A couple of years ago at the Faber Jesuit Community where he lived, the Rev. Daniel Harrington participated in a discussion centering on the question of what inspired the panelists to greet each new day.
“My answer was, ‘It’s the Bible that gets me out of bed in the morning,’ ” he recalled several weeks afterward, in a June 2012 oral history interview. “And that is really true.”
When he was a boy with a stammer, a biblical passage gave him the courage to persevere and pursue the priesthood and teaching. A New Testament course in Greek fired his imagination as a novitiate. The Bible then provided his life’s work as he summarized tens of thousands of books and articles as editor of “New Testament Abstracts,” all the while writing more than 60 books of his own.
“He was the most important chronicler of biblical theology in the past 50 years,” said the Rev. James Keenan, a Boston College theology professor who taught with the Rev. Harrington and, with him, published two books. “Everything for him was the Bible.”
Rev. Harrington, who taught for many years at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, and more recently at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, died of prostate cancer Feb. 7 in the Campion Center in Weston. He was 73.
“The line I’ve been using is we’ve lost a giant,” said the Rev. Thomas Stegman, associate professor of New Testament at BC’s School of Theology and Ministry. “Dan Harrington was really a one of kind in terms of the sheer amount of work he was able to produce.”
A gifted and patient teacher known for rendering complex theological thoughts into understandable lessons, he guided students, wrote prolifically, and preached at two Masses at two churches every Sunday.
“He did this without any sweat over a period of 50 years, said the Rev. Richard J. Clifford, a professor of Old Testament at BC’s School of Theology and Ministry. “He was so low-key, people took him for granted. He never told them that he did all these things. But he’s kind of inimitable.”
Rev. Harrington also “was a great sports fan to the point where he could write a sports column,” Clifford added.
“I know more about sports unfortunately than I know about Scripture sometimes,” Rev. Harrington, who was a hockey goalie for four years at Boston College High School, said in the oral history.
His affection for the Bruins, Red Sox, Celtics, and Patriots may have only served to make Rev. Harrington all the more accessible to the students he inspired. “He was a superstar, but he was a humble man,” Stegman said. “In many ways, he was just an ordinary man from Arlington, Mass., who loved his sports teams.”
Rev. Harrington delighted in recounting the story of a long-ago parishioner who, by way of a compliment, told him one day: “You know, I used to think you were boring, until I started listening to you.”
At the Weston Jesuit School, students listened raptly, their admiration no secret. The Rev. James Martin, a best-selling author, said that upon arriving as a student, he was quickly counseled to sign up for any course Rev. Harrington taught. In a tribute published on the America Magazine website, Martin recalled that one friend said: “If Dan is teaching a class in how to change a tire, take it!”
“It’s not a stretch to say that his course changed my life,” Martin wrote, adding that “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.”
The younger of two brothers, Daniel J. Harrington grew up in Arlington. His father was an Irish immigrant from County Cork who finished a high school equivalency in the United States and was head of shipping and receiving at a Sears. His mother graduated from Arlington High School before marrying and becoming a homemaker.
In the oral history Rev. Harrington said his older brother, Edward of Braintree, “is certainly my best friend and always has been so. He has been a great support to me.”
At St. Agnes School in Arlington, a nun coached him for the BC High exams, and he was awarded a scholarship. In high school, he wanted to be a scientist, but as a novitiate in the late 1950s, “I remember starting to read St. John’s Gospel in Greek,” he said in the oral history. “Wow! What a great experience! There was no going back.”
He went on to study at Boston College and at Harvard University, where he was a Woodrow Wilson fellow, and where John Strugnell, a top editor of the Dead Sea Scrolls, was an important mentor. Rev. Harrington contributed his first piece to “New Testament Abstracts” in 1962 and became editor a decade later. He also wrote a column in America Magazine for a few years.
In the oral history, he said that “the greatest grace for me is the Bible,” and added that he felt the presence of “a sort of a hidden hand, if you will, that has helped me along the way.”
He said that “by divine providence or providential accident, I found the right place. It has brought out the best in me. Things that I would never have dreamed of doing, I have been able to do because I am a Jesuit.”
Drafting a homily for last Wednesday’s funeral Mass in St. Ignatius Church in Chestnut Hill, Stegman wrote that Rev. Harrington once mentioned he had applied for only one doctoral program, at Harvard, because he judged it perfect for him.
“I then asked him, ‘But what if you didn’t get accepted?’ He simply replied, ‘I put things in God’s hands. If it was God’s will, I’d be accepted. Otherwise, I would have been happy to teach Latin at Boston College High School,’ ” Stegman wrote.
Although the Lord’s Prayer was Rev. Harrington’s favorite prayer, when facing life’s challenges he often turned to the biblical passage about Moses he first read as a child.
In the oral history, he recalled chancing upon a newspaper article which noted that Moses stuttered. Rev. Harrington looked up the verse in Exodus where Moses says: “ ‘I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.’ I thought, ‘If Moses could do it, maybe I can. . . . 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.”