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Obituaries / The Rev. Walter J. Burghardt, 1914 - 2008

Theologian was a scholar and preacher

February 26, 2008|Matt Schudel | Washington Post

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.

Burghardt spent most of his career 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, 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 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 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.

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."

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 in Maryland. He was ordained in 1941.

Burghardt continued his studies at Woodstock and taught at the seminary from 1946 until it closed in 1974. He had a religious radio show in Baltimore, Md., throughout the 1950s.

He received a doctorate in theology from Catholic University in 1957 and was on the university's faculty from 1974 to 1978.

Burghardt was an authority on early church writings and translated many from ancient languages.

He was also known for his cultured manner, for his wide learning -- he urged priests to cultivate an interest in literature, history and art -- and for his graceful writing style.

From 1946 to 1990, he was managing editor and then editor of the influential Jesuit journal Theological Studies. In 1992, he co-founded the ecumenical quarterly The Living Pulpit.

In 1968, Burghardt was named to the first International Theological Commission by Pope Paul VI, even though he publicly disagreed with the pope's encyclical forbidding birth control among Catholics.

In a 1994 address at Georgetown, Burghardt said that decision had "cost me dearly" and led to the severing of some long friendships.

As he grew older, Burghardt became more outspoken about what he considered the moral failures of modern society, from poverty and hunger to capital punishment, environmental degradation, treatment of the elderly and the war in Iraq.

Quoting Psalms 24:1, he wrote: "A well-rounded spirituality includes a realization sung by the Psalmist, 'The earth is the Lord's and all it holds'; we are only temporary tenants."

He has no immediate survivors.

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