e-mail us


‘Our homilies are all around us’


Woody Guthrie scuffed up and down America during the dust bowl, playing songs of social protest with the words “this machine kills fascists” scrawled on his guitar. His point was that, in the right hands, even a beat-up acoustic guitar can strike blows for justice.

Jesuit Fr. Walter Burghardt, widely acknowledged as one of America’s best preachers, believes the same thing can be said for pulpits.

Burghardt, 85, has crisscrossed the world since 1991, trying to help ministers be better preachers of social justice. So far he’s offered 86 workshops as part of his “Preaching the Just Word” project, based in Washington, where Burghardt is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center. This summer, Burghardt will ride the circuit again from Maryland to Ohio to North Dakota (where he’ll finish up with a session at the aptly named Rough Rider Hotel in Medora).

When Walter Burghardt talks preaching, people listen.

In the mid-1990s, Baylor University in Waco, Texas, set out to identify the 12 most effective preachers in America. After a search that unfolded over two years, Baylor, a Baptist institution, named Burghardt to the list, where he joined luminaries such as Billy Graham and Charles Swindell. He was the only Catholic so honored.

The plaudit came on top of Burghardt’s long and distinguished career as a theologian and patristics scholar, solidifying his reputation as one of the more remarkable personalities in the American church. He sat down with NCR during a mid-February visit to Kansas City.

Burghardt said he’s been a weaver of words since his days in St. Francis Xavier High School in New York City in the late 1920s (he’s not kidding; he manages to use both “mewl” and “eructation” on the first page of his just-published memoirs). Yet his panache in the pulpit is not merely the result of natural talent or a rigorous Jesuit education. He said -- and seems for all the world to mean it -- that he spends four hours of prep time for every minute he preaches.

Burghardt once described what he’s trying to capture by quoting a passage from Richard Bach in Illusions: “Once in a while there’s a great dynamite burst of flying glass and bricks and splinters through the front wall, and somebody stalks over the rubble, seizes me by the throat and gently says, ‘I will not let you go until you set me, in words, on paper.’ ”

Probably few Catholics can remember the last time they heard a sermon that felt like it arose from such a shattering epiphany. Yet Burghardt believes every experience in a preacher’s life, in its own way, aspires to trigger such a breakthrough.

“Your homily is being prepared whether you know it or not by everything you do and experience,” Burghardt told NCR. “Your meditation in the morning, the people you meet during the day, the books you read, the articles you read, the movies you see, the hospitals and jails you visit -- all the contacts you make in the course of a day. Relatively few priests think of this as preparation for their homily, and yet it is.”

“Our homilies are all around us all day long. Our failure is in not putting our experience in contact with the homilies we write and with the people we serve.”

This belief in experience as the fons perennis of preaching means that for Burghardt everything that happens to him is a resource. “Preaching to the elderly, I need no longer pretend,” he wrote recently. “I can feel in my flesh what aging is like. Arthritic joints jab, oxygen reaches for the heart more painfully, bones turn brittle and sauerkraut makes for diarrhea.”

Only a man of faith could find a silver lining in the gastrointestinal fallout of sauerkraut.

Burghardt is aware, however, that some kinds of experiences lend themselves to preaching on justice better than others. A passion for justice, he said, wells up out of solidarity with the poor.

“I have suggested that it would be very good for my preaching if I were to take an HIV-positive baby in my arms, the way Mother Teresa did,” Burghardt said. “Underneath all this there has to be a spirituality that turns the preacher inside out, makes a new person of him and puts fire in the belly.”

Burghardt the scholar is a master of the church fathers. (A favorite line from Clement of Alexandria: “There is only one river of truth, but many streams fall into it on this side and on that.”) For 44 years he edited or co-edited Theological Studies, and in that capacity exerted an enormous influence over the direction of theological discourse in this country. He has served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

Burghardt’s parents were immigrants from a corner of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father died at 53 and his mother at 80 (his only brother died three weeks after his father, both of cancer). He has been a Jesuit for 69 years and a priest for 59 years.

One of the charming things about Burghardt is that his gentle spirit has never suffocated his ability to tell it like it is. For example, in a 1970s convocation address at The Catholic University of America, Burghardt wondered out loud why the law school library had to kick students out at midnight, while the theology stacks were lonelier than a Maytag repairman. One reason, he concluded, is that lawyers rise only as far as their mastery of the law takes them, while a priest “can be theologically illiterate and become a bishop.”

Burghardt is a prolific author, with 21 books and 287 articles to his credit. Two new books are out now: Long Have I Loved You, a set of memoirs published by Orbis Books; and Christ in Ten Thousand Places, a collection of sermons from Paulist Press.

Though it doesn’t show up on his curriculum vitae, Burghardt is also a repository of living Catholic memory. He wasn’t at Vatican II -- “somehow the Holy Spirit managed it without me,” he joked -- but he feels in his bones what those who led the council’s reforms hoped to achieve.

He’s old enough, for example, to remember that Pius XI once forbade Catholics to take part in ecumenical endeavors because they were “pan Christian.” He knows, too, what the crackdown on modernism launched by Pius X had done to seminary education by the time he came up through the system (among other things, Jesuit seminarians had to obtain permission if they wanted to read an “adversary of the faith” such as Immanuel Kant). He can recall those days fondly without wanting them back.

Burghardt was among the first members of the International Theological Commission formed by Paul VI to advise the Holy Office, joining such legends as Karl Rahner, Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar. (Long Have I Loved You is full of anecdotes drawn from these experiences. He relates how at the first meeting, someone kidded Rahner about writing sentences that went on for 60 lines; in all seriousness Rahner replied, “I have never written a German sentence longer than 33 lines.”)

Burghardt doesn’t flinch when asked what aspect of Vatican II strikes him as most underdeveloped in today’s church.

“Collegiality in practice,” he said. “The pope should not appear or seem to be the ordinary of every diocese, and bishops should be allowed much more freedom to express themselves without getting into trouble.”

For all his erudition, Burghardt feels most alive in the pulpit. He said the Sunday homily is where popular support for justice issues must be built.

“Going across the country as we have with our project, we have found a fair number of good preachers and a small number of very good preachers,” Burghardt said. “But by and large, our preaching is just not what it should be.”

The “Preaching the Just Word” project offers a five-day retreat/workshop, based on themes from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, integrating personal prayer with reflection upon scripture, the social teaching of the church, contemporary culture, homiletics and liturgy.

Though he focuses intensely on justice, Burghardt transcends any separation between horizontal spirituality (such as, building a better world) and vertical (a “me and Jesus” prayer life). His definition of contemplation is “a long, loving look at the real.”

“The real is everything that is. It’s a child with a chocolate ice cream cone, it’s the sun setting in the West, it’s a striding woman with windblown hair, it’s a sparkling glass of burgundy, it’s Christ Jesus,” Burghardt said. If you know and love the real, he suggests, you’ll defend it if it is deformed. That is where concern for justice is born.

His best advice for struggling preachers? Lead people to immerse themselves in life, to know and love the real themselves.

“If I want to sell you on spaghetti bolognese, I don’t give you a menu or a recipe. I let you smell it and taste it. If I really want you to appreciate Mozart’s sonata, I don’t give you the score, I play it for you,” he said. “That’s what preaching should do, put people in contact with experience.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR opinion editor. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2000