BC Jesuit, Biblical Scholar Leaves Legacy

by Margaret Antonio




It is difficult to comprehend how one man can write 60 books, edit a renowned journal, serve as a member on various institutional boards, deliver lectures across the states, and write 50,000 abstracts for books in numerous languages, while carrying out pastoral work in two parishes and teaching graduate courses in theology. This is simply a glimpse at the remarkable legacy of Fr. Daniel Harrington, S.J., professor of theology at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, who passed away on February 7 after a four-year battle with cancer.

Dan, as everyone called him, made a profound impact as a scholar, a teacher, and a preacher. A native of Arlington, MA, Harrington graduated from Boston College High School and joined the Society of Jesus shortly thereafter. He went on to earn degrees from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Boston College, and Harvard University. He taught at Weston and, in 2008, began teaching at the School of Theology and Ministry when the two schools became re-affiliated, according to the BC Chronicle.


Fr. Harrington’s passion for Scripture began at an early age. In an interview with “The New England Jesuit Oral History Program,” Fr. Harrington relates the beginning of his journey with Scripture: “All my life I have suffered from a speech impediment... As a boy I thought I could never become a teacher or a priest because of it. However, one day I read...that Moses stuttered...I thought, ‘If Moses could do it, maybe I can.’ With the help of some speech therapies and the encouragement of my Jesuit brothers, I have been able to attain a decent level of fluency. And whenever I stumble, I go back to Moses. I often regard reading that biblical text as the seed of my vocation as a Jesuit priest and a biblical scholar.”


A highlight of Dan Harrington’s scholarly work is the New Testament Abstracts, a triannual journal. From 1972 to 2013, Fr. Harrington served as one of two editors of the journal. “Dan could look at a book, skim it, and write an abstract on it in 15 minutes...the books were often in different languages as well,” said Mary Kate Holman, a graduate student who assists in the journal publication.


While editing, Fr. Harrington also taught classes for students at the School of Theology and Ministry and those of the Boston Theological Institute. As a teacher, Fr. Harrington was known for being able to direct a student to read a specific page or even a footnote in a book or article. Fr. Harrington’s commitment to his students continued even through his last days. Despite his aversion to technology, he insisted on teaching his last two classes through Skype even though his cancer had already placed him in a debilitated state.


As a scholar and a teacher, Dan Harrington also celebrated Mass every Sunday for 43 years at St. Agnes Parish in Arlington, where he grew up, and at St. Peter’s Parish in Cambridge. “By coming out from behind his desk, Dan was teaching everyone what it means to be pastoral,” wrote Fr. Peter Folan, S.J. in The Jesuit Post.


Although Fr. Harrington published numerous scholarly works, he also wrote for lay audiences, and likewise preached Scripture to his congregation.


“He really was committed to the idea that all this knowledge about the Bible is only useful in so much as you have a relationship with God and others,” said Mary Kate Holman. For Fr. Harrington, “good scholarship was about making scripture accessible to any believer.”


“One time, a friend of mine who had had him as a teacher heard him preach,” said Fr. James Keenan, S.J. “She went to him and asked for a copy of the sermon. And the next day in her mailbox was a hand-written copy of the sermon. That was typical Dan.” Keenan, who was one of Fr. Harrington’s students at Weston, taught several courses and wrote two books with him.


Fr. Harrington’s preaching not only brought Scripture to the congregations to whom he preached, but also to many through the hundreds of Jesuits who learned how to interpret and communicate Scripture in his classes.


The number of individuals influenced by Fr. Harrington through his publications, his homilies, his classes, and his life is incalculable. Even in his last months, he continued to teach classes and edit the New Testament Abstracts. At the core of his remarkable work ethic and achievements lies his love of Scripture. When asked about his personal experience with suffering in an interview in 2012, Fr. Harrington replied, “What has kept me going is Scripture...that is what has really stabilized me in the midst of all this.”


“It was never about him,” said Holman, recalling her experience with Fr. Harrington. “It was always about Jesus. Everyone loved Dan, but that was definitely not his priority...and that’s what made people love him even more.”


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