John Harte: Requiem Homily

Homily from Fr John Kevin Harte SJ's funeral given by Fr Brendan Byrne SJ, Friday, 16th June 2023, Immaculate Conception Church, Hawthorn.

By Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

There’s a popular belief that Jesuits when speaking in public always make three points. How widely true this belief is, I don’t know. However, let me provide further evidence for it in speaking now of John Kevin Harte.

There are indeed three aspects of John’s life and commitments that most readily come to mind. There is John the outstanding musician; John the craftsman of the biblical Word; John totally committed to service of those on the margins, including the cry of the earth itself.

We can think of these three aspects of John, not so much as a sequence but as forming a triangle, the points of which interacted throughout his life as a Jesuit and priest, not without a measure of tension that demanded very much of him—and also at times of others with whom he lived and worked.

I. John the musician.
Some people play the piano well—and it is a pleasure to hear them. John played the piano as an artist. The moment he struck the first chords you were held and transported, taken to that wordless depth of self that only music can explore. No wonder his instructors at the Melbourne conservatorium were dismayed on learning when he completed his degree that the prodigy whose talent they were nurturing was going to be lost to the Jesuits. They would have lamented a similar loss around the same time when a fellow student of equal promise, Carina Flaherty, went off to Loreto. It is wonderful that Carina, whose 90th birthday Mass John celebrated a couple of years ago, is here with us this morning.

A young man entering the Jesuit novitiate at Loyola College, Watsonia, in the mid-50’s encountered a choral tradition of near professional standard that John had created. So much time and effort was put into reaching the standard John required that one superior was heard to mutter that what was meant to be a college had become a choir school with a philosophate attached. Something of the same was repeated when, as a regent at St Louis School in Perth, John created a student choir of sufficient merit to warrant a recording being made—not a usual practice in those days.

Not only did John, albeit with much talent among the large number of scholastics, draw out the riches of the age-hold Catholic liturgical tradition, he also composed settings for hymns, for some of which scholastics such as Bill Dalton and Brian Moore had written the words. Perhaps John’s most celebrated composition was the vigorous four-part recessional, All Power Is Given to Me, that we sang from that choir-loft up there to conclude the mission send-offs of the young men, selected each year, to leave—never to return—as missionaries to India.

Fr John Harte SJ.

John was a man of conviction and in not a few areas his convictions were unshakeable. One of them was that, granted sufficient time and effort, any human being could be taught to sing. At Watsonia there was an outhouse known as the Music Shack some distance from the main college building. There John’s conviction in this regard was from time to time put to the test. No more challenging test ever presented itself than that posed by the necessity to teach Fr Jim Flynn, whose very speaking voice was somewhat toneless and strangled, to master the Latin Exultet so that he could perform the Easter Vigil at a nearby convent. Whether the groans and shrieks that emanated for weeks from that shack shook John’s conviction in the matter is not recorded. Only the good sisters would have experienced the outcome.

John was more tolerant of those who struggled to hit the right note—and found a place in the choir for those of lesser musical talent. Bill Uren, whose multiple talents did lie elsewhere, was given one deep bass note to sing and remembers sounding it to John’s satisfaction.

Whatever about pitch, in regard to timing, John was inexorable. Get the beat wrong and World War Three was not far away. One choral area where John’s insistence on the beat played dividends was in the metrical psalms composed by the French Jesuit Joseph Gelineau. Anticipating the move to liturgy in the vernacular some years before Vatican II, John introduced them to great effect in our Masses at the college. It has been fitting to have one of them as the Responsorial Psalm for his requiem today.

II. Granted his musical talents, John might well have been destined for higher studies in liturgy. But in his years of theology at Canisius College, Pymble, there emerged, alongside music, a notable capacity for Scripture. With all the required languages, including German, under his belt, John could well have become one of the outstanding Australian Scripture scholars of his generation. But it seems that other calls—the third point of the triangle, as I shall mention later—deflected him from the long program of studies that such an academic direction would have involved.

But John did pursue one area of Scripture with characteristic dedication. During his years of theology in Sydney, he attended talks by a visiting scholar, Eduard Schweizer, a renowned Swiss Protestant expert on the Gospel of Mark. Later, he would devote an entire year (1974) to taking courses on Mark with Professor Schweizer in Zürich. For John, Mark was the Gospel. The remaining three, I think, he felt had too much smoothed its sharp edges. Mark’s stark narrative, focused from the very beginning upon the cross; its unrelieved portrayal of human weakness, especially the failure of the male leadership; its utter reliance upon the power of God: all this spoke to John’s lifelong discomfort with institutional structures and the powers that administered them. He would follow the poor Jesus to the margins of society and minister especially to the hurt and broken there. Hence his year with the prophetic Sydney priest, Ted Kennedy, at Redfern (1976), and in an experimental Jesuit community inserted in a then as yet ungentrified area of Richmond (1977).

III. We have now, of course, arrived at the third point of the “triangle” that shaped John’s life and ministry. John had two aunts who were members of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, Sr Mary of Our Lady of Good Counsel (herself a notable choir leader in Perth) and Sr Margaret Kingston. The dedication of these two religious relatives to the poor and marginalised, according to the charism of their congregation, greatly influenced John’s inclinations in the same direction—perhaps already in his earliest years but certainly during his long periods of ministry in Perth, where, as well as university chaplain from St Thomas More College and performance artist for the ABC, he was also prison chaplain, working with another Good Shepherd sister, Marie O’Malley. He also devoted a special ministry to the mentally ill and cared for many people shut in by illness.

Much earlier, when John returned from tertianship in Germany in mid-1966, and took up residence at St Thomas More, he was asked to give an annual retreat at the college to Stan Lim and myself, who were then scholastics in regency, teaching at St. Louis Jesuit School, Claremont. This he did with great generosity, armed, as I remember, only with a Greek New Testament, open at a favourite Pauline passage of his: chapter 6 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Later, he composed the melody for a hymn based on this text by Scottish Jesuit James Quinn. To this, in a fine collaboration between the two most musically gifted members of our Australian province, Chris Willcock, to John’s expressed approval and pleasure, has supplied an accompaniment. Very appropriately, we shall pause to hear it today after Communion.

But, going back for a moment to that retreat John gave us shortly after he returned from Europe: on the way home, he had stopped for a month in Calcutta to be with his fellow novice and close friend, Ian Travers-Ball. Ian, who had gone to our mission in Hazaribag as a scholastic, was in the throes of discerning whether he would follow the request of Mother Teresa to leave the Society and become the founder of the male congregation of Missionaries of Charity, which she was anxious to begin. John, as I remember, spoke movingly of Ian’s anguish at having to leave the Jesuits and adopt a life inserted among “the poorest of the poor”, as Mother Teresa always referred to her ministry. It was clear that some of the anguish of Ian, soon to become Brother Andrew, had entered into John’s own soul during that time and profoundly affected the direction and mode of his later work in Australia.

Among the cries from the margin that John heard was the cry of the earth. Long before Pope Francis and his 2015 encyclical Laudato Sí, John was much concerned about the damage we humans were doing to our environment, damage which, as Pope Francis later pointed out, fell most heavily upon the poor. Not only did John live out his vow of poverty with exemplary frugality, his concern for recycling placed demands upon community life that only the reconciling gifts of John Prendiville could temper. An entrance requirement for guests at the Jesuit residence, Southwell House, Claremont, was to be taken immediately to the kitchen and receive instruction on what was to be put in the large array of separate containers and what was not; even dishwater was not to go down the drain, and solar heating, not always adequate in the winter months, was de rigueur.

Though reserved in nature and often presenting a rather severe demeanour towards the world at large, John did not lack a sense of humour and was a wry observer of the human scene. His shyness prevented frequent expressions of human warmth. But, as I myself experienced, this warmth came through in beautifully crafted letters at times of bereavement and emails that saluted achievements he considered worthy of encouragement and support. For 40 years, I believe he wrote a birthday letter to David White, former scholastic and now key companion in social ministry.

John had one memorable year in the formation program of the Australian province as Socius to the Master of Novices in 1976. To say that he—his passions and his radical commitments—made an impact upon the young men who then came under his sway would be an understatement. There are several here today, including David, who would testify to that—among them, if not unavoidably interstate, would be Frank Brennan, who counts John among the most significant influences on his Jesuit life. That said, strong personalities are not the most suited to the delicate task of formation and John’s tenure in the role was not prolonged.

John, by this, would be complaining that I have been talking all the while about him and not about Scripture, as the liturgical instructions require. Let me remedy this lack with some brief words in conclusion. The relevance of the First Reading, from Daniel 12, is obvious. John was certainly among the learned who will shine as bright stars for all eternity for having instructed many in virtue. Today, of course, is the Feast of the Sacred Heart, which explains the choice of the Second Reading from early in chapter 5 of the Letter to the Romans. It includes one of the most attractive sentences that St Paul ever wrote: “And hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (5:5).

But it is the Gospel—taken of course from St Mark—that calls for particular comment. It tells of a rich man who approached Jesus seeking eternal life but went away sad because he could not give up all his possessions to follow Jesus. Unlike that man, John did not go away sad. He was not rich in worldly goods but he was rich in talent. By giving up the promise of a professional musical career, he did in a sense “sell all he had” and “give the money to the poor”. He knew early on that Jesus had looked on him and loved him and chosen him for a companionship in which that “triangle” of music, biblical scholarship, and service of the poor would find integration. We trust he now knows face to face the “treasure in heaven” promised to those who have sold all. To adapt the immortal lines of poet John Donne, he has come “to that holy room, where, with thy choir of saints for evermore, I shall be made thy music”.  1

1  John Donne, Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness.

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