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What’s up, Archbishop Joe?

Archbishop Emeritus speaks on pandemic, Synod and what he’s been up to

By Lara Pickford-Gordon

Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Harris CSSp turns 80 years on March 19, the Feast of St Joseph. He will mark the day as he usually does, celebrating Mass.

“I thank God for the life He has given me. I suppose friends of mine from Trinidad will call me,” he said in an interview with the Catholic News on February 25.

Archbishop Emeritus Harris retired October 2017, after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75 years. He is currently based in Kingston, Jamaica, with the Missionaries of the Poor (MOP) and will be with the community on his birthday.

The MOP was founded in 1981 by Fr Richard Ho Lung; one of its main objectives is building family and community among the poor and disadvantaged. In 1998, the MOP was recognised as a Religious Institution of Diocesan Right, i.e., the congregation is under the authority of a specific local bishop, rather than that of the pope.

Archbishop Harris told the Catholic News that Rome sent him to help the MOP “put some structure into the institute. So that is what I am doing, that is my daily work…it is a lot of talking, a lot of putting things in place so that the institute can run a little bit better.”

He explained, “The MOP was founded 40 years ago, and they have grown very quickly; founders are normally very charismatic people in the sense they are full of gifts and things like that. And MOP was like that…because they also found something very autocratic and that works well when you have 20 or 30 people, but when you have 400 people, you need some kind of structure, so my time is spent putting structures into place and helping the brothers learn to live within those structures.”

According to the Congregation for Bishops Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops, among other functions, the Bishop Emeritus retains the right to preach the Word of God, unless the diocesan Bishop has expressly forbidden it in particular cases (692) and administer all the sacraments.

In relation to the universal Church, the Bishop Emeritus “continues to be a member of the episcopal College ‘by virtue of sacramental consecration and hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college’ (§704). Therefore, he has the right to assist the Roman Pontiff and to collaborate with him for the good of the whole Church.”

In Jamaica, Archbishop Emeritus Harris said, “I still celebrate Mass every Sunday. I teach, and there are people who still ask me to send them my homilies which I do.”

Asked if he had an idea of how he wanted to spend his retirement years, he replied, “I had hoped that I would go on a bit of land and plant and rear animals etc.” It is an idea he has often spoken about and is connected to happy boyhood memories.

In his biography God’s Will written by Valentino Singh, Harris’ happy memories in Surrey Village, Lopinot, were recounted.

He commented, “If I had not been a priest, I would have had a farm somewhere. My father wanted me to be lawyer and what have you. I may have been a lawyer too, but I would certainly have had a farm. I have always since I was young. My father had land in the country and when holiday time out from school, I was always up there on the land, so it is something I have loved…When I was 10, 11 years old I had already started keeping rabbits.”


During the pandemic

Archbishop Emeritus Harris said the pandemic has affected him in that he does not go out much. On the impact on the world, he stated, “Some people have just locked themselves in and gone nowhere.”

He wondered if there was enough dialogue between bishops of the Caribbean and governments on other ways people could attend Mass. “I think it was a mistake to tell people that they could fulfil their Sunday obligation by going to Mass on TV …”.

As a result, he stated, “parishes have broken down” with parishioners thinking they do not have to attend Mass to listen to their parish priest. “And if you don’t like him, you can switch on something else.”

He observed that many people have not returned to Mass because “in people’s minds, you can fulfil the Sunday obligation whether there is Covid or not, by listening to Mass on TV”.

Archbishop Emeritus Harris said the large parking lots at churches could have been utilised, with the congregation sitting in their cars and Eucharistic Ministers distributing communion to them. “All I am saying is there could have been more creative ways of dealing with Mass attendance and things like that.”

Does he think the pandemic taught Catholics any spiritual lessons? “I don’t know that it has, because long ago if somebody died on your street, everybody went to the funeral. Nowadays, somebody dies on your street, nobody goes. Funerals are no longer community things; they are family things. It [Covid-19] has broken the custom of community activities.”

Another area in which he saw community togetherness diminishing is in the celebration of the Eucharist. Archbishop Emeritus Harris said he has been saying this for a long time, adding, “the Eucharist for us has never been a community celebration”.

Even before the pandemic he said, “How many people do you know who on a rainy day before Covid was there, would put four or five people in their car to take them to their homes? …We have never worked to make Sunday Mass a community affair. It was an obligation you had, you came to Mass, and went back home. How many parishes, do you know, after Mass on a Sunday people can hang around and have a cup of coffee?”

Giving his hopes especially for the laity during the Synod on Synodality, he said, “the community aspect of Church will be built back”. He added, “I hope that the laity will be allowed to fulfil their responsibility of helping to build the Church. I hope that people will be allowed to give their ideas and opinions about Church and that means not only that the laity talk but the hierarchy listens and that structures will be set up to allow the laity to give their advice etc.”

For the Catholics who have stopped attending Mass the question is: “Why don’t they come?” He suggested that one of main reasons was, “they have been taught that priests are above them and that priests do what they want.”

The Archbishop Emeritus said he knew of friends who left the Church because during difficult times the only people who listened were pastors from evangelical and Pentecostal churches.

Although he returns to Trinidad intermittently, when asked when he would return for good, his initial response was a hearty chuckle then, “I don’t know when I will return for good.”