For three generations, he has been a friend, mentor, teacher, disciplinarian, father figure, confessor (literally!), role model, wise counsel, good example, and Catholic priest — ministering to Richmond’s young men and their families at Benedictine High School, now Benedictine College Preparatory.
Father Adrian Harmening, O.S.B. (Order of St. Benedict), came as a newly minted priest in 1955, assigned for one year to serve as disciplinarian. He never left. More than 63 years later, his ministry has reached and helped thousands of young men, their families, and parishioners. And it continues today.
Scratch a Benedictine Cadet, and he will bleed green and fondly mention Father Adrian.
To those legions of former students — his family, as he sees them — he’s a rock star. Everywhere he goes — ball games, alumni events, weddings, funerals, after Mass, anywhere around town — his former students want to see him, be near him, hear his voice, and know that he remembers them.
After a cataclysmic fire at Benedictine, when the school was faced with the major expense of rebuilding, he was on a team to raise the needed funds. Not one for the hard sell, the direct request was left to others. But his mere presence in small meetings with former students, parents, and parishioners was enough to open their hearts, minds, and checkbooks. Benedictine rebuilt.
Father Adrian’s career goal was simple: “When I first came here, as a teacher and a priest, my whole thing was to make saints of whoever I taught. I was serious about that then, and I still am serious now. That’s the only goal that we priests should have. That was my whole theme, and I hope I have accomplished it.”
He chuckles, remembering all those classes of Benedictine Cadets. “ I can’t say they are all saints, but I’m sure some of them are, or will be.”
His road to Benedictine was hard: The youngest of four children, he never knew his father, who died when he was 10 months old. His mother never remarried and moved the family to Pennsylvania to be near relatives. William (he was given the name Adrian when he became a priest), along with his two older brothers, one older sister, and his mother, grew up in poverty in the Pittsburgh diocese.
“We all turned out pretty good,” he says, giving all the credit to his mother and the Benedictine nuns who ran the local Catholic school. They accepted him as a student early, at age 4, when his grandmother, the caregiver for the children, died. Mothers still greatly inspire him.
“If you don’t have a mother in your family, you don’t have a family. I’ll maintain that until the day I die. Because I know what my mother struggled with.”
The religious calling came early. “When I was about 8 years old, I wanted to be an altar boy and a choir boy.” A scoutmaster became his father figure and role model. Again, early experiences formed a lasting mold. He’s been an adult leader of the local scout council for 28 years.
As a priest, teacher, and principal at Benedictine for 24 years, he has seen and endured a lot, navigated through many academic ups and downs, the fire and the rebuilding, the controversial move from an urban setting on Sheppard Street in Richmond’s Museum District to rural Goochland. Always, he says, he’s had an internal guidance system. Not a GPS, but what he calls a GOS, his guiding star: God first, Others second, Self third.
Fr. Adrian is very aware of the current and past pedophilia crimes of some clergy and their victims. He’s philosophical and doesn’t shy away from or offer excuses for their misdeeds.
“God permits evil in the world,” he says, “in order to bring good. Only He can bring good from evil.” Now, though, he says, it is time for action. “We’ve got to stand up. We people who are on God’s side, we have to be the strong arm in the church, especially the laity.”
To Catholics — those still in the pews on Sunday, those seriously questioning their faith, and those who have departed the church in disgust and anger — he pleads, “Don’t throw in the towel. The church needs you now more than ever. The priests and the laity need to work together in this time of crisis. It’s prayer and actions that will repair the church. Go back to the words of Christ, who said ‘Come to me who are weary and I will refresh you.’ It’s in His hands.”
To those abused by the clergy, he joins the church in offering prayer. “We pray for the victims every day. That’s the constant theme.”
Who does this? Who lives such a life, dedicated to God and others, quietly serving without seeking reward or recognition? Actually living the Bible passage “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Father Adrian certainly does, along with many others — more than you might think. Leaders and followers of many faiths and traditions, some formally ordained, many not. Hospital volunteers, lay ministers, soup kitchen cooks and cleaners. Firefighters who run into burning buildings. Police officers. Emergency medical technicians. People who check on lonely neighbors, sing to patients in nursing homes, read to the young, run clothing drives.
There’s a lot of good in the world. And amid the constant drumbeat of problems, crises, scandals, and troubles, it’s easy to forget the many good works and good people here, among us every day. We are all beneficiaries.
Nowadays, especially in these dark days for Catholics, it helps to remember that there are many saints living among us.
August Wallmeyer is a semi-retired lobbyist and author of “The Extremes of Virginia; Two Separated and Unequal Commonwealths.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.