When Rev. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. was a boy, he believed that he could never become a teacher or priest because he had a stutter.
He believed this until the day he read a passage from Exodus in which Moses says, “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue,” after which Harrington thought, “If Moses could do it, maybe I can.”
“Whenever I stumble, I go back to Moses,” Harrington said in a 2012 interview for the New England Jesuit Oral History Program. “I often regard reading that biblical text as the seed of my vocation as a Jesuit priest and biblical scholar.”
Harrington, a New Testament scholar, author, and professor in the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry (STM), died Feb. 7 at age 73 after a nearly five-year battle with cancer.
Harrington spent almost six decades in the BC community, both as a student and as a professor. Born in Arlington, Mass., he attended Boston College High School on a full scholarship and immediately entered the Society of Jesus upon graduating in 1958. He later received a bachelor’s degree from Weston College, a master’s degree from BC, a doctorate from Harvard University, and a bachelor’s and master’s of divinity from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology and BC. He was ordained in St. Ignatius Church in 1971.
Over his career as a theological scholar, Harrington authored more than 60 books, hundreds of articles and essays, and upwards of 50,000 abstracts and 25,000 book notices for the STM journal New Testament Abstracts (NTA), of which he was general editor from 1972 until November 2013. He was also the editor and a contributor to the 18-volume Sacra Pagina commentary series on the New Testament.
Christopher Matthews, professor of New Testament in STM and Harrington’s co-editor of NTA for 28 years, said that one of Harrington’s most apparent talents was a capacity for sustained academic work, in addition to a regular course load as a professor.
“Most admirable-not to say amazing-is that Dan seemingly accomplished all of this activity effortlessly,” Matthews wrote in a tribute to Harrington. “Further, you always got the sense that Dan really enjoyed what he was doing. I’ve only met a couple of people in academia who did not seem to get the point of sabbaticals-Dan was one.”
Matthews also said that, in the days before computers, Harrington would diligently write out his books by hand on yellow legal pads.
“For a mere mortal to see this process-writing without rewriting-was to discover another great gift that Dan possessed, which might be expressed as lack of self-doubt, or knowing exactly what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it,” Matthews said.
Professor of theological ethics Rev. James Keenan, S.J. was Harrington’s student at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology and the two later co-taught courses on scripture and ethics at Weston for seven years. Keenan said Harrington was like the “colleague from heaven,” making his fellow professors’ lives easier through his ability to concisely summarize and clarify readings and correcting their work.
Pointing to Harrington’s work on NTA and the Sacra Pagina series, as well as his own writings, Keenan called his late colleague the most important chronicler of biblical history and theology in the past 50 years. Particularly after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which renewed Catholic doctrine from a modern perspective, Harrington was central in giving the English-speaking world access to what Catholic texts were being read, introducing many to names from biblical history that they would not know otherwise.
“The man who’s most responsible for Catholics reading the Bible in the English language is Dan Harrington,” Keenan said. “No one had more influence than he did.”
As a professor in STM, Harrington focused on areas such as biblical languages, the interpretation of the Bible in antiquity and today, the Synoptic Gospel, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Harrington was a longtime faculty member at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology before it re-affiliated with BC to form STM in 2008.
Rev. James Martin, S.J. was a student of Harrington’s at Weston Jesuit and pointed to three outstanding characteristics that his former professor, whom he called a “model Jesuit,” exhibited: clarity, patience, and kindness.
“Dan was exceedingly patient,” Martin said at an event in December honoring Harrington after he announced that 2013-14 would be his final year of teaching. “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.
“In a sense, Dan’s teaching was very much like Jesus’ use of the parables, communicating complicated truths to us in simple ways,” Martin said. “And as with Jesus’ parables, this was a great act of charity and love.”
Martin recalled that numerous Jesuits and classmates at Weston Jesuit told him to take as many courses as he could with Harrington, even if he was not particularly interested in the topic of study.
Beyond his teaching and scholarly work, Harrington celebrated Mass weekly at St. Agnes Parish in Arlington for more than 40 years, as well as at St. Peter’s Church in Cambridge for more than 20 years.
“What I am trying to do in both parishes-I do not claim to be the greatest preacher in the world-is basically break open the Scriptures and share what I know about them with ordinary people who do not have a theological education,” Harrington said in the interview for the Jesuit Oral History Program.
His devotion to biblical study was also matched by a passion for sports. Matthews said that Harrington seemed to know baseball, basketball, football, hockey, their players, and statistics as well as he knew the Bible.
“Most days began with a recap of a Red Sox or Bruins game – evidence that [Harrington was] a scholar of sports as well as the Bible,” Matthews said.
Harrington played baseball growing up in Arlington and was the goalie for the BC High hockey team.
“It taught me a lot about winning and losing,” Harrington told the Jesuit Oral History Program about hockey. “When you are a goalie, they put your mistakes up on a board and everybody can read them. So that was a good thing: learning to live with success and failure.”
As he faced an advanced form of prostate cancer in the last years of his life, Harrington continued to write, research, and teach for as long as he could.
“When he was dying, he would say, ‘So long as I can teach the Bible, I’m okay,'” Keenan said.
Matthews noted that Harrington “confronted his circumstances without self-pity.
“As he reflected on his own life and career in the months before his death, more than once Dan told the story about the advice he had received as a young man to ‘do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’-Dan believed that he accomplished that goal,” he said.