Belfast Telegraph

Paul Harman: My mother died very suddenly when I was 13... I struggled to understand why God allowed that to happen'

In our continuing series, we talk to leading figures about their faith

Business leader: Paul Harman
Business leader: Paul Harman
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

Paul Harman is programme director for the Timoney Leadership Institute, which holds courses for senior managers in many venues, including sites in Belfast. He is also a member of Opus Dei.

Q. Can you explain what Opus Dei is?

A. It is part of the Catholic Church. The name is Latin for 'work of God'. Its mission is to spread the Christian message that every person is called to holiness and that all honest work can be made holy.

Q. Can you tell us something about yourself?

A. I am aged 71 and unmarried. A mechanical engineer by training, I worked in production engineering, production management and general management, both in Ireland and abroad. In 2012, with five others from Ireland, north and south, I set up the Timoney Leadership Institute, which runs a six-month programme for senior businesspeople with professors from Harvard, the IESE Business School in Barcelona and other international business schools.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. I grew up in the Catholic faith, nourished at home by my father, Jim, a civil servant, my mother, Peggy, and my stepmother, Christina, and in primary and secondary school by the Irish Christian Brothers. I am sure that the foundation for the various projects I have been involved in, relating to helping businesspeople, journalists and film-makers deal with the challenges of professional integrity and ethics, came very clearly from my upbringing.

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While at university, a school friend introduced me to Opus Dei. This was a eureka moment for me. Its central message - that work well done can be converted into prayer - was complete news to me. It occurred to me that it would be strange if God expected us to strive to get to Heaven but that the 40 or 50 hours a week we spend at work had no part in this. I have tried to pass this approach on to others in any way I can, often finding that members of the Anglican or Methodist communion understand this more easily.

Q. Does this faith play a real part in your daily life, or is it just for Sundays?

A. My faith certainly plays a real part in my daily life, which I see as an opportunity to develop a deeper personal relationship with Christ through the cut and thrust of everyday activities. I learned early on that access to a mentor or guide on ethics in business is worth its weight in gold. A guiding light for me has been St John Paul II's text that "the purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons, who, in various ways, are endeavouring to satisfy their basic needs and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society".

Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith or a gnawing doubt about your faith? Have you ever been angry with God? If so, why?

A. I see God very much as the Father and believe he had a personal plan for me from the beginning. There was certainly a period in life when my faith was not strong, but it was never a crisis, nor were there serious doubts.

My mother died very suddenly when I was 13, the eldest in a family of five. I struggled to understand why God allowed that to happen.

However, I gradually came to understand that, when such a tragedy occurs, God continues to look after us.

In our case, it was shown in the gift of a wonderful stepmother, who played an extraordinary role in our lives.

Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church or denomination?

A. As a Catholic, I am much troubled by the terrible suffering of so many young people due to sexual abuse by priests and others. This evil has had an enormous impact on their lives. I was much encouraged by the public letter Pope Francis wrote on the matter just a year ago and hope and pray that we somehow see an end to this terrible scourge.

I was encouraged to learn recently, from a director of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church, that the policies now in place in Ireland are seen as among the best globally.

Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith, and are you able to live with that criticism?

A. Being a person of faith today is often counter-cultural and does, at times, lead to criticism. But, interestingly enough, such criticism may often give way to dialogue and to genuine probing questions about faith and values. I'm sure this was often the case over the centuries.

Q. Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond death?

A. I'm not afraid of death, but I am certainly not wishing for it either. For me this life is a preparation for the next, which will last for ever.

Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and faiths? Would you be comfortable with stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from other people?

A. Many of my friends are not Catholics and I admire their sincerity and the way they take their faith seriously and let it play an important role in their everyday lives.

I have learned a lot from them, particularly the way some of them in Northern Ireland took a strong stand on issues that they believed in deeply.

Q. Do you think the Churches here are fulfilling their mission? Why are many people turning their backs on organised religion?

A. One of the biggest challenges facing churches today is how to connect and engage with young people. Churches are working hard on this, but it is not easy. Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2010) are digital natives who thrive on social networks. Whenever they engage, they like to be personally welcomed and understood. They also want to be with their peers, which poses a problem when it comes to church attendance.

However, many are very keen on ethics and values and this can provide a route for engagement, which I have found out through the programmes and conferences on ethical leadership which I organise.

While working in the textile business in northern Italy, I got to know many young people who were involved in the local Oratorio, following the model set up by St John Bosco. Spread throughout the country and linked with the parish, what impressed me was how that model helped these people in their teens and twenties become engaged in faith formation and in projects to help those in need.

I'm sure there are plenty of other successful models out there.

Q. What is your favourite book, film and music, and why?

A. I'm a big Dickens fan, especially the way we learn things about ourselves. I've just finished Robert Harris' Dictator, about the last 15 years of Cicero's life at the end of the Roman republic and his struggles with Caesar, Pompey and Mark Anthony. Many statesmen then were lacking in the important virtues of magnanimity and prudence, rather like today.

The film 12 Angry Men is amazing, with wonderful actors, all shot in one room. We use it on leadership seminars in relation to effective communication and team-building.

My time working in northern Italy had a big influence on my life. Laura Pausini was my favourite musician and she continues to be so today. She has a beautiful song about friendship, Un Amico e Cosi (A Friend Like This).

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. I feel most close to God in front of the tabernacle in a church. But, as someone who is keen on mountain climbing, I always find that the wonderful panoramas to be seen from the top bring me close to God and remind me to thank him for making the world as beautiful as it is.

Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A. Thank you, God, for being so patient with me.

Q. Have you any major regrets?

A. One major regret is that I did not thank my mother and father for all they did for me. Both died suddenly of heart attacks, but I had plenty of opportunities (to thank them) before then.

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