Speaking the Word of God: A tribute to Daniel J. Harrington (1940–2014)

I do not think I can properly thank Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., 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 was one of the finest Jesuits, finest priests and finest people I have ever known.

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, “you’re not interested in the topic at all. If Dan is teaching a class on how to change a tire, take it!”


So I signed up for Dan’s course “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. His course changed my life. I had never seriously 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 see the Gospels through Dan’s eyes. In other words, 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 and, above all, faithful.

Stories about Dan’s prowess in the classroom are well known. He often taught in threes, so I will give you three things I most remember.

1. Dan was always 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. Clear, simple, direct statements like this, backed up by vast learning, are most helpful to students and, as such, are often indelible. Clarity is an underappreciated virtue in the academy. It is a gift to students.

2. Dan was endlessly 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 endlessly 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’ 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.”

Dan was part of a generation of Jesuits whose time is passing, and I say that less in a melancholy sense than in a grateful one. Because he entered the Jesuits at age 18, 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 most men do these days, simply do not. So behind Dan’s clear and direct statements, which he made easy for us to grasp, were decades of learning. In a sense, it was like Jesus’ use of the parables—communicating complicated truths to us in simple ways, ways that we could understand. As with Jesus’ parables, this was a great act of charity and love.

3. But the third attribute is, to me, the greatest mark of his love of the Gospels: Dan was a kind person. That is what I most admire about him. Dan was one of the kindest and most generous people I ever met.

About a year into my time at Weston, I developed carpal tunnel syndrome. It was very painful, and I could barely use my hands. 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, 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. When I was at the end of my rope, my faculty adviser said the only thing to do was to ask to take the tests orally and to finish my papers orally, which I saw as a huge embarrassment.

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 could not 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 have said. Dan was not going to learn anything at all from my papers—nothing! But it was so generous and thoughtful and Christian. I have never forgotten that.

Later on, after my ordination, when it came to understanding the Gospels—whether for preaching, 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 book, I would send the manuscript to Dan and back it would come, usually within a week or so, with a neatly typed-up list of the many errors I had made, along with suggestions for clarification. He did 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 own words.

Toward the end of my time at Weston, I edited a book on how people of different faiths find God. So I told Dan that I was looking for some Scripture scholars who would 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 for an essay. 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 did not seem to get to the heart of finding God in Scripture.

A few weeks later, 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 still did not answer the question. Shortly afterward, I met him in a stairwell, and he said, “Have you found any Scripture scholars for your book?” I remember looking at him and thinking, “Jim, you idiot! Ask Dan!”

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, very moving essay. It is the best thing I’ve ever read on Scripture.

Dan starts off his essay 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 did not 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 and 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 Ex 4:11-12: “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes the 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.

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Alex Mikulich
5 years ago
Dear James, Thank you for a beautiful tribute to Dan Harrington!! Although we did not know him the way you do, my wife Kara and I will always remember seeing him at his desk in Weston's main building working away at New Testament abstracts among other scholarly endeavors. I still see him exuding contemplative and loving focus on his scholarship. I also deeply relate to Dan's experience of stuttering and being slow of speech and how he relates his experience to scripture. His witness endures in our hearts and souls. Thank you Jim and thank Gd for Dan Harrington!! alex mikulich (MDiv., Weston class of 1990)
Colleen Spiro
5 years ago
A truly beautiful tribute. I find myself tearing up at the end, wishing I had known him. I will think of him whenever I read that scripture passage from Exodus. It is a passage that means a lot to me personally, for a different reason. I am sorry that you have lost your friend, teacher, brother. And grateful that you knew him and could share him with us. God bless.
William Atkinson
5 years ago
Thanks James, I first ran into Dan in Israel, later at BC, Then one summer at SU. We always greeted each other as coastal brothers, He and I born a few days before Ignatius's feast day back in 40 he on East Coast and I on the West Coast. We often called ourselves pre-WWII kids. I often would send him a note or two when working on tells or researching at St Cat's in the Sinai or down in Egypt. He brought a great deal of light to the fields of Biblical Archeology and Anthropology. He will be greatly missed.
Michael Hickey
5 years ago
mike hickey 9:01 AM (7 minutes ago) to letters Thank you so much for publishing the tribute to Fr. Dan Harrington in America 3/10/14. He was indeed one of the finest men I ever knew. He had a keen wit, a superb Biblical intellect, a great sense of humor, and a kind and generous heart. He made a tremendous impact on my life and I will miss him a great deal. Fr. Dan was my mentor, occasional pen pal, and Faculty Advisor in the mid 1980's when I was an M-Div student at Weston School of Theology/ now part of the School of Ministry and Theology, Boston College. Every Fathers Day since then, I would either send him a greeting card or an email wishing him a "Happy Fathers Day." I know he really enjoyed getting it and it gave him a good laugh each year. I always told him that because I considered him as my spiritual father, he was as much a father to me as my own biological father who was a wonderful dad. I told Father Dan that some priests get to be called "father" as simply a title of respect, but in his case he really deserved to be called "father." Indeed he was. Michael Hickey Naples, FL MikeHickey33@gmail.com


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