(Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

A conversation with Harvey Egan, S.J.

The professor emeritus, who has been a member of the BC Jesuit community for 48 years, talks about his new book, scholarly influences, and what keeps him engaged

At age 85, Harvey D. Egan, S.J., may be retired from classroom teaching, but he remains ever the educator. A professor emeritus, Fr. Egan taught in the Boston College Theology Department for 35 years, specializing in Christian mysticism, Catholic theology, and the works of renowned theologian Karl Rahner, S.J.

One of the world’s leading experts on Christian mysticism, Fr. Egan is the author or co-author of numerous books, notably Christian Mysticism: The Future of a Tradition; Karl Rahner: Mystic of Everyday Life; An Anthology of Christian Mysticism; Soundings in the Christian Mystical Tradition; Homilies in a New Key; Ignatius Loyola the Mystic; Paul: Christianity’s Premier Apostolic Mystic, and Karl Rahner’s Mystical Theology and Christology. He has published many scholarly articles and book chapters and translated the writings of Rahner. He also has produced several multimedia programs based on his homilies and teachings on mysticism, St. Ignatius, Rahner, Catholic theology, and eschatology.

On the occasion of the publication of newest book, Rethinking Catholic Theology: From the Mystery of Existence to the New Creation (Paulist Press, 2023), Fr. Egan answered some questions from BC News. (Note: This has been lightly edited.)

Q. Your new book, Rethinking Catholic Theology, seeks to provide readers with an informed understanding of the central truths of the Catholic/Christian tradition. What specifically do you want readers to understand?

The book intends to convey an understanding of Catholicism’s long Tradition (note the capital T) grounded in Scripture, the Church Fathers, the medieval and Reformation period, and the current state of theology. It focuses on significant theological themes, but in the context of the human person as an individual, a social, and a cosmic being. Christianity is not an ideology but the answer to what and who we are as human beings—an answer found in the person of the crucified and risen Jesus-Messiah.

Q. How has the Catholic faith has changed since Vatican II? How has it remained the same?

Vatican II especially changed the horizon of understanding of Catholic faith-realities. An analogy: getting new eyeglasses makes the same look different. I would also maintain that Vatican II moved from a somewhat individualistic and legalistic understanding of the truths of the faith to a more personalistic and intrinsic view. People ask: who am I? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What is the meaning of life? Christianity answers these questions through light given by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Messiah. The “transformed physicality” of the risen body must be emphasized.  In addition, Catholicism moved from a salvation pessimism view (most people will be damned) to a salvation optimism one (perhaps all will be saved.) The change in horizon also lessened the tensions between Catholics and other Christian ecclesiastical communities.

Q. Rethinking Catholic Theology is organized in three parts: Christ and the Mystery of Existence; Christian Life and Mission; and The Afterlife.  Why did you choose this approach?

My first semester undergraduate courses always began by emphasizing the mystery of existence. Because most people—and not only students—see Christianity as simply another ideology, I emphasized that it is the person of the crucified and risen Jesus Messiah and his mystical Body. Thus, the questions raised in the mystery segment are answered throughout the first part and emphasize how the person of the crucified and risen Christ is an answer that must be lived—thus, part II. Because death and the afterlife are aspects of human existence, I wrote part III mainly to highlight misunderstood realities (purgatory, hell, judgment, heaven, for example) but also to underscore that the new creation, not heaven, is our final destiny because Christ is the seed of the new creation and because the book of Revelation speaks of the new heaven and the new Earth where God will be all and in all.

Harvey Egan image

Q. This book is more than 600 pages. What drives you to scholarly productivity at this level?

I owe most of my drive to my genes, psychological makeup, temperament—and the inspiration of scholars whose courses I attended and/or their books I have read. Undergraduate and graduate teaching—and my pastoral work, especially preparing homilies—likewise stimulates me. BC’s Jesuit community also creates a climate that encourages scholarship.

Q. In addition to writing and preaching, what do you like to spend your time doing?

I enjoy photography, enhancing photos taken over the years, and making collages for the Jesuits who say the Friday evening community Mass. Movies on Amazon and Netflix relax me. I walk every day and work out at a gym in Watertown four times a week. I love to cook, but do much less now. Still, I enjoy the YouTube videos of the Pasta Queen, Vincenzo’s Plate, Pasquale Sciarappea, and Jacques Pépin. Indian and Asian cuisine, however are my favorites.

Q. Besides Karl Rahner , who directed your doctoral dissertation, which other scholars or Church figures have influenced you and your work?

My Jesuit training plunged me into the mysticism and thinking of Ignatius of Loyola. We read Thomas Aquinas in the original Latin and some of the Church Fathers, especially Augustine. What a gift. I had the great theologian Avery Dulles, the world class exegete Joseph Fitzmyer, and the renowned John C. Murray as professors. Henri de Lubac and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin must also be mentioned. Matthias Scheeben introduced me to the world of the Greek and Byzantine Fathers. At the university in Münster, I was exposed to outstanding scholars, such as Johannes Metz, Walter Kasper, and on occasion, Josef Ratzinger. The great philosopher-theologian Bernard Lonergan lived almost right across from me. I read the works of many of the Christian mystics, buttressed by the tomes of Bernard McGinn, the world’s leading scholar of the western mystical tradition. A graduate student introduced me to the biblical studies of N. T. Wright who had/has an enormous impact on my theological and pastoral life, as did the scholarship of Raymond Brown and Gerhard Lohfink. Also: the scholarly biblical-theological works of Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham. Perhaps the most intriguing theological book I read in the past six years ago was Fleming Rutledge’s on the crucifixion. Toss in many of lesser known but significant scholars—I have been treated to a veritable philosophical-theological “Babette’s Feast.”

Gasson, Devlin, Moon, Snow, ENv1
Photo by Harvey Egan SJ

An artistic image created by Harvey Egan, S.J., in January 2003.

Q. You spent your undergraduate years at Worcester Polytechnic Institute where you earned a degree in electrical engineering. How did you go from engineer to Jesuit priest?

Yes, I did attend WPI, and worked as an electrical engineer for Boeing in Seattle—during which time I also climbed Mt. Rainier (elev. 14,410)—and then for a helicopter company.

My senior year at WPI the girl next door had asked me why I was such a lukewarm Catholic. That stung. I began sacramental “confession” on a regular basis and daily Mass. The daily Eucharist changed my life. As the conviction grew that I had a priestly vocation, I saw a feature article in the Saturday Evening Post in 1959 that explained that the Jesuits were non-cloistered apostolic contemplatives who found God in all things. I entered the Jesuits in 1960 and never looked back.

Q. You have been a Jesuit for more than 60 years and a part of the Boston College Jesuit community since 1975. In fact, among the current BC Jesuit population, you have been on campus the longest. Do you ever share advice or your wisdom with newer Jesuits? What have you learned from the younger Jesuits?

The Boston College Jesuit Community has blessed me in many ways. As the older S.J.s imparted their wisdom to me by their presence, their words, and their actions, I know that I do that for the younger S.J.s. Meals with Jesuits means being immersed in conversations from the sublime to the ridiculous. The BC community attracts Jesuits from six continents! Sharing occurs on many levels. I have done copy editing for many Jesuits whose English was not their first language. The younger Jesuits keep me young, underscore that there are many ways to be a Jesuit, and that the Jesuit Order has a future in these, talented, dedicated, holy young men. And one of the joys of being a Boston College Jesuit flows from not only teaching students, but also being asked to do their weddings, baptize their children, and do their parents' funeral Mass.