Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., R.I.P.
Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., a Jesuit priest, professor of New Testament at Boston College (and the Weston Jesuit School of Theology), longtime editor of New Testament Abstracts, former columnist for "The Word," America's Scripture column, and one of the world's leading New Testament scholars, died yesterday at the Jesuit infirmary of the New England Province of the Society of Jesus, in Weston, Mass. I believe him to have been a saint.
Here is a tribute I wrote for him on the occasion of a celebration of his life at Boston College's School of Theology and Ministry in the fall. All of us were so happy that Dan was there to witness our affection and gratitude. May he rest in peace with the Lord he loved so much.
James Martin, S.J.
. . . . .
Speaking the Word of God
A Tribute to Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.
I don’t think I can properly thank Dan Harrington for all he has done for me, for my brother Jesuits, for all of his students, for Catholic scholars, and for Christians around the world—not to mention all the people who have ever heard him preach at Mass. Father Harrington has taught Jesus in his classes, in his books and, most of all, with his life. He is one of the finest Jesuits, finest priests, and finest people, I’ve ever known.
I cannot properly thank him, but I can tell you something about what Dan has meant to me, and what he has done for just one individual. Any of his students, Jesuit brothers and academic colleagues could tell similar stories.
When I started out as a student at Weston Jesuit School of Theology, I was told by many Jesuits that I should take as many courses with Dan Harrington as I could. “Even when,” said one friend, and I remember this well, “you’re not interested in the topic at all. If Dan is teaching a class in how to change a tire, take it!”
So the first time it was offered at Weston, I signed up for Dan’s “Introduction to the New Testament,” NT 101, along with what seemed like half of Weston’s student body and half the students at Harvard Divinity School. It’s not a stretch to say that his course changed my life. I had never really studied the New Testament before, and neither had some of my classmates, and blessed were we that our first exposure to studying the Gospels was through the eyes of someone who so loved them and knew them, and who so loved Jesus and knew Jesus.
Today I feel like I see the Gospels through Dan’s eyes. That may sound odd, but what I mean is that I see the Gospels with both the eyes of faith and a critical mind. Dan’s approach was sensible, moderate, scholarly, curious, just, balanced, cautious, generous but, above all, faithful.
Stories about Dan’s legendary prowess in the classroom are well known. You could probably tell them yourselves. He often taught in threes, so I’ll give you three things I most remember.
One: Dan was always was clear—which was an immense asset to his students. During a course in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he once summarized the theology of that entire text as follows: “Freed from sin, death and the Law, freed for life in the Spirit.” Perfect. Those kinds of clear, simple, direct statements, backed up by vast learning, are incredibly helpful to students and, as such, are often indelible. Clarity is an underappreciated virtue in the academy. It’s a gift to students.
Two: Dan was exceedingly patient. Despite his erudition, there was never any question that was too basic or too elementary. He answered all of them thoughtfully, generously and of course accurately, which meant that everyone felt respected and valued—another gift.
And no question was too far out. Dan was exceedingly patient even with students who occasionally seemed intent on trying to impress him, or, just as often, the rest of the class. One day in NT 101 a student stood up and said, “Father Harrington, considering what the Gospels tell us about Jesus’s prayer, and about his identity as the fully human Son of God, and in light of how Christian theology understands his relationship to the Father, and also of how human consciousness cooperated with what one might term divine foreknowledge, what was going on in Jesus’ mind at this point in the Gospels?” And Dan said, politely, “Well, we have no idea.”
And there was no question too obscure. In his class on Romans, a student asked whether Paul’s image of a branch grafted onto the olive bush was inaccurate—in real life, she said, you can’t really graft it like that. Apparently, we had an expert in horticulture in the class. So Dan said, “Does anyone have this and such reference book with them today?” Someone did, and Dan said something like, “Flip open to the chapter on Romans 11, you’ll find a very interesting footnote on that.” So the fellow who had the book, flipped through it, as we all waited and said, exultantly, “Here it is! He’s right!”
Dan is part of a generation of Jesuits whose time is passing, and I say that less in a melancholy sense than in a grateful one. Entering the Jesuits at age 18 meant that Dan had a great deal of time as a young adult to study languages and texts and traditions, to a depth and degree that Jesuits who enter later in life, as men do these days, simply do not. In an oral history done for the New England Province this year, Dan recounted reading St. John’s Gospel in Greek, as part of a class in his Jesuit novitiate: “Wow,” Dan said, “What a great experience! There was no going back.” For the next several years, in the Jesuit formation course, as well as at Harvard, and in Jerusalem, Dan studied with the very best scholars. So behind Dan’s clear and direct statements which he made easy for us to grasp, was decades of learning.
In a sense, it was like Jesus’s use of the parables—communicating complicated truths to us in simple ways, in ways that we could understand. As with Jesus’s parables, this was a great act of charity and love.
I was, in fact, so moved by his classes that I started to think that maybe I’d like to do further studies in the NT. What could be better? Maybe I could do an S.T.L. or even a Ph.D.
But the third attribute is, to me, is the greatest mark of his love of the Gospels. That is, three: Dan is a kind person. That’s what I most admire about him. I think Dan is one of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met.
About a year into my time at Weston, I developed something called carpal tunnel syndrome. It was very painful and, at the time, I could barely use my hands. I couldn’t even hold a pen properly. Funny enough, I was in the middle of Dan’s course “Suffering and Salvation.” A Jesuit friend of mine said, “You should get extra credit.”
As a result, in the middle of my M.Div. studies, I found I couldn’t write, I couldn’t type, and, worst of all, I couldn’t figure out what to do. I briefly thought of asking my Jesuit provincial to let me take a leave from studies. So much for an S.T.L. or a Ph.D. in New Testament.
When I was nearly at the end of my rope, my faculty adviser said the only thing to do was to ask to take the tests orally, and finishing my papers orally, which I saw as a huge embarrassment, but which my friends urged me to request. The first teacher I went to was Dan. I remember being extremely embarrassed, and even ashamed, and hemming and hawing and telling this scholar who wrote so many books, and who worked so hard, how I couldn’t type. And I asked him, “How would you feel if instead of writing papers, I came in and delivered them orally.”
And he said, “That would be fine, Jim.”
Then he added, “But I’ll really miss reading your papers.”
It was the kindest thing anyone could say. Dan wasn’t going to learn anything at all from my papers—nothing! But it was so generous and thoughtful and Christian. I’ve never forgotten that.
Later on, after my ordination, when it came to understanding the Gospels—whether in preaching and in praying or writing—I used all the tools Dan had given me. And, as I said, I always saw the New Testament through his eyes.
Still later, I screwed up my courage and asked Dan to review the books I wrote for their Scripture content. Any time I used Scripture in any of my books, I’d send the manuscript to Dan and back it would come, usually in a week or so, with a neatly typed-up list of all the multiple errors I had made as well as suggestions for clarification. He has done the same with every book, including a book on Jesus that I just finished, even in the midst of his illness.
Clear, patient, kind. Generous, friendly, mild. Prayerful, faithful, hardworking. The model Jesuit, to my mind.
Let me end though with another story, and with Dan’s words.
Towards the end of my time at Weston, I edited a book on how people of different faiths find God. Editing a book is easy as long as you get the right people. So I told Dan that I was doing this book, and I was looking for some Scripture scholars to talk about finding God through the Bible. But I already had too many Jesuits in the book, I thought, so I wasn’t going to ask Dan. But all my friends said, “You idiot! Ask Dan!” And I said, “No, no, I have too many Jesuits already.” So one day after class, I asked Dan if he could recommend one or two Scripture scholars. He did, and I wrote them letters and they sent back essays which were good, but really didn’t seem to get to the heart of finding God in Scripture.
A few weeks later, at 3 Phillips Place, at the old Weston, Dan said, “Jim, have you found any Scripture scholars for your book?” And I said, “No Dan, I’m still looking for one that will fit the bill. Do you know anyone else?” “Sure,” he said, and recommended another scholar. In a few weeks I got another essay that was good, but didn’t still answer the question. Shortly afterwards, I met him going up the stairs of 3 Phillips Place, and he said, “Have you found any Scripture scholars for your book?” and I remember looking at him and thinking, “Jim, you idiot! Ask Dan!”
And I said, “No, Dan would you be able to do it?”
And he said, “I’d love to.”
The next day in my mailbox box a little letter appeared, with a perfectly typed answer that made me cry. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever read on Scripture, and most Jesuits tell me, “You know Jim, some of those other essays in the book were nice, but that one is amazing.”
Dan starts off his essay (available here as a pdf) with his trademark clarity, “I find God largely in and through the Bible,” he writes. “Most of my academic, spiritual and pastoral life revolves around the Bible. It is for me the most important way to know, love and serve God.”
Then he tells us a story. As a young boy, Dan stuttered. One day, he read in the newspaper something surprising: Moses had stuttered. Dan didn’t know that, but he looked it up in the Bible and there it was: Moses says, “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
Dan read that story over and over, he said, and it made a deep impression on him. In his essay Dan goes on to talk about the ways that he has been able to study the Bible, and to teach the Bible, and even offers as an aside a great little précis, in his clear way, of lectio divina.
Then, at the end of the essay, Dan brings his life full circle:
The God of the Bible is the God of Jesus Christ. I experience God in and through the Bible and my life. It is my privilege as a Jesuit priest to study and teach Scripture, to proclaim and preach God's word, and to celebrate the church's liturgies (which are largely cast in the language of the Bible). In the midst of these wonderful activities (which are my greatest joy), I occasionally stutter. And this brings me back to where my spiritual journey with the Bible began. Though I am slow of speech and tongue like Moses, I still hear the words of Exodus 4:11-12: "Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak."
Thank you, Dan, for allowing the Lord to teach you to speak.