Photo: Caitlin Cunningham

What I’ve Learned    

What I've Learned: Harvey D. Egan, SJ

Boston College’s longest currently serving Jesuit shares insights from his forty-nine years as a member of the faculty.

Professor Emeritus Harvey Egan, SJ, MA’65, STL’65, is Boston College’s longest currently serving Jesuit, having been a member of the faculty for forty-nine years. Egan, who joined BC’s Theology Department in 1975, teaches systematic and mystical theology, a subject on which he has written more than a dozen books. Despite officially retiring from the classroom in 2010, Egan has hardly slowed down. At eighty-six, he’s still exercising, cooking, and shooting photographs, and last August he published Rethinking Catholic Theology: From the Mystery of Existence to the New Creation, a lengthy examination of how Catholicism has evolved since Vatican II in the 1960s.

You never know when life will change directions. The turning point in my life came in college, at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Three of us used to go to Sunday Mass and I’d do some prayer, but I wasn’t pious by any means. Then one day, the girl next door said to me, “Are you going to be a lukewarm Catholic all of your life?” It took me aback. That summer I began going to Mass almost daily, and the feeling grew. Later, I read an article in the Saturday Evening Post that said wherever Jesuits are, they find God in all things. That really struck me. I was working as an electrical engineer when I decided, I’m gonna go with the Jesuits. And I never looked back.  

A great teacher can have a lifelong impact. I completed my PhD dissertation in Germany, under the direction of Karl Rahner. A close friend of mine had Rahner as his dissertation director and told me to reach out. I said, “this is one of the world’s great theologians, he wouldn’t be interested in me.” But I wrote to him, and sure enough, I went to Germany. Listening to him, I felt like Moses at the base of the mountain. He would march up and down the room, and I can still see him digging his toe in as if he were going to pull the wood out of the floor. I still have forty volumes of his writing in my room today. 

Prayer should be deep. A beautiful theologian writer once said, if a person prays with meditation, it engages the mind and the imagination. After a while, this tiny flame of love arises in a person’s heart, and they should put everything in a cloud of forgetting, even thoughts about God, and just pray with this naked love. Most parishes when I was growing up never talked about experiencing God, or deeper levels of prayer. It’s like a marriage. After you’ve been married for a while, you don’t have to say a lot, but there’s that intimacy there. 

Out of pain can come growth. Several years ago, I was crossing the street on Comm Ave and got hit by a car. I was pretty banged up—it took about a year and a half to get back on my feet. Then I went into the classroom one semester and said, no, I can’t do this, so I retired. But that was only sort of a retirement, because I wrote five books after that. 

A Jesuit serves for a lifetime. One of the great things about being a Jesuit professor is you teach students, and often you perform their weddings. You baptize their children, and you bury their parents. It’s a very long relationship, and a very close one. So it’s nice to get a letter or an email from them. Any marriages I’ve done, I send them a card on their anniversary.  

That “99 percent perspiration” saying is correct. During Covid, I finished a 630-page book. One Jesuit made a remark when the book came out, saying, “Oh, Harvey’s brilliant.” Then another Jesuit, correctly, said, “No, he’s not brilliant, he’s focused.” The paradox is when I was growing up, I hated writing and I hated languages. But I ended up in Germany to study under Rahner, so I learned French, German, and a bit of Italian, and of course did a lot of writing. That’s the discipline part. 

A setback is just a beginning. I don’t let things happen. If I want something, I go after it. In academia, sometimes you’re bloodied up. As Henry Kissinger had it (sort of), there’s so much politics in academia because there’s so little at stake. I’ve known people over the years that get one, or two, or three blows and they just quit, or stay at a certain level. But I haven’t quit yet. ◽