Died 3 November 2019
Jesuit Father G. Simon Harak died on Nov. 3, 2019. He was born on April 15, 1948, in Derby, Connecticut, a small city west of New Haven, where the Naugatuck River flows into the Housatonic. He liked to quote lines of verse about his birthplace (which had an iron foundry and metal industries):
Derby, thou whose brazen feet are stuck
within the slimy Naugatuck.
Fr. Harak and his twin sister Adele were the oldest of the five children of Simon and Laurice (Lian) Harak. They had two younger brothers and a younger sister.
The family had deep and cherished roots in Lebanon. The name “Harak” was an Ellis Island immigration officer’s attempt to write down what Simon’s grandfather was saying in Arabic, but the family kept it. Both Fr. Harak’s parents were professional musicians—his mother a mezzo-soprano who had sung with the New York City Opera, his father a singer who formed his own orchestra in the big-band era and performed on nation-wide radio. In 1947, his father became the founding director of the Fairfield University Glee Club, a position he held until his death in 1970.
Fr. Harak attended Fairfield Prep (1992-1996) and Fairfield University (1966-1970). His parents thought he would become a lawyer but, though he had been accepted by Harvard Law School, in the September following his college graduation he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Saint Andrew House in Boston’s Back Bay. The experience of the 30-day Spiritual Exercises had a profound effect on him, he later said, beginning a lifelong conversation with Jesus that became the center of everything he did and deeply impressing on him the desire to follow Jesus in his ministry of reconciliation.
At the end of the novitiate he studied international law and politics at Boston College for a year (1972-1973). Then he spent three years of regency teaching social studies and English at Boston College High School (1973-1976). He loved teaching and was a memorable classroom presence: exuberant, a whirlwind of energy, funny, not just encouraging his students to learn but demanding it.
He did theology studies at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California, and was ordained a priest in June 1979, at the College of the Holy Cross.
The summer after ordination he went to Jamaica for the pastoral year that served as the fourth year of theology studies, to teach and be school chaplain at St. George’s College in Kingston, the original site of Jesuit ministry on the island. He would take the boys on visits to the public hospital, an old folks’ residence, and a home for lepers. He wanted the boys to see the problems of the destitute poor, to be present to them, hold their hands, pray with them, and experience God’s love for them. And, of course, to experience God’s love for themselves as well.
He stayed in Jamaica for an additional year and returned to Boston in the summer of 1981. That fall he began a doctoral program in theology and ethics at the University of Notre Dame (1981-1986). He graduated with a dissertation on the role of the passions in the formation of Christian character, which became the basis of his first book, Virtuous Passions: The Formation of Christian Character (Paulist, 1993).
In 1986, he returned to the setting of his high-school and college years, Fairfield, where for most of the next fourteen years he taught theology. He interrupted his Fairfield years twice, when he did tertianship in the Philippines (1988-1989), and again in the academic year 1993-1994 when he was invited to teach theology at Loyola University of Maryland.
By this point a pattern was becoming evident in Fr. Harak’s life. On the one hand his academic work—study, writing and teaching about theological ethics—on the other hand direct experience of societal problems and direct action to better them. Simon of course saw deep connections between both and worked hard to draw his students into making the same connections. But the balance sometimes tilted in the direction of direct involvement, which was not always free of problems. When he and his students got involved in protests about the salaries of dining-hall workers, the university administration did not see the connection that Fr. Harak and his students did.
In 2000, in the aftermath of the first Iraq war, the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq was causing extreme suffering for the Iraqi people. Fr. Harak moved to Baltimore and worked fulltime with a peacemaking group he helped create, Voices In The Wilderness. He traveled to Iraq, bringing medicines, contacting peacemaking groups there. In 2006, he joined the much larger War Resisters League, where he became national coordinator of the group’s anti-militarism activities. He moved to New York City, where he lived with Fr. Dan Berrigan, SJ, and other Jesuits involved in anti-war and peacemaking activities.
In 2006, he was invited by Marquette University to teach theology and to create a Center for Peacemaking there. The Center came into existence in 2007 and Fr. Harak directed it for almost six years, developing on-campus programs, creating student internships, inviting visiting lecturers, and building initiatives that reached out to the neighborhoods beyond the campus.
In early 2013, unexpectedly, a cluster of seemingly minor problems turned into a diagnosis of a slowly developing, rare form of dementia, related to ALS. He wanted to remain at the Center for Peacemaking, working as long as he could, but Jesuit superiors decided he should go to Campion Center for the care he would need. He came to Campion in the spring of 2013.
Some of the exuberant, fun-loving, devout Fr. Harak of the past was evident in his early months at Campion, but increasingly the illness took its toll.