Dwelling in Darkness, In Search of Light
This past Tuesday, I received the very shocking and tragic news that a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Fr. Evan Harkins, had passed away, apparently by taking his own life. Fr. Harkins and I lived together at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary for several years before he was ordained a year ahead of me. I didn’t know Evan as well as other men in the seminary, but he always impressed me as quiet and humble, and he had a great sense of humor. He was also a man of great faith and prayer, and had desired to be a priest from a very early age.
It’s because of these things that my priest friends and I were absolutely shocked to hear the news, and on Wednesday evening, we got together in the St. Michael’s rectory to talk, mourn, support each other, and process the information. Evan never showed any signs to us that he was struggling, despite being pastor of two parishes and a school. But sadly, he must have been quietly suffering in darkness, and seen no other way out. There is a special brotherhood in the priesthood where we generally try to help each other and support each other in ministry, but it’s also true that some priests, especially those who live alone, can drop off the radar. Each of us resolved to reach out to a few of those priests we know to check in on them, and do our best to prevent whatever darkness befell Fr. Harkins in his last days.
Sadly, suicide is increasingly common these days, and it can help to clarify the Church’s teaching on this tragic reality. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “voluntary cooperation in suicide is contrary to the moral law,” but it also adds that “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of one committing suicide.” Depression and anxiety can reduce the ability of an individual to choose freely.
A common question that people ask around suicide is “What will happen to this person’s soul if they commit suicide? Will they be saved?” The only possible answer that any of us can give – not just about suicide, but about any death – is that we don’t know, and that judgement belongs to God alone, who is all-good and all-merciful. The Catechism teaches that “we should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.” So what should we do in response to the death of a loved one like Fr. Harkins? We should pray for him, entrusting him, and all the souls of the departed, to the loving mercy of God.
Many people struggle with depression and anxiety, often in silence and hiddenness. If you are struggling with a mental health issue, please know that you are not alone. There is no shame in what you are experiencing, and there are people who can and want to help. And if you know someone who seems isolated or alone, please reach out to them in support. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, so let’s be there for each other as a family.
Please pray for Fr. Evan Harkins – may his soul, and all the souls of the faithfully departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
PS: After having published this article in our parish bulletin, I learned more details on the circumstances of Fr. Harkins’ passing which may provide some context and hope. The link to Bishop James Johnston’s homily from Fr. Harkins’ funeral is below.