Walter Burghardt; Noted Catholic Theologian

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Rev. Walter J. Burghardt, a prominent Catholic theologian, writer and thinker who once was cited in a university study as one of the 12 best preachers in the United States, died Feb. 16 of congestive heart failure at Manresa Hall, a home for retired Jesuits in Merion Station, Pa. He was 93.

Father Burghardt was a Jesuit priest who spent most of his career -- much of it in Maryland and Washington -- as a scholar of church history and theology. He was never a parish priest, yet he was considered a spellbinding preacher whose powerful calls for social justice and understanding influenced generations of Catholic priests and Protestant pastors.

In 1991, when he was 77, Father Burghardt embarked on what became a global project called "Preaching the Just Word." Traveling the world, he led more than 125 intensive, five-day retreats for 7,500 priests and deacons. The goal was to instill both moral fervor and a "fire in the belly" for preaching from the pulpit.

"He had this wonderful way with words, and he really had something to say," said the Rev. Raymond B. Kemp, a former Washington parish priest who accompanied Father Burghardt on most of the retreats. "He would make the prophets people you could understand. He believed the prophetic voice was speaking to real human need."

Among Father Burghardt's 25 books were 15 collections of his homilies and sermons. He also published a memoir and scholarly works on church history and homiletics, or the art of preaching. The 21 honorary degrees he received testified to the respect in which he was held, particularly in the Catholic world.

From 1974 to 2003, he was a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. In 1978, he was named the first theologian in residence at Georgetown, the oldest Catholic university in the country.

Father Burghardt often criticized the restrained preaching style of his fellow priests, saying that "imagination seems to be a vestigial organ that many a Catholic priest was trained to leave in the seminary."

The flavor of his personal theology and rhetorical style can be found in his words from a 1991 interview in the Los Angeles Times.

"I agonize because in this land of milk and honey, one of every five children grows up beneath the poverty line -- and our pulpits are silent.

"I agonize because in this land of the free, blacks and Hispanics are still shackled as second-class citizens . . . and we preachers have nothing to say to their hungers.

"I agonize because thousands upon thousands of women are battered by the men who vowed to respect them, untold children are abused by the barbarians who brought them into being -- and we mouth mealy platitudes about a God who cares for everyone."

Walter John Burghardt was born July 10, 1914, in New York, the son of immigrants from what is now Poland. He entered a Jesuit seminary in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., at 16, and in 1937 received a master's degree from Woodstock College, then in Howard County. He was ordained in 1941.


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