KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The bishop who celebrated the funeral of Father Evan Harkins remembered the priest as a kind man who loved the priesthood and the Church. The bishop said that Father Harkins, who committed suicide last month, did not suffer from depression, and that the side-effects of a prescribed medication may have contributed to the priest’s death.
“At the outset, I want to express our sorrows and our pledge of love and prayer for you, Fr. Evan’s family,” Bishop James Vann Johnston said in his homily at the Feb. 1 funeral.
“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 Fr. Evan was rooted in your family life his entire life.”
Father Harkins, 34, died by suicide on Jan. 28. His funeral was celebrated at St. Therese North Catholic Church in Parkville, Missouri.
His bishop, Bishop Vann Johnston of Kansas City-St. Joseph, was the principal celebrant and homilist.
Father Harkins’ death shocked the parishioners at St. James Catholic Church in St. Joseph, MO. Harkins had been the pastor of that parish since 2012, and his death was discovered when he did not arrive for daily Mass.
Since his death, parishioners and friends have asked what factors could have contributed to the priest’s decision to end his life.
Bishop Johnston addressed these rumors in his homily.
“Fr. Evan Harkins was consistent as a joyful, faith-filled, hopeful, dedicated priest. He never experienced depression or despair,” Bishop Johnston said.
Father Harkins “walked on the ‘sunny side’ of life,” the bishop added.
Acknowledging that the full cause of the priest’s suicide may not be known “this side of heaven,” Bishop Johnston, with the permission of Harkins’ family, explained to those at the funeral that the priest had recently been taking a medication with side-effects that likely contributed to his suicide.
In the last month of his life, Bishop Johnston said, Father Harkins “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.”
The inability to eat was coupled with “extreme anxiety,” and Father Harkins was unable to tell if this was a cause or effect of his stomach issues, the bishop said.
“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,” Bishop Johnston explained.
The bishop said, considering these factors, that he does not believe that Harkins “was in possession of a sound mind when he died earlier this week.”
The priest’s parents and friends also noticed in the month preceding his death that things were “not right,’ and that “something was seriously wrong,” the bishop added.
The Catholic Church teaches that “voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to moral law,” but “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.”
“We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives,” the Catechism adds.
Bishop Johnston spoke of this mercy in his remembrance of Harkins.
“Our hope for Fr. 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 Fr. Harkins’ spiritual life,” Bishop Johnston said.
“And so we can all say with confidence, ‘Jesus, I trust in You’ and command Fr. Evan to the merciful embrace of Christ.”