Walter J. Burghardt, S.J. (1914-2008)

It is with sadness and gratitude that I note the passing of Fr. Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., the brilliant Jesuit homilist who not only preached beautifully but taught and encouraged others to do so as well. He died last Saturday at the age of 93. A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated tonight at Holy Trinity in Georgetown. The Washington Post obituary is here.

Fr. Burghardt was Theologian-in-Residence at Georgetown University while I was a student there. Unfortunately, I was one of the skeptics-in-residence during the same period, so my path did not cross Fr. Burghardt’s and I knew almost nothing about him until he preached the homily at our Baccalaureate Mass on May 26, 1985. That day, he began by drawing a contrast between the two main characters in the then-current movie Amadeus: Salieri, the dutiful but mediocre court composer (“dull as scales, a technician . . . without a hint of inspiration”), and Mozart, the “foul-mouthed, bottom-pinching boor” in whose music Salieri knows he hears “the voice of God.” Salieri had always thanked God (“Grazie, Signore!”) piece by piece for the plodding scores he constructed, but “[t]ormented with his own limitations and the limitless talent of Mozart, he burns his crucifix in rebellion against an unjust God.”

Using these two characters to bring to life St. Paul’s teachings about the Body of Christ and its members (1 Cor. 12:3-7, 12-13), Fr. Burghardt told us,

All of you have your charisms, your gifts from nature and the Spirit. All of you are needed, indispensable, if the Spirit within each of you is to transform the whole.

You see, if this is to be genuinely the age of the laity, each of you has a part to play. Your task, as Vatican II put it, is “to penetrate and perfect the temporal sphere with the spirit of the gospel,” to shape this earthly city into a city of justice, of peace, of love. Such is your vocation — not by an ordination, a vow ceremony, a special adult commissioning. Such is your mission by your baptism.

Where you fulfill your distinctive function, where you play your irreplaceable role, is not a sanctuary but our sin-scarred earth. Your apostolic turf is where you live and move and have your being: E.F. Hutton or the Pentagon, ABC or the F.B.I., Children’s Hospital or the Washington Post, Harvard or the little red schoolhouse, wherever you are. For, with rare exceptions, only lay Christians can bring Christ to law office and legislature, to public school and private industry, to executive suite and union hall, to media and medicine, to the thousand and one areas of human living seldom open to the ordained. And here you are not replacing a shrinking clergy, not substitutes waiting for the first team to come back on. These are your home grounds; here you are the Church, by right and duty.

Though I was not then a Catholic, I have since had many occasions to take these words to heart. Eventually, I began buying his many collections of homilies, which exposed me to some of what I had been missing. (The three homilies excerpted here are from Grace on Crutches and Tell the Next Generation.)

I now think of Fr. Burghardt at the beginning of every Lent, thanks to two particularly memorable Ash Wednesday homilies he preached. In one of them, he took aim at the self-absorption that seems to accompany many penitential Lenten practices, and urged us to renounce them; and instead, to adopt an “asceticism of humor”:

To you I am suggesting that you give up something sweeter than candy, smokier than Kents, perhaps more destructive than sin. I mean an absorption in yourself — where you take yourself all too seriously, where the days and nights rotate around you, your heartache and your hiatal hernia, your successes and your failures, your problems and frustrations. For an asceticism of humor, you must distance yourself from yourself, see yourself in perspective, as you really are. . . . Aristotle said you are a rational animal; I say you are an angel with an incredible capacity for beer!

[. . .]

Christianity needs men and women who repent of their smallness, fast from their selfishness, abstain from isolation. . . . Here, right where you are; now, not after Easter. By bringing the smiling Christ, the joy of Jesus, to one man, woman, or child reliving his passion. Who knows? It just might be your own healing, your own salvation.

At any rate, if the crucified Christ can look redeeming, the crucified Christian can at least look redeemed! For your Lenten penance, therefore, please . . . look . . . redeemed.

And in another Ash Wednesday gem, Fr. Burghardt reflected on the liturgical “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return.”

Pretty grim, isn’t it? Only if you stop there; only if you stop with the symbol that is dust. But that symbol is incomplete. When I dust your forehead, I dust it with another symbol: the sign of the cross. And that symbol declares that dust has been redeemed. Redeemed not in some shadowy sense but with startling realism. . . . And so, ever since Bethlehem and Calvary, this speck of humanity that is you, this is now “charged with the grandeur of God.” You are brothers and sisters of God-in-flesh. Your dust is literally electric with God’s own life; your nothingness is filled with God’s eternity. Your nothingness has Christ’s own shape.

With this new shape, the sentence “You are dust and to dust you will return” ought no longer terrify us. We no longer have to despair at our ceaseless downward movement to death. Of course we shall die; and I, for one, am not anxious to die — I love this life with a passion that is perhaps unchristian. But the sign of the cross cries to us that death is not the end of our dust.

For the life of Walter J. Burghardt, grazie, Signore!

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6 Responses to “Walter J. Burghardt, S.J. (1914-2008)”

  1. David Olazabal Says:

    Mark: This was awesome. No idea how you remember stuff like this; I can’t even remember the homily from last Sunday. I did not know Father Burghardt at Georgetown but his message that we can find our own vocation and make our own contribution in our own way in our daily lives is as powerful as it comes. We may be a bunch of Salieris (you may have a little more Mozart in you than the rest of us), but we can be the best Salieris we can be. And that can actually make a difference.

  2. lisa Says:

    I attended Walter’s funeral Wednesday evening. The last time I saw Walter was when he presided over my wedding at Holy Trinity in 1990. I had met Walter in the quad behind Healy in the fall of 1982. Father Burghardt made everyone and everything seem more beautiful. He struggled with his anxiety about illness. He thought he had every terminal disease and laughed about his inability to have faith in his health. Every homliy was a work of art. His words were labored over for hours with love and diligence. He communicated the words with conviction and eloquence. People were silenced and minds were opened with his gift. Students who did not know him should not miss the opportunity to learn of him. That knowledge will remain longer than anthing else learned at GU.

  3. David Fitzgerald Says:

    You know, there are days when being reminded that I had such good teachers really pisses me off! Thanks, Mark. Its important to remember.

  4. David Turner Says:

    I met Walter Burghardt about forty years ago. We were houseguests over Labor Day weekend at the vacation home of mutual friends. Walter taught us all how to make Scotch sours. But what I remember best is the way he captained our volleyball team in a series of games against the neighbors’ team. Walter evidently played a lot of volleyball at Woodstock College and was quite good at it, but he was guiding a team that otherwise had almost no volleyball experience. Our opponents were guys who played volleyball year-round at the Y. Our situation appeared hopeless, but Walter, ever encouraging, ever supportive, got us to believe in ourselves. We improved our play, and as we did the other team, lacking a Walter, fell to bickering and blaming one another. Our team won the volleyball competition and we all came away with an important life lesson. (Even if we had only come close, but had not won in the end, the lesson would have been the same.) That same weekend, there were heated discussions among the guests about the Vietnam War then raging. I know I was one of those who crossed the line into belligerent righteousness in defending my strongly-held views. But Walter knew just how to calm things down and to be an effective peacemaker. Another life lesson learned. Over the years since, I’ve read and profited from several of Walter’s books. I preach occasionally at my church, and I’ve found it helpful to adopt Walter’s rule that every homily should have three distinct parts. So I am greatly in Walter’s debt, and with many, many others I mourn his passing.

  5. Ellen Taylor Says:

    I knew Fr. Burghardt in the early 1970s when he was at Woodstock Seminary in upper Manhattan. He presided over the marriage of an old friend of mine and quickly became my friend as well. We had long talks at my parties, where Fr. B was an active participant. For years I received his Christmas letter. I didn’t receive it this year so decided to see if he had passed; I had a feeling he must have as I knew he was now in his 90s and had talked about his feelings about aging and related aches and pains in his letter. The last time I saw Walter was when he was given an honorary doctorate at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester MA, along with Mario Cuomo and Alexandr Solshenitsyn in June of 1984. I was pleased to see his picture tonight as I read all the notices and remembrances of his death and saw he was still the handsome man I knew 30 years ago. I already feel the loss of his passing, but am so grateful that he was a part, however long ago, of my life. I am enriched and blessed.

  6. Pentecost in the Poetry Corner « Reasonable Minds Says:

    […] in the Poetry Corner May 10, 2008 — Mark Grannis A few months ago, we said goodbye to Walter Burghardt, S.J. This is one of the poems I first read thanks to him, and it focuses on one of the themes that runs […]


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