Type of entity
Authorized form of name
Harnett, Philip, 1943-1996, Jesuit priest
Parallel form(s) of name
Standardized form(s) of name according to other rules
Other form(s) of name
- Phil Harnett
Identifiers for corporate bodies
Dates of existence
06 January 1943-20 December 1996
Born: 06 January 1943, Dublin
Entered: 10 October 1961, St Mary's, Emo, County Laois
Ordained: 23 June 1972, Milltown Park, Dublin
Final vows: : 02 February 1982
Died: 20 December 1996, Cherryfield Lodge, Dublin
Part of the Loyola community, Eglinton Road, Dublin at the time of death.
Father Provincial of the Irish Province of the Society of Jesus: 31 July 1986-30 July 1992
1st President of the European Conference of Provincials 1992-1996
by 1966 at Alcalá de Henares, Madrid, Spain (TOLE) studying
by 1973 at Washington DC, USA (MAR) studying
PROVINCIAL 01 September 1986
by 1994 at Brussels Belgium (BEL S) President European Conference
by 1995 at Strasbourg France (GAL) President European Conference
◆ Royal Irish Academy : Dictionary of Irish Biography, Cambridge University Press online :
by Peter McVerry
Harnett, Philip (1943–96), Jesuit priest, was born 6 January 1943 in Dublin, the third child of Patrick Harnett and Ursula Treacy. He had two brothers, John and Patrick, and three sisters, Anne, Catherine, and Mary. Following an education at Pembroke School, Ballsbridge, and Belvedere College, he joined the Jesuits on 10 October 1961 and studied arts at UCD, philosophy in the Jesuit College, Madrid, and theology in Milltown Park, Dublin. He was ordained a priest on 23 June 1972.
Harnett studied as a drugs counsellor in Washington, DC, in 1972 and worked for the Dublin diocese as a drugs advisor until 1974. He was then appointed parish priest in the inner-city Jesuit parish of Gardiner Street where, for six years, he coordinated a major community development programme. From 1980 to 1983 he worked in the central administration of the Irish Jesuits before being appointed to the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. During this time he lived in the socially deprived neighbourhood of Ballymun and sought to raise awareness of the structural injustices in Irish society; he also lectured and gave many workshops on this theme. He worked closely with residents in Ballymun to support their struggle to improve the quality of life in their neighbourhood.
In 1986 Harnett was appointed provincial of the Irish Jesuits. In this post he led the Jesuits through a period of rapid change in Irish society and the Irish church, and his leadership skills became very evident. Although he had to make difficult, and sometimes unpopular, decisions to respond to the changing circumstances, he retained the respect of those whom he led. He encouraged and supported the Irish Jesuits in their commitment to social justice, which he saw as a central thrust of their mission. In 1993 he was appointed to the newly created post of president of the Conference of European Jesuit Provincials, which reflected the high esteem in which he was held, and moved to Strasbourg. Three years later he was diagnosed with cancer, and despite a course of immuno-therapy in Strasbourg he became progressively weaker. He returned to Dublin, where he died 20 December 1996.
Irish Province Jesuit Archives; personal knowledge
Interfuse No 92 : August 1996
Fr Philip Harnett (1943-1996)
6th Jan. 1943: Born in Dublin
Early education: Pembroke School, Ballsbridge and Belvedere College
10th Oct. 1961: Entered the Society at Emo
11th Oct. 1963: First Vows at Emo
1963 - 1965: Rathfarnham, Arts at UCD
1965 - 1967: Madrid, studying Philosophy
1967 - 1969: Crescent College Comprehensive, Teaching
1969 - 1972: Milltown Park, studying Theology
23rd June 1972: Ordained Priest at Milltown Park
1972 - 1973: Washington, Diploma in Drugs Abuse Training
1973 - 1974: Gardiner St - work for Archbishop on Drugs SFX
1974 - 77: Gardiner Street, Parish Priest
1977 - 1978: Tullabeg, Tertianship
1978 - 1980: SFX Gardiner St - Parish Priest
1980 - 1983: Loyola House - Special Secretariat
1983 - 1986: Arrupe, Ballymun Superior - work at CFJ
1986 - 1992: Loyola House, Provincial
1992 - 1993: Sabbatical
1993 - 1996 Brussels/Strasbourg: President of Conference of European Provincials
Philip was feeling a lack of energy after Christmas 1995. His doctors diagnosed cancer and this necessitated the removal of a kidney. Under medical supervision, he initially returned to work in Strasbourg but his doctors eventually prescribed a course in immuno-therapy that lasted several months during which time Philip was unable to work. On completion of the therapy he returned to Dublin to stay with his sister Anne for some weeks. After a fall, he was admitted to St. Vincent's Hospital and then to Cherryfield Lodge. He made very determined efforts to regain his health and members of the province prayed for him through the intercession of Fr. John Sullivan. Gradually, however, he became weaker and was more and more confined to bed. He died at 3am on Friday 20th December 1996.
Homily for Philip Harnett's funeral Mass, December 23rd, 1996
Can't you imagine Philip Harnett as Jesus asks him does he love him more than these others, and then asks him for a second and third time does he really love him? What I imagine is that Philip would be wondering what kind of manipulation and emotional blackmail all this was! I think he'd probably call for some kind of small group session in Ignatius' court of heaven, perhaps with himself, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, to facilitate the Lord's apparent insecurity!
In this, the end of John's gospel, we have played out before us the last act of the drama, which began with the invitation to the disciples in the first chapter of John to "come and see". This last act for Philip wasn't as he had either anticipated or wanted: somebody else was putting a belt around him and taking him where he would rather not go. This last journey and meeting with Jesus began last January with news of his serious illness, and intensified in September when he returned to Ireland and it became clear that his illness according to conventional medicine was terminal. It was mostly a journey through his memory, his mind and his heart. Philip the mountain climber, the hill walker, the marathon runner, that vibrant and handsome physical presence, went on this most important of all his journeys with disintegrating body, struggling for breath, but with spirit undiminished and even expanding, as he yearned for life and yearned to understand better the meaning of his and our lives.
What did he find out? Well: that, as always, he was held by the hand of Jesus. That was core and central: beneath all his banter and mockery, it was always clear that for Philip his relationship with Jesus Christ was the bedrock of his life, I heard him once as Provincial articulate this in an impassioned and unguarded way, confirming what I had always suspected was true. This came out so strongly in these last few months: if Jesus was leading him, even where he would himself not want to go, then it was alright. He might argue, protest, even rant and rave, but in the end, warts and all, it was alright. And this is what happened: Philip was able to say “I'm happy”, even as he continued to desire life and felt it ebbing out of him: all will be well, all manner of things will be well, because Jesus Christ, his life-time companion, was with him.
What he found out also was that as he got closer to Jesus and the next life, he got closer to his family, his friends, to his life. He pondered long the influence of his deceased mother and father, his relationship with his brothers and sisters, John, Anne, Catherine, Patrick and Mary, his extended family of in-laws, nephews, nieces and aunts. It was such a great joy to him to be able, after a characteristically honest, searching, and healing look-back, to embrace this network of relationships with heightened appreciation. I know, because he told me and others more than once, how deeply touched he was in particular by the palpable love he felt from his immediate family: he relished the directness of their affection, he was so pleased that it could be expressed so openly, and he wanted so much for them to understand how much they meant to him. Of course he was still capable of saying "God bless" if there was even a hint of mawkishness or false sentimentality in any of this: but he did, more than ever before, want to own and relax into the love he felt for an received from others. And he did so that last journey was simplifying and purifying in a way that surprised and made him very happy - through his prayer, his pondering and sifting, his talking it over with others in a characteristically open way, he found that in coming closer to Jesus Christ he became closer to the rest of us. As his body contracted, his heart expanded.
This applied also of course to his relationship with his friends - with Bernadette in Australia (whose brother Joseph is, I'm glad to say, with us this morning), Catherine in France, with his many friends, Jesuit and lay, from Ireland and different parts of the world, many of whom are here today. He was inclined in fact to dwell less on his achievements, and more on the people who had enriched his life: this was a bit different for a Jesuit, as he well realised! He appreciated so much the care he received in Strasbourg, in Elm Park, above al in Cherryfield. This included those who so generously offered him the help of various alternative medicines, as with typical whole heartedness he embraced every way to continue with life which he had such a huge desire for. And he was so pleased too that the Jesuit Province was praying through John Sullivan's intercession for a miracle cure: I think there may have to be another small group meeting in heaven, involving Philip. John Sullivan and a facilitator to sort out what exactly John Sullivan thought he was at, before the two of them can be the good pals Paul Cullen was talking about last Saturday!
But this was something that Philip also found out: that God, the Father, was not aloof, distant, judgmental, and to be feared. Rather, he marvelled to discover the infinite, inexhaustible patience of God, so open to taking all the anger, the fear, the rage that someone in Philip's terrible predicament felt, and yet there for Philip, as Jesus was. That again was wonderful: this after all is the God of life, and Philip again was reassured that against all the odds God, who is Father and Mother, was there for him, no matter what.
I have spoken of Philip through what I know of his own eyes. The reading from the Romans, with talk of the groaning of creation, gives us an opportunity to assess Philip through our own eyes, because this is also part of the truth of who it is. Creation groans because God's kingdom is being established against great opposition, and Philip had dedicated his life to this Kingdom. What are the kind of qualities which made his contribution so important, particularly in his life as priest in Gardiner Street, Special Secretariat in Loyola, work in Ballymun and the Centre for Faith and Justice, as Provincial and then as President of the Conference of European Provincials?
Well: I think his leadership qualities were remarkable. I remember joking with him that as a leader of the pack on our rugby team he was remarkable for the fact that he could roar at the rest of us to get up first to the break-down point, while arriving himself half a yard behind everyone else to the next line-out! There was something here that was truly great: the ability to motivate others, to inspire, to empower, to make others believe in themselves, not to feel that he could or had to do everything himself. Some of this of course came from his great sense of vision: in many ways for us Irish Jesuits he personified what it was to be a Jesuit after our 32nd General Congregation in the 1970's, with our mission defined in terms of faith and justice, Some of it too came from his skill in management and group work - think of all those meetings, and he was still conducting them from his sick-bed! There was too his creativity: he displayed this perhaps to greatest effect in the last job he had in Europe, where he really was trying to get something very embryonic going in difficult circumstances and in a way which won the respect of all. He had a sharp mind, a shrewd intelligence, an original and critical reading of the world and the signs of the times. Allied to all this was his ability to challenge, in a way which brought the best out of others. As you heard at the start of the Mass, Fr. General himself obviously appreciated this quality in Philip, which leads me to believe that in their relationship of great mutual respect and not a little affection, there may also have been that Harnett push for the magis, the 110%, felt by Fr. General! And of course there was his terrific humanity, his openness in dialogue, his ability to respect the institution but never let this suppress the Spirit-led unorthodoxies in himself or others, his utterly irreverent wit. Very interesting, he would say, when bored stiff; the pious put-down, God bless; the hilarious, Inspector Clousseau grappling with French vowels, particularly of the eu variety, with corresponding facial grimaces.
The stories are legion, and most of them unrepeatable. An edited, maybe apochryphal one will have to act as catalyst for your own favourites: it tells of Philip, as Provincial, being driven in the back of a car up the Milltown drive to preside at an important Province meeting. On the way he passes a group of the younger men, and in self-mocking style waves to them airily, in truly regal and almost pontifical style. Then, as the car passes, they see the same Philip gesticulating at them wildly like a school-boy from the back window of the car. He could not be pompous: sacred cows were there to be slaughtered, the unsayable was suddenly sayable, and none of it was cruel because it was rooted in the ability to be contrite and laugh at himself ( I feel so guilty!) and to be deeply serious when it mattered. He made doing what was good seem adventurous, attractive - and just plain fun! Through all of this he achieved so much, and we may rightly assess this as of more significance than he himself was inclined to do in his illness. You will all have your own list of these achievements: I mention the Signs of the Times Seminar, the development of the Milltown Institute and the Irish School of Ecumenics, as examples of how to my certain first-hand knowledge his leadership has touched the lives of so many.
He was, then, a giant of a man and will be sorely missed. He meant so much to so many. We who are left behind, his family, his friends and colleagues, his brother Jesuits, have a right to ask why? Why now? A right to grieve, to be sorry, to be angry. In doing so we will be helped by the Spirit referred to in the reading from Romans, who helps us in our weakness. We will be helped too by the spirit of Philip, who trusted in God and Jesus, who would understand that we needed to grieve and be angry, but who might say to us in the future, when we might be tempted to use our grief in a maudlin way to block our own lives - well, he might say a gentle, God bless, and help us realise that his God is the God of life, and it is even deeper life that he now enjoys.
This is what the reading from Isaiah suggests I think - more mountains, food and drink, the heavenly banquet - all in continuity with this life. This is another of Philip's great gifts to us: dying, with all its terrible rupture and loss, is for the person of faith a passing to new life. Philip lived this rupture and this hope in an extraordinarily wholistic way. He told me early on that he did not want to die well", in the sense of whatever conventional expectations might be there: he laughed often, even through those last few months, and when he got angry, he would say, in aside, Kubla-Ross/stages of dying! He wondered too what would happen if there was a miracle: would he become a bit of an exhibit, like Lazarus, and would he be asked to go to Rome as part of the evidence for the cause of John Sullivan?! This apparent gallows humour was in fact more of what I have already alluded to: he loved life, he loved Jesus who was utterly incarnate, of flesh, for Philip: and if he trusted Jesus and God to bring him through death to new life, then this new life was in continuity with all the fun, the love, the mountains, the food and drink of this life. This was not a denial of death: rather it was a hymn to life, the ultimate compliment to and praise of the God of life. A 10th Century Celtic poem captures some of this sentiment:
The heavenly banquet
I would like to have the men of Heaven
In my own house:
With vats of good cheer
Laid out for them.
I would like to have the three Marys,
Their fame is so great.
I would like people
From every corner of Heaven
I would like them to be cheerful
In their drinking,
I would like to have Jesus too
Here amongst them.
I would like a great lake of beer
For the King of Kings,
I would like to be watching Heaven's family
Drinking it through all eternity,
This symbolic picture of the heavenly banquet, so true for example to the great satisfaction experienced by Philip in his two trips to pubs for a drink with his brother John in the weeks before he died, is part of Philip's gift to us as he parts. It tells us to treasure life to the full; to seek its meaning in responsible love and in Jesus Christ; to hope with great realism and joy for a reunion of all creation at God's heavenly banquet. In his last few days when Philip, master of meetings, wanted a bit of time on his own he used to say, courteously, humorously: the meeting is over, you may go now! The meeting is indeed over now, Philip: and although it breaks our hearts, you may go: and we thank you and God for all you have meant to us, and for the hope that we may continue to make this world a better place and may enjoy life to the full with you in the future.
Peter Sexton, SJ
When Philip Harnett became Provincial of the Society of Jesus in Ireland, he automatically assumed a number of responsibilities relating to the Irish School of Ecumenics. Firstly he became the Roman Catholic Patron, secondly he became Trustee, and lastly he assumed the Presidency of the Academic Council. In this last role he quickly became aware much more fully of the work of ISE - its degree/diploma programmes in Dublin, its adult education courses on reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the research and outreach efforts of the academic staff. Already in ISE there was a growing realisation that the Irish Churches should take a more positive interest in ISE and Philip saw and endorsed this aim. He also learned of the precarious financial position of ISE and he realised the need for change and development in the school's administration. As time passed the Provincial felt a growing need to take a more constructively active role to help ISE - discerning that those who were running ISE - Executive Board and Director - were too close to the action and too fully involved to stand back and be objective. With the agreement therefore of those in ISE, of the other Patrons and the Trustees, Philip invited (to use a politically correct term which probably understates the nature of the 'invitation') two business men whom he could rely on to act as consultants to the Patrons and to draw up a report on ISE.
That report, when in due time it was presented to the Patrons, was comprehensive and in some areas radical. Its recommendations were accepted by the Patrons who left it to Philip to set up a 'task force' to work with ISE in implementing the recommendations.
This process has resulted in long term advantages and reforms, the outworking of some of these is still in progress. It developed a new relationship for ISE with the Irish churches. The Archbishop of Dublin (Roman Catholic) together with a nominee for the Episcopal Conference have become Patrons (in the place of the Jesuit provincial who remains President of the Academic Council and one of the Trustees together with the Patrons from the other larger churches in Ireland, Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian. Equally significantly the churches committed themselves to a programme of financial grants to ISE. This opened up the way for ISE to establish an Endowment Fund and to approach the corporate business sector for significant donations,
The Executive Board of ISE was given much greater responsibility and authority, making it possible for the Academic Council to concentrate on broad policy and the maintenance of Academic standards and research. These changes have been fundamental to the most recent development - albeit one not foreseen in the Consultants' report - that of grant-aid for ISE from the Minister for Education.
Throughout this whole process Philip Harnett retained his interest in and enthusiasm for ISE and for the aims and principles of the school, He gave constant personal support to those of us involved within ISE, and his quiet encouragement and guidance were always available and freely given. His commitment to ecumencial co-operation was a practical and constructive involvement and his actions stemmed from genuine concern and spiritual motivation. He saw ecumenical action and co-operation as a natural part of his Christian life and witness, and he put this vision to good effect in relation to ISE.
Over the time span of history many people have contributed to the formation of ISE's structures, visions and programmes. The recent development of the School is no exception and while successive provincials and directors have made their contributions, it fell to Philip to be the School's Jesuit patron at a critical phase. Philip Harnett had the vision - a vision that combined ideas and imagination with gentleness and compassion, allied to an administrative experience and skill. These attributes enabled Philip to help the school, grown too large for its original “family structure, to develop into a well administered institution. His was a contribution that came at the right time and was made in the right way.
David Poole who is a member of the religious Society of Friends, was Chair of ISE's Executive Board from 1987 to 1996.
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Harnett, Philip, 1943-1996, Jesuit priest
Dates of relationship
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Place access points
- County Dublin » Dublin City
- County Laois (Queen's) » Emo » St Mary's (Emo)
- County Dublin » Dublin City » Eglinton Road » Loyola House (Eglinton Road)
- County Dublin » Dublin City » Milltown » Cherryfield Lodge
- Spain » Alcalá de Henares
- Belgium » Brussels
- France » Grand-Est » Strasbourg
- United States of America » Washington D. C.
- County Dublin » Dublin City » Great Denmark Street » Belvedere College SJ
- County Dublin » Dublin City » St Stephen's Green (Dublin) » University College, Dublin
- County Dublin » Dublin City » Upper Gardiner Street » St Francis Xavier's Church (Roman Catholic)
- County Dublin » Dublin City » Upper Sherrard Street » Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice
- County Dublin » Dublin City » Ballymun » Shangan Road » Catholic Church of the Virgin Mary
- Spain » Madrid » Calle de Alberto Aguilera » Comillas Pontifical University
- County Dublin » Dublin City » Sandford Road » Milltown Park
- County Dublin » Dublin City » Baggot Street Upper » Pembroke School
- County Dublin » Dublin City » Rathfarnham » Rathfarnham Castle
- County Limerick » Limerick City » The Crescent » Sacred Heart College SJ, 1859-1974
- County Offaly (King's) » Ballycowan (Bar.) » Tullabeg » St Stanislaus College
- County Dublin » Dublin City » Ballymun » McDonagh Tower » Arrupe Community
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