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Walter Burghardt, leading American theologian

By James Martin, S.J.

Washington, February 20, 2007 A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered here today at Holy Trinity Church for Father Walter J. Burghardt, 93,  renowned Jesuit theologian,  who died February 16.

"Fr. Burghardt was a great friend and mentor to me,"  said Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, senior program director for Faith and Order of the National Council of Churches USA.

"When I was in college at Georgetown, I was always captivated by his sermons, filled as they were with wisdom, insight, beautifully crafted language, and, of course, humor." Kireopoulos said.

"How his preaching soared! In later years, as a theologian myself, remembering our private talks I became even more grateful to him, not only for his inspiring example, but for watering the seed of faith planted within me. May his memory be eternal!"

Father Burghardt was born in New York July 10, 1914, the son of European immigrants John and Mary Krupp Burghardt. He credited his father with teaching him the value of justice. When young Walter announced he wanted to be a Jesuit, his father replied, "If that's what you want, then be a good one." He had one brother, the late Edward Burghardt.

A Jesuit for 77 years, he earned his Masters degree as well as licentiates in both philosophy and sacred theology at the former Woodstock College near Baltimore, where he was ordained a priest in 1941. Fr. Burghardt received his doctorate in sacred theology from the Catholic University of American in 1957.

He taught historical theology for 32 years at Woodstock College. He was also a professor at Catholic University and a visiting lecturer at Union Theological Seminary in New York City as well as Princeton Theological Seminary. Editor in chief of the journal Theological Studies for 23 years, he was until recently on the staff of Woodstock Theological Center in Washington as a senior fellow and as director of the WTC project "Preaching the Just Word."

Fr. Burghardt was the author of more than 300 articles in journals as varied as the Encyclopedia Britannica, Our Sunday Visitor, Variety and America. He was perhaps best known for his many books on preaching. He published more than 25 books over the past 50 years. His most recent book was Justice: A Global Adventure, published by Orbis Books in 2004. He also published a memoir in 2000, Long Have I Loved You: A Theologian Reflects on His Church, which was awarded first prize by the Catholic Press Association.

"Walter's ministry as a Jesuit apostle on a variety of levels was impressive, successful and certainly prolific," recalled Fr. Timothy B. Brown, SJ, Maryland Jesuit Provincial. "Through his extensive writings and profound preaching and breaking open God's word, he touched the lives of many people through his long years of service to the Church and the Society of Jesus."

" 'Sitting at the feet' of a master preacher to see in person the art and the craft of preaching was so inspiring," recalled the Rev. Brian Cavanaugh, T.O.R., who worked with Fr. Burghardt on his books on preaching for Paulist Press. "His words of wisdom will be missed by all his fans. I'll never forget his advice to me: 'Never settle for a good word when the best word is better.' I got a better thesaurus," Fr. Cavanaugh said.

Baltimoreans may recall his radio program in the 1950s heard on the former WWIN. He was also featured on the Catholic Hour on NBC in 1959 and 1964. He was listed in "Best Easter Sermons" in LIFE magazine on Easter, 1957. Because of his preaching style, Fr. Burghardt was featured in the Odyssey Channel's series "Great Preachers" in 1998. In the 25-minute film, he preaches on social justice.

Fr. Burghardt worked tirelessly for Christian unity. Among his many memberships were the Academic Council of the Ecumenical Institute for Advanced Theological Studies in Jerusalem, the Baltimore Archdiocesan Commission for Christian Unity, the U.S. Dialogue Group of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Conversations and the North American Academy of Ecumenists of which he was president.

He held 21 honorary degrees from Catholic universities all over the country, from the University of Notre Dame to St. Thomas University in New Brunswick, Canada, to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.

He was honored for his scholarship and his service many times. Among his honors were the Cardinal Spellman Award for outstanding contributions to sacred theology in 1962, to the Twelve Most Effective Preachers Medallion from Baylor University in 1996 to the Distinguished Service award from Washington Theological Union in 2002. Fr. Burghardt was also given the award for "exemplary contributions to the life and ministry of preaching by the Catholic Coalition on Preaching in 2002" which then named the annual award in his honor.

"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," Fr. Burghardt once said. "Touch the earth, God's material creation--nuclear energy or a blade of grass--with respect. With reverence as a gift of God."

Burial is in the Woodstock Jesuit Cemetery in Woodstock, Md. Donations may be sent in his memory to Preaching the Just Word, Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, Washington, DC 200571137.

 


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