Sunday, February 17, 2008

"Great Preacher" Gone Home

By the multitudes, notices have come pouring in of the death yesterday at 95 of the famed Jesuit preacher Fr Walter Burghardt.

A native Manhattanite and member of the Maryland Province, Burghardt died at the provincial infirmary on the campus of St Joseph's University in Philadelphia. While he'd been ill for several years and was near-blind by the end of his long journey, a friend said that he had been dictating one last book to a typist in his final months.

Numbered by many among the nation's most eminent clerics of any denominational stripe, Burghardt authored countless works long and short, served on the Holy See's International Theological Commission, taught at Woodstock, Catholic U. and, of course, Georgetown. A 1998 documentary series on the nation's "Great Preachers" tapped Burghardt as one of two priests among the group of nine servant-masters of the pulpit -- helmed, as one would expect, by the age's first heir to George Whitefield, Billy Graham. (For the record, both Catholic contributions to the list were Jesuits.)

The successor of John Courtney Murray as editor of Theological Studies -- a post he held for 24 years -- he wrote on topics as varied as preaching in the American vernacular, man's merit of peace, the Holy Family and the proclaiming of the "just word" that became the cause of his later years. But the thread that ran through the whole of it was encapsulated in the title of a 1989 piece bearing an oft-necessary reminder in the journey: "Without Contemplation, the People Perish."

Last year, marking his 75th anniversary as a Jesuit, he wrote in the pages of America that
[T]he more remarkable of early Christian theologians were searching not only for ideas about God; they were searching for God’s very self, struggling for union with divinity. My immersion in the fathers of the church, the early Christian theologians, has appreciably aided my immersion in the center of my Jesuit spirituality, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. In the exercises there is indeed a theology: a sense of sin as sacrilege, a Christology, a theology of redemption and salvation through Christ’s crucifixion, of life after death. But the exercises are not primarily an intellectual enterprise; from beginning to end they are an experience. Ignatius asks me to walk with the Jesus of Nazareth, talk with the Jesus of Jerusalem, suffer with Jesus on the cross, rise with Jesus from death. In his final meditation, Ignatius wants me to see Jesus working within me “as a laborer,” literally a collaborator. As with the early theologians, my theology and my spirituality must converge.
As he once summed it up elsewhere, "Love God above all else. Love every human being -- friend or enemy -- like another self as a child of God, especially those who are on the lower edge of society. Touch the earth, God's material creation -- nuclear energy or a blade of grass -- with respect. With reverence as a gift of God."

According to one report, the funeral liturgy is scheduled for Wednesday at the Jesuit outpost of Holy Trinity in Georgetown, where Burghardt preached and ministered through his decades in DC.

SVILUPPO: A grateful student of Burghardt's has posted a moving tribute.