After completing one year at the Catholic high school, Catholicism was very far from my radar. The years seemed to pass by. I got in trouble here and there, but it wasn’t until my senior year that I came back into contact with Catholicism.
At the time, I was in a dual enrollment program at a local Catholic college. This college had numerous clubs and one of them was a program in which a student would be paired with a retired Jesuit priest or brother whom he would visit every week. There were no limitations on the number of visits per week. I was interested because it was something that could take me out of my hum-drum routine at home and school. Also, I would get to know somebody.
I was paired up with a Jesuit priest named Fr. Jack Harrington, SJ. He was 88 years old at the time I met him and he was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. When I first met Fr. Harrington, I honestly believed that I had made a mistake and that he was the doorman. He was a rather tall man with large bulging eyes, who had burns all over his skin and was shaking almost incessantly because of Parkinson’s. Truth to tell, I was thinking of somebody along the lines of Fr. O’Malley in “Going My Way” or “The Bells of St. Mary’s.”
Yet there was something about Fr. Harrington that made people love him. I do not recall him ever being an intellectual. In fact, he was a rather quiet man who listened more than he spoke. He told me that he had heard the call to become a Jesuit by a complete accident. He had attended the same school that I had almost seventy years before. He was completing a degree in sociology when a priest that he respected met him on the stairs.
“Jack, what are you going to do with your life?” the priest asked him.
When Fr. Harrington didn’t reply immediately, the priest told him, “You know, you really should consider becoming a Jesuit.”
Fr. Harrington did and, in fact, he had run in with the president of the college who also noticed his spirituality. Indeed, it seemed like a long road from a small town in Montana to becoming a Jesuit. But God calls people in different ways.
You see, Fr. Harrington was born in San Francisco and raised in Montana by Irish immigrants. His parents were both from County Cork, Ireland, and had immigrated at some point in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. In 1918, during the Spanish flu epidemic, Fr. Harrington lost both of his parents. He and his brother were then sent to live with an uncle in a small town in the Idaho farming country. Eventually, Fr. Harrington went to study at the Jesuit college in the area.
Fr. Jack’s life as a Jesuit was relatively quiet and humdrum. He got a Doctorate in Sociology and eventually taught it in various local insitutions of higher learning. He also traveled extensively around the Jesuit province which he served ministering at various parishes. For the last couple of decades, he had been the pastor of a parish in Montana that was part of an Indian reservation. Reading his obituary later on, it seemed to me that many people regarded him as a saint.
To me, Fr. Harrington was different from most of the other priests I knew. He was not an intellectual, but a really humble and quiet man of God. I asked him once what his favorite thing to read was and he told me that he read the Bible. He also told me that one of his cousins in Ireland, also a Jesuit, was one of the leading Catholic Biblical commentators.
Throughout the course of our conversations, I would ask him all kinds of things about life before Vatican II. He told me that he liked the Latin Mass, but he knew that the Novus Ordo was probably for the best. “After all,” he said. “Jesus didn’t eat the Last Supper with the Apostles by having his back to them.” On the one hand, he seemed to miss the Latin Mass intensely. On the other hand, the changes seemed to be the right ones.
For me, the months that I spent visiting Fr. Jack were times when I realized what a life of service to others meant. Fr. Jack had spent himself for his flock and all of those that he loved. I knew that it may have been torture physically for him to meet and talk with me, but he never showed it to me once. Rather, he was always hospitable and kind. Never did I hear a cross word come out of his mouth.
After I went to another local college to study creative writing, I often thought about Fr. Jack and the many stories he told me. I thought about him especially because he had shown me what it means to have a vocation and to live it. About two years since I last saw him, Fr. Jack passed away and was buried at the Jesuit cemetery near my old high school. I went to visit his grave there and prayed a Rosary for him.
As I sit here and write this entry, I have Fr. Jack’s visage before my eyes. I cannot help but think of his kindness and helpfulness to me and so many countless others during the 60 years of his ministry as a priest. I have also come to realize how much he impacted my own life.
Thank you, Fr. Jack!
For more information on Fr. Jack’s life, click this link: http://www.nwjesuits.org/newsPub/2004Spring_NWJ.pdf