Remembering Harry McSorley (1931-2017)

A funeral Mass for Dr. Harry McSorley, a long-serving faculty member of the University of St. Michael’s College, will be held on Tuesday, May 23 at 1 p.m. at Blessed Sacrament Church, located at 24 Cheritan Ave., just south of Yonge St. and Lawrence Ave.

 Colleague and friend Dr. Michael Vertin offers the following reflection.

Harry McSorley, longtime Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto, entered the realm of eternal life on May 1, 2017, after a long illness.

Born in Philadelphia in 1931, Harry was the third of Charles and Hetty McSorley’s five children —all sons.  A few years later the family moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Harry completed his elementary education at Our Lady Star of the Sea Grade School and his secondary education at Holy Spirit High School.  He attended Bucknell University on an academic and football scholarship.  One credential he was especially proud of is that he played guard on the only unbeaten and untied football team in the school’s history.

After graduating from Bucknell, Harry was accepted for medical school but chose instead to join the Congregation of St. Paul—the Paulist Fathers.  He pursued theological studies at successive levels in Washington DC, California, and Germany.  He received a doctorate summa cum laude from the University of Munich in 1965, where Karl Rahner was among his teachers.  The topic of his dissertation was Luther’s doctrine of justification, later published in English as Luther: Right or Wrong? An Ecumenical-Theological Study of Luther’s Major Work,‘The Bondage of the Will.’

In the late 1960s Harry left the Paulists.  In 1970 he married Clare McGurk, and the couple moved to Toronto where Harry had been hired to teach Theology and Religious Studies at St. Michael’s College.  In due course the family was blessed with two children, Grace and Paul, both of whom would eventually graduate from St. Michael’s.

For the next twenty-seven years, until his retirement in 1997, Harry was happily engaged in graduate and undergraduate teaching, professional theological scholarship, and service of the Church.  His courses had such titles as The Petrine Ministry and the Reformation, The Second Vatican Council, Protestant and Catholic Theologies in Convergence, and Basic Christian Beliefs.  Given his increasing prominence as both a Luther scholar and a Catholic ecumenist, many masters and doctoral students sought him out as their supervisor.  He was a frequent presenter at North American and European theological conferences and an active member of the Catholic Theological Society of America.  He served on the U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue and the Toronto Archdiocesan Ecumenical Commission.  And he gave countless detailed and enthusiastic talks for Catholic parishes and other Christian congregations.

Let me complement this factual report by drawing on a short talk that, as one of Harry’s younger colleagues, I gave at a retirement party for him.  In June of 1996, along with some other members from Toronto, I attended the annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America, held that year in San Diego.  Like most scholarly conventions, its sessions were divided between plenary meetings, which could be attended by everyone, and special-interest seminars, from which one had to choose because they were all scheduled for the same time.  On the second or third day of the convention, after a bracing plenary session, I was trying to decide between several seminars whose topics had caught my interest.  As I started down the long corridor whose doors opened onto the various seminar rooms, I noticed Harry McSorley at the other end.  He was sitting on a bench across from doors that opened onto two of the very rooms assigned to seminars I was interested in.  I thought to myself, “I’m surprised the rooms are already full.”  As I got closer, I saw Harry leaning forward, peering intently now through one door, now through the other, and writing furiously on a note-pad he held on his knee.  I walked up to him and whispered, “Harry, what are you doing?”  He grinned up at me and, with his usual combination of scholarly intensity and high good humor, he hissed back, “These two seminars are really important.  I couldn’t decide between them, so I’m attending them both!”

This story symbolizes for me three of the many traits familiar to those of who knew Harry.  First, scholarly commitment.  Harry was able to let himself become involved—totally, personally, existentially involved—in the study of scholarly questions and the pursuit of correct and complete answers.  He was a very bright man; but, besides that obvious fact, he was a man whose personal background and Christian convictions disposed him to esteem the intellectual life as a high vocation, a vocation to which one is justified in giving over oneself completely.  And in following that vocation himself, he indeed gave himself over to it completely, proceeding full speed ahead with energy and abandon that were both edifying and slightly intimidating to those around him.

Second, human concern.  As it turned out, the two seminars in which Harry was so interested were discussing not narrowly theoretical issues but issues affecting the everyday lives of people—in the one case, how to foster candid but civil disagreements among Christian theologians; in the other, how to how to enhance the opportunities for study available to ordinary Christian believers.  While Harry’s own lectures and publications demonstrated that he could dilate on narrowly theoretical issues with as much skill and erudition as anyone, what typified his scholarship was that he approached it not as an end in itself but with the confidence that scholarship well done is scholarship that will help others—other scholars, and ultimately also non-scholars.  For more than three decades, Harry pursued his research and teaching as a form of human service.

Third, radical hopefulness.  From time to time I have conducted a brief experiment with persons who knew Harry.  I have asked them to close their eyes, conjure up an image of him, and then describe it.  Virtually every person reported imagining Harry with a big smile on his face.  Over the years, his smile and the hopeful, upbeat attitude it reflected served to enliven many a discussion, uplift many a tedious meeting, and defuse many a tense debate.  In my judgment, that personal style, born not just of temperament but of profound Christian hope, was an especially important contribution he made to our sometimes contentious USMC enterprise.

May all of us at St. Michael’s ponder and perhaps be inspired by Harry McSorley’s example of deep scholarly commitment, unwavering personal generosity, and vigorous Christian witness.

Michael Vertin

Professor Emeritus, Philosophy, Study of Religion, Theology
St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto