to the next chapter. Though there are many options available, he trusts that his ever-present companion, the Lord, will provide for him. Upon reflection, he realizes that there were many challenges faced as both priest and bishop, but he has loved his journey thus far. Taken together he feels that his story provides much evidence in support of the notion that the Almighty provides challenges in equal measure to the graces needed to face them. He hopes that others might come to see that in their own lives as well.
Shawn McCarthy is the Miramichi Region correspondent for The New Freeman. He can be reached at cletus_1773 @hotmail.com.§