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Jesuit Launching Project to 'Fill Priests' Bellies With Fire'


WASHINGTON — Decrying "the poverty of our preaching," one of the Roman Catholic Church's most prominent figures has launched a national project to "fill priests' bellies with fire" as the first step toward prodding congregations to do more about social problems.

Father Walter J. Burghardt, 77, a noted Jesuit preacher, writer and theologian, retired from Georgetown University last year to organize a series of workshop retreats aimed at developing a broad network of activist priests with enhanced preaching skills.

"This has generated an incredible amount of excitement because social justice problems have mushroomed," Burghardt said of the project, which is run through the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown and is called "Preaching the Just Word."

"What we are trying to do is unique in the history of the Catholic Church in this country," he said. "There has never been an effort self-organized in this fashion to move Catholic social action toward problems that really harrow us these days."

The first five-day session was held near Annapolis, Md., last May, drawing 43 priests from 24 states.

BACKGROUND: Burghardt announced his plans to launch the project in a searing sermon delivered at Holy Trinity Church here in September, 1990.

"After three quarters of a century, I am deeply disturbed at the poverty of our preaching," he said of his fellow priests.

"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, are leaving our church in record numbers--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. . . ."

In an interview, Burghardt explained the rationale behind his project.

He said that Catholic preaching is "not very effective" in part because "a number of priests don't feel competent to preach. Many of them claim they don't have time to prepare. My answer to them across the country is: Where are your priorities? If preaching is No. 1 or 2, then something else goes.

"Also, I think a fair number of our priests don't realize how terribly important preaching is. You can do an incredible amount of harm and drive people out of the church. . . . "

Burghardt said that congregations also present "obstacles" to effective preaching.

"There is a large number of Catholics who don't believe that social issues belong in the pulpit," he said. "And some of those who admit that such things do belong feel they are being aimed at for not doing enough about them.

"That's why it's important for the preacher to learn how to present these things persuasively. You're not attacking anybody. You are trying to raise consciousness about the issues and persuade them to do something about them."

OUTLOOK: Forty-five preachers from California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Montana, Idaho and Arizona are expected to meet at a retreat house in Los Altos, Calif., in January.

The event will include meditation, lectures on preaching and nuts-and-bolts discussions about how to tackle social ills ranging from homelessness and gang wars to spouse-beating, teen-age pregnancy and drug abuse.

Other retreats are planned in Michigan, Maryland and New York next year, provided that $200,000 can be raised.

"The idea is that these people will go back to their areas and be, as it were, facilitators of the program--get other priests interested and their congregations moving also," Burghardt said.

"These retreats have to take place in the context of spirituality, a conversion process that turns the preacher inside out, puts fire in the belly. We start with priests because they are in contact every week with the vast majority of Catholic worshipers. They have a captive audience."

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