Homily: Funeral Mass of Fr. Evan Harkins

Patrick and Allyson, Caroline, Adam, John-Paul, and Anna.  I want you to briefly look around you. The people here this morning represent just a small fraction of those who were impacted by your son and brother, Father Evan Harkins.  It’s a sign of several things: of how much Father Evan was loved by so many; of how many people he reached and helped and fed and healed as a priest of Jesus Christ in his service; it’s a sign of how much we all want to be with you in this time of loss; and it’s a sign of how much we want to be close to Jesus together as we say goodbye to Evan and surrender Him to the Father, who is kind and merciful, and who, as we heard in the Gospel, has prepared a place for Father Evan and everyone in the Family of God.

As I said, this is just a small part of those whom Father affected as a Catholic priest.  One of his classmates studying with him last year in Washington at Catholic University of America wrote me and said:

I remember the wonderful moments I could be with this gentle man at CUA. he was very kind, simple and a man with great vision about church and ministry. Actually I was inspired by him.” (sic)

So, at the outset, I want to express our sorrows and our pledge of love and prayer for you, Father Evan’s family. You have suddenly and mysteriously received a fuller share of the cross.  But, we also want to express our gratitude to you too. Because it was consistently clear how deeply Father Evan was rooted in your family life his entire life. In an interview with the Catholic Key just before his ordination ten years ago, Father Evan said this:

One of the things that inspired me was the selfless love my parents have for each other.  I saw holiness lived out in the things they did—things Mother did at home that Dad never knew about.  My parents were receptive to the miraculous grace of marriage. Having known and watched them as I was growing up helped bring thoughts of the priesthood to the forefront for me.”  

Patrick and Allyson, we are grateful that you formed and gave us such a good man to be our father and our brother.

When he was 8 years old, one evening after sweeping the kitchen floor, young Evan found his mother in their garden and told her he thought God might be calling him to be a priest.  From that point on you accompanied Evan as he responded to God’s call.

We are also grateful to you, his siblings.  Evan was your big brother and he took that role to heart.  Before he became a priest-father, he practiced on you. He set the example, but also was your best friend.  I understand he even had a special nickname for each of you. And this big brother continued to be a solid rock for you when your mom was fighting cancer.  He got you all interested in rock climbing … of all things … even his parents. I just cannot imagine your family out climbing up the rock face of a mountain.  Even the Von Trapps didn’t do that.

There are so many other things that I could say about him, and his life with you.  The point is that the Father Harkins we loved so much, was first the Evan you loved so much.  And, it was because of your love and God’s love that we received the gift of this man and this priest. 

Along with his own family, we acknowledge the deep loss experienced by his parish at St. James where Father Evan served these past 8 years.  I ask you to especially remember the children and youth of the parish who are hurting. And, I want to mention our priests. We are crushed at this loss of our brother.  We admired Evan and loved him dearly. Please pray for our priests, and please love your priests.  

One of my last and favorite memories of Father Harkins was just this past December when I joined him and the Saint James parish in St. Joseph for the celebration of their 150th anniversary.  Father Harkins had just completed a major repair of the truss system holding up the roof.  It had been put off for decades because it was such a big and expensive undertaking. It had reached a crisis point and could no longer be avoided without a potential collapse and danger to the people.  It was so bad that when it rained, Father literally needed an umbrella in the confessional. With his firm and gentle leadership, Father not only had a successful campaign to fix the roof, but also to undertake and complete a major renovation of the interior of the church too.  

So, we were celebrating all these things.  Following the Anniversary Mass, a reception was held at the Knights of Columbus Hall on the other side of town.  I decided to simply follow Father Harkins to the dinner. My first thought was, “this guy drives a mini-Cooper!” Now, you can’t always judge someone’s personality by the car they drive, but if someone drives a mini-Cooper, well, you can. Let’s just say there’s a cool factor there.  It was one of those things that was indicative of his personality: a combination of intelligent, curious, kind, artistic, quirky funny, and just fun.

The other thing I noticed that night was that he was taking me through this labyrinth of obscure streets at a fairly fast pace, and I began to wonder, “Is he trying to ditch the bishop?”

We had a great celebration that night and it was just one example of his many gifts that were used for the Kingdom of God.  Most of you here today can speak of similar things: those of you who were close priest friends, or his spiritual directees at Conception Seminary, or as students from Benedictine College; or as seminary classmates; or seminarians who had a summer internship with him; or those of you in the parishes at which he served, including here at St. Therese, his first assignment, or at St. James most recently.

But, even with our own recollections, it’s important again to hear Father Evan’s own words in which he said this about the priesthood in that same interview with the Key; he said:

“[The priest] brings the channels of Christ’s grace to the sacraments: New life though baptism; absolution thought the sacrament of Penance, His love for us and His grace though the Eucharist.  A priest is a bridge connecting people to God in a sacramental way, and he extends Christ’s love for His Church, in a human way. I see a lot of pain and sadness in the world. You can see it in people’s eyes.  Satan makes people unsure of who they are. To me being ordained a priest is to be sent out in to the world to give God to people and His gifts of joy and truth. I think that’s awesome; there is nothing beyond that I could want.”

I share those words with you for a reason.  Even though he spoke those words on the eve of his ordination, he just as easily would have said them last week, or any day of the past 10 years he was a priest.  And he lived that way.

Father Evan Harkins was consistent as a joyful, faith-filled, hopeful, dedicated priest.  He never experienced depression or despair. As the old country song would say, he walked on the “sunny side” of life.  

And so, part of our anguish these past days is this paradox.  How could this have happened? How could Father Harkins have died like this?

While we will never know everything this side of heaven, there are some things that can help.  

Just a month ago, at the start of the New Year, Father began to experience some serious deterioration of his health that scared him.  His stomach and gastrointestinal tract stopped working and he could not take in food. He would go days without any nourishment and become so weak that he needed to go to the hospital.  This was accompanied by extreme anxiety, and it was such that he didn’t know if the anxiety was from the stomach problem or if the anxiety was the source of the stomach problem. He was given a prescription drug to deal with the anxiety and was experiencing some of the extreme negative side effects of this drug including terrible nightmares, among other things.  

I share this with you all, with the permission of his family, because I do not believe Father Harkins was in possession of a sound mind when he died earlier this week.  His parents and his friends noticed in the weeks leading up to his death that things were not right, that he was not himself, and something was seriously wrong.  

This is important for you to know, because it is easy to jump to other conclusions without knowing these facts.  It does not take away our grief at his terrible loss, but it does help us to see this in a different light.

I’ve spoken much about Father Evan and our love for him, but I now speak of the person that brings us together today: Jesus Christ.  Without Christ, Father Harkins would not have been a priest, and further, without Christ, Father Harkins would not have even been born.  Without Christ, none of us would be here.  

Christ is the one we turn to now because it is He who saves us.  

Christ is the one who puts us in relationship with His Father and Our Father: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?” (Jn. 14:2)

Christ is the one we turn to now because He reassures us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.” (Jn. 14:1)

Christ is the one who is the way home to heaven: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes the Father except through me.” (Jn. 14:6)

We now go “through, with and in Christ, in the Holy Spirit, to the Father” in this Eucharist to offer the supreme sacrifice for sins for Father Evan, confident in the saving power of Christ’s sacrifice.  We use the chalice that Father Harkins used when he offered this sacrifice himself as a priest for the salvation of his parish and the entire world.  

We do this with confidence because we know that “God is for us.”  And, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31)

We do this with confidence because, “It is God who acquits us.” (Rom. 8:33) We do this filled with hope because, it is Christ “who indeed intercedes for us.” (Rom. 8:34)

We do this with faith because we know that no created thing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:39)

So, let us speak of Christ, the crucified and risen one, the “firstborn from the dead.” (Col. 1:18)  It is He to whom Father Evan was united in baptism.  It was He who nourished Father Evan with the divine life of grace in the Holy Eucharist.  It was He to whom Evan was configured as a priest forever through sacred orders.  

Our hope for Father Evan is in Christ.  Our hope for ourselves is in Christ. We trust in the awesome gift of God’s Divine Mercy that comes to us through the pierced Heart of Christ, a devotion that was central to Father Harkins’ spiritual life. And so we can all say with confidence, “Jesus, I trust in You” and commend Father Evan to the merciful embrace of Christ.

Father Harkins also loved the Blessed Mother.  Along with his earthly mother, Allyson, Mary was his Mother too, and a source of great strength and help to him his entire life.  Evan even penned several sonnets to the Blessed Mother in his youth that are quite beautiful.  

Like Mary, Father Evan’s earthly mom has had her heart pierced with a sword of sorrow, not of the same spiritual intensity, but real nonetheless and something only a mother can receive.  And like no one else on earth, Father Evan’s mother kept certain things in her heart, and so I conclude with words from the mother of Father Evan Harkins, the priest we commend to God today:

“I have tried in these last few hard days to think what Father Evan would say to us. There have been moments through the years when I shared with him a deep pain or a burden I was facing and his words to me were always the same: Don’t give in to those dark thoughts. Jesus loves you so, so much. You are his beloved child. You must keep that in your heart and in the front of your mind. 

Two verses of Scripture to hang on to: Proverbs 3:5 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” and Lamentations 3:22-23 “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness.”

Father was known for giving his parishioners a weekly assignment at the end of his homily every Sunday. If he were here, he would give us an assignment. So for your assignment this week: Give thanks to God for the wonderful gift Father Evan was and is. Share a precious, a profound or a funny memory of Father Evan with someone. Extend to those you encounter the acceptance, and the peace, and the quiet love that Father Evan always communicated to each of us.” (Allyson Harkins)  

Amen.

+Bishop James Johnston, Jr.
Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph
February 1, 2020

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