An eye on public service helps lead Fr. Harris to his vocation
Fr. Raymond Harris, the third parish priest of African-American descent to be ordained in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, was an ambitious youngster who thought a lot about the future.
As a sixth-grader, he first thought he would be a teacher. No, he’d become a television news anchor. No, that wasn’t it either; he’d practice law, or even run for political office.Those around him, however, had other ideas. Harris and his family attended St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish, which was at the time run by the Passionist order. Harris had also considered the priesthood as a sixth grader, and fellow Catholics—parishioners, as well as Fr. Michael Green, C.P. and Fr. Gregory Paul, C.P.—encouraged Harris, an altar server, to consider a priestly vocation.
It was something he’d consider, but only for the right reasons.
“Initially it wasn’t in my sights,” Fr. Harris said. “I had to make sure that while there was a need in the archdiocese for black parish priests, it should be a need that’s filled by somebody who’s actually called by God to be a priest.”
Fr. Harris went to public school until ninth grade, when he attended the Gilman School. The whole time, he was split between two paths—public servant or priest. It led to a unique college admissions essay.
“I wrote that I would use college to discern whether God was calling me to the priesthood or to public service,” Fr. Harris said. “Part of me thought, ‘Well, that’s a new angle to put in an essay. I’ll stand out!’ But that was truly what I was thinking about.”
He had help in his discernment. Fr. Harris was admitted the Archdiocese of Baltimore College Candidate Program for young men. Like the seminary application process, he had to submit an application to the Archdiocese, do psychological testing, be interviewed by the archdiocesan screening committee and be accepted by the Archbishop. Unlike a full-time seminarian, a candidate in the program may attend the college of his choice. Harris chose Princeton University—the school that offered him the best financial-aid package—and was active with a mentor. He took some of the requisite classes for seminary and attended two retreats per year, but he continued to split the focus of his discernment between the priesthood and public service.
At Princeton, Harris grew in faith, attending daily Mass and participating with The Aquinas Institute, the school’s campus ministry. He began working on a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religion and was getting closer and closer to discerning a priestly vocation, but he still remained open to a career in law.
“On the summer before my junior year,” Fr. Harris said, “I asked Stuart Simms, the State’s Attorney for Baltimore at the time, ‘Can I still go to law school with a religion degree?’”
He could, but the combination of plenty of prayer, daily Mass, and encouragement from the parishioners back home was enough to bring Harris to Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, to formally begin his formation.
A pastoral year at St. William of York Parish in 1991—where Fr. Harris currently serves as Associate Pastor—was enough to confirm to Harris that he was being called to pursue the priesthood. At St. William of York, Harris served his pastoral year under Fr. Art Valenzano.
“My pastoral year was a reaffirmation that, yes, this is what God is calling me to do,” Harris said. “I spent my last two years of seminary formation at then-All Saints Parish in Baltimore City, with Father Donald Sterling, who in 1974 became the first black archdiocesan priest to be ordained for Baltimore. These years also affirmed my calling to the priesthood. Thankfully the Church confirmed that.”
Fr. Harris was ordained in 1994. He serves as Assistant Vocations Director in the Archdiocese, and in 2007, he ended up studying law after all. He was assigned by William Cardinal Keeler, then Archbishop of Baltimore, to study Canon Law. He serves part time as Advocate on the Marriage Tribunal.
“The law isn’t just dry words,” Fr. Harris said. “It speaks of the values we uphold, and relationships we uphold, first with the Lord, and through the Lord as members of the Church, with our distinct vocations.”