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Profound Thoughts of Fr. Walter Burghardt, S.J.

From the Woodstock Theological Center Web Page

(Along with Woodstock Fellow Father Raymond B. Kemp, Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., co-directs Woodstock’s project, Preaching the Just Word, a five-day retreat/workshop which he founded nine years ago.)

At 85, Father Burghardt isn’t resting on his laurels. This year, besides his theological memoir, Long Have I Loved You (Orbis Books), he has also published a collection of homilies, Christ in Ten Thousand Places, and an inspirational guide, Hear the Just Word & Live It, both published by Paulist Press. They follow the 18 books he has previously published.

Father Burghardt is best known for his 44-year editorship of Theological Studies (first as managing editor, then as editor-in-chief from 1967 to 1990).

Story of a life and a man: changeless fidelity in times of change What Father Burghardt exemplifies changeless fidelity in times of change. It runs throughout his whole story but is quite explicit when he reflects on the priests he has met in the 86 retreat/workshops he has conducted over the past 9 years for over 4,000 people. I quote it at some length—as I will other sections of his memoir—because it is in listening to his own words that we best learn not only what he thinks about something, but more important what this says about him.

Rather than delve more deeply into such genuinely theological explorations of priesthood, let me end this section with a personal word. I have insisted that the Catholic priesthood, like the Church herself, is constant at bottom and constantly changing. My half century and more of priesthood have told me at least two truths about priestly fidelity. First, we must be faithful to demands that are unchanging: Apostles, disciples, and presbyters, we must preach the word and preside at the Eucharist, help shape Catholic communities and serve the wider human family.

Second—what is far more difficult and perilous—we must respond to a church in motion, a church on pilgrimage, a church that has asked many of us, halfway through our lives, to change. To change the way we think, the way we worship, the way we live. And without guaranteeing that each change will bring certainty to our minds, peace to our souls, joy to our hearts. Quite the contrary. I would be amazed if changes in the Church—liturgical directives, women servers, parish councils, closing of churches and schools, drastic drop in vocations, sacerdotal dropouts and priestly scandals, a host more—did not pose problems, rouse resentments, provoke many priests to ask if this is indeed the same church that washed our foreheads and oiled our fingers.

But here they are, thousands of them—perhaps bloody but only slightly bowed. From my involvement in Preaching the Just Word, moving from rock-bound Maine through a flood-devastated Midwest to quake-threatened California, I find that most are not just living in the '90s; they are alive. An encouraging number of them have moved into a new age, a strange age, a frightening age with enthusiasm and joy, because here is their ministry as the Church sees it now; here is where they try desperately to respond, in new ways, to the needs of a whole little world with more colors and smells, more problems and pressures, more anxiety and despair than the very human Jesus himself experienced. Yes, I find our priests on the whole inspiringly faithful: faithful to what a priest must always be, faithful to what a priest should be now. (pages 257-258)

At 85 one might well be expected to look at change and say, “Enough, already. No more change.” Or to have come to see change as depressing and destructive. But to acknowledge how painful it has been and yet to continue responding with enthusiasm and joy—that’s a mark of deep faith and fidelity. This memoir follows a chronological order: entrance into the Society of Jesus, years of studies and training, ordination to the priesthood, teaching and participation in a variety of scholarly and pastoral activities, and, finally, reflections on aging and dying. What is interesting, however, is the way past experiences have, for him, contemporary relevance. Seeds were sown way back when, which are still blossoming and bearing fruit.

Seeds of Growth: A Sense of History and the Context of Culture One such instance had a direct bearing on why Father Burghardt has not only a tolerance for change, but an appreciation of it. It is a story about his teacher and mentor, Father Johannes Quasten, the renowned patristics scholar at Catholic University.

What Quasten communicated to me and, I believe, to a (tragically small) segment of the American Catholic community was a sense of history, an awareness of cultural contexts, a realization that Christianity is inescapably involved in the ebb and flow of time, that affirmations and doctrines, words and syllables cannot be interpreted in isolation from their original milieu. Moreover, under Quasten’s influence we became aware of a missionary concern that has grown ever more neuralgic: the attitude of the Church to a foreign culture.... The problem is as old as Peter (Acts 10-11), but the principles were already incarnate in the practice of the infant Church. (page 11)

This sense of history and understanding of cultures were to provide invaluable guidance through the bewildering changes to come. Concrete Changes in World and Church Changes in the world. They are listed and described on pages 328 to 331. We will just list them (to whet your appetite for a full reading!):

1. American society is increasingly pluralistic.
2. American society has undergone secularization.
3. American society has experienced an enormous advance in the extent and level of education.
4. Communication is instantaneous, universal, total.
5. A fresh character ideal has come to dominate American, in fact Western, civilization.

Simultaneously there are changes in the U.S. Catholic Church. Again we simply list here what is described in some detail on pages 331 to 336.

1. American Catholicism has been polarized.
2. The umbrella issue covering the conflict is papal authority.
3. The authority-freedom conflict confronts us baldly in moral or ethical issues.
4. The Eucharist now divides us.
5. We have been broken on the issue of priesthood.
6. The impact of patriarchy on the Church’s social teaching.
7. The Church and the labor movement.

How in the world to address change? From “the not numerous center!” Even as he wrestles with these issues, not presuming to know, much less offer, “answers” to what are at root mysteries in God’s dealings with us, Father Burghardt looks for a way to pose the problem.

In a highly recommended volume titled American Catholic (New York: Random House, 1997), Charles Morris has presented what he sees as the problem confronting the American Church now. If the ecclesial right wins a complete victory, the Church could very well wither, surviving as a diminished body of true believers. But if the left wins, the Church could very well go the way of mainstream Protestantism, dissolve into the larger culture, becoming more an aura than an institution. I recognize the danger. Still, I am convinced that our possibilities as a church were more fully predicted by Jesuit Bernard Lonergan three decades ago:

The crisis ... that I have been attempting to depict is a crisis not of faith but of culture.... Classical culture cannot be jettisoned without being replaced; and what replaces it cannot but run counter to classical expectations. There is bound to be formed a solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists. There is bound to be formed a scattered left, captivated by now this, now that new development, exploring now this and now that new possibility. But what will count is a perhaps not numerous center, big enough to be at home in both the old and the new, painstaking enough to work out one by one the transitions to be made, strong enough to refuse half-measures and insist on complete solutions even though it has to wait. (Collection: Papers by Bernard Lonergan, S.J., ed. F. E. Crowe, S.J., New York: Herder and Herder, 1967, 266-67) (page 344)

Thanks to Quasten and Lonergan, Father Burghardt joined the “not numerous center” that works out the careful transitions whereby the old becomes new. It is his sense of historical development and the plurality of cultures that makes this possible.

You see that sense of history, culture, and development growing throughout his life and throughout this book. Take, for instance, the opening lines of Chapter Two: “From Seminary to University: Theology Yesterday and Today.” My organized theological life began in a seminary, the Woodstock described in chapter 1, in the fall of 1938. Much as I relished those four years, it was only much later that I realized the context within which Catholic theology operated in the first half of the twentieth century. To clarify this, I must journey back briefly into theology’s history. (page 23) And back he goes for a dozen pages to trace that history and show how his perspective changed in the process. He not only learned more; he saw what he already knew in an entirely new light. That’s how the “old” becomes “new.”

Features of a Discerning Perspective

1. Freedom—especially from “myopic self-interest”
He dwells on the new ways in which he has come to see and know things in a number of places in the book. They describe the various features of his evolving perspective on things and issues. For instance, the Eucharistic liturgy, he says, can and should free people from myopic self-interest, enabling them to see one another and our social needs with fresh eyes.

How does the liturgy help created reality, creatures, to be the way God made them, serve the purpose for which they were fashioned? Not by providing Christians with principles of solution, not by telling a congregation what precisely to think about specific conflicts—affirmative action, legal and illegal immigrants, food stamps for the needy. More realistically, a celebrant who effectively celebrates the transcendent puts God’s people in touch with that which transcends all their burning concerns, their particular perplexities. Good liturgy frees them to sort out the issues they have to decide, because it makes them aware of their addictions and their illusions, casts a pitiless light on myopic self-interest, detaches from a natural selfishness, facilitates Christian discernment. In that sense liturgy is not so much didactic as evocative. Let God transpire. Let God speak. In a word, good liturgy effects conversion. A prime example is Dorothy Day.

[Dorothy] Day could not go to Communion and be insensitive to the reality that someone was hungry; she could not enjoy the warmth of Eucharistic consolation and know that she had a blanket while her brothers and sisters did not; she could not “go to the altar of God” and be aware that someone was sleeping over a grate on the sidewalk.... This is not to say that her response was merely affective and personal. It was grounded in the theological. But the rational and intellectual came after the response of the heart, the prod of merciful grace. (Theodore Ross, “The Personal Synthesis of Liturgy and Justice,” in K. Hughes and M. Francis, eds., Living No longer for Ourselves: Liturgy and Justice in the Nineties, Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical, 1990, 27-28)

Robert Coles’ account of his first meeting with Dorothy Day is a striking illustration. A troubled graduate student, Coles sought Day out at the Catholic Worker. When he found her, she was deep in conversation with a crazed, incoherent street derelict. After registering his presence, Coles stood back waiting for that crazed conversation to end. Yet it went on and on. When Day finally pulled away from the derelict, she came over to Coles and asked him, “Now to which of us do you want to speak?” (An account of J. Leon Hooper, S.J., fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center) (pages 177-178)

What a great story of how people, through liturgy, are freed to notice things with fresh eyes, and to respond with simplicity and selflessness! It’ s what “facilitates Christian discernment,” as Father Burghardt puts it.

2. Personal experience
Another indispensable feature in Christian discernment is paying close attention to one’s own personal experience. Insistence on personal experience—as contrasted with “head-trips” or “abstract theory”—runs throughout the book. Not surprisingly it appears, for instance, in a chapter on the spirituality of St. Ignatius. Father Burghardt is speaking explicitly of how Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises influence Jesuit education.

The Jesuit educational ideal is not the intellectual mole who lives almost entirely underground, surfaces occasionally for fresh air and a Big Mac, and burrows back down to the earthworms before people can distract him. A college is where young men and women who may one day profoundly influence America’s way of life touch, some for the first time, the ruptures that sever us from our earth, from our sisters and brothers, from our very selves. Not simply in an antiseptic classroom, for all its high importance for understanding. Even more importantly, experience of rupture: experience not only of ecology but of an earth irreparably ravaged, not only abstract poverty but the stomach-bloated poor, not only the words “child abuse” but the vacant stare of the child abused, not only a book on racism but the hopelessness or hatred in human hearts. To yearn for such experience, I know no better introduction than experiencing the Christ of the Spiritual Exercises, the conversion consequent on seeing Christ more clearly, loving him more dearly. (page 201)

3. Imagination
Imagination, and its role in Christian discernment and decision making, is also emphasized throughout the book. In the spirituality of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises it combines with personal experience to give depth and feeling and direction to one’s life-orientation.

In the area of religious behavior, Greeley insists, God is imaged ... by the Catholic as present (mother, lover, friend, spouse). (Andrew M. Greeley, The Catholic Myth: The Behavior and Beliefs of American Catholics [New York: Scribner’s, 1990] 44) In their approach to human society, Catholics tend to see society as a “sacrament” of God, a set of ordered relationships that reveal God’s presence; society is natural and good for humans, and so the Catholic’s natural response to God is social.... Most sharply distinctive of the Catholic tradition, to Greeley, is the Catholic image of Jesus’ mother; for she “blatantly confirms the sacramental instinct”: All of creation, particularly its life-giving and life-nurturing processes, “reveal the lurking and passionate love of God.” (Andrew M. Greeley, The Mary Myth, New York: Seabury, 1977)

Here too Ignatius is exciting. His Exercises, for all their appeal to the Christian intelligence, are not a head trip. They are first and foremost an experience. An experience of Catholic symbols: Adam and Eve and Eden, angels and Satan, hellfire, a virgin and a crib, Egypt and Jerusalem, the Transfiguration, bread and wine, blood and water from the side of Christ, nail marks in risen hands, an ascension into heaven. But not a cold-reason experience....

Ignatius playing with my capacity to imagine is attempting something terribly significant psychologically and spiritually. For I am no longer looking at the life of Christ sheerly as history. The events of Jesus’ earthly existence must be seen as a “today,” the historical happenings drawn into my own world here and now. Here Ignatius touched a medieval tradition while convalescing from cannon wounds back at Loyola. He was profoundly impressed by what an unknown Franciscan had written:

If you wish to draw profit from these meditations ... make everything that the Lord Jesus said and did present to yourself, just as though you were hearing it with your ears and seeing it with your eyes.... And even when it is related in the past tense you should contemplate it all as though present today.... (Quoted from Hugo Rahner, S.J., Ignatius the Theologian, New York: Herder and Herder, 1968, 193)

That is how I achieve not abstract knowledge but what the medievals called “familiarity with Christ,” an understanding that takes hold not only of discursive reasoning but of the whole person, an imagining that leads to loving—a direct experience of God’s love, a direct return of love. (pages 199-200)

4. Feelings
Quite evidently, feelings play a key role in a Christian discernment and the perspective which focuses the process. Ignatius bids us to pay attention to the feelings we experience as we weigh possible choices or courses of action. In shorthand he asks us to discover if it is “consolation” we feel or “desolation.” “Consolation” is feelings that draw us toward God and loving service of one another. “Desolation” is the opposite: what attracts us to “myopic self-interest.” It is generally through your feelings, Ignatius is saying, that you come to know God’s desires of you. And thus the importance of feeling our feelings, of understanding them, and evaluating them accurately.

No wonder Father Burghardt pays so much attention to feelings throughout his life and throughout his book.

Looking back, I regret that relatively little attention was given [in my early Jesuit training] to the role of the senses, of emotion and passion, so important to the Ignatius of the Exercises. Far too frequently the retreat was a head trip. I suspect that several factors were at work here—the predominance of the rational in our education; suspicion of the emotions as dangerous aspects of our sinful nature (no one bothered to tell us that intellect and free will are also perilous); perhaps even the “Protestant” emphasis on that so subjective a thing called experience. More recent exponents of the Exercises are more holistic in their approach. I am convinced that Ignatius would react enthusiastically to a moving paragraph penned by that most rigorous of theologians Bernard Lonergan:

... feeling [that answers to what is intended, apprehended, represented] gives intentional consciousness its mass, momentum, drive, power. Without these feelings our knowing and deciding would be paper thin. Because of our feelings, our desires and our fears, our hope or despair, our enthusiasm and indignation, our esteem and contempt, our trust and distrust, our love and hatred, our tenderness and wrath, our admiration, veneration, reverence, our dread, horror, terror, we are oriented massively and dynamically in a world mediated by meaning. We have feelings about other persons, we feel for them, we feel with them. We have feelings about our respective situations, about the past, about the future, about evils to be lamented or remedied, about the good that can, might, must be accomplished. (Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Method in Theology, New York: Herder and Herder, 1972, 31) (page 186) And what follows this citation is “Some examples of the old and new,” that is, ways in which we now read and pray the Spiritual Exercises with new eyes and hearts, thanks to a new appreciation of feelings.

5. God’s Family
And finally the genuinely Christian perspective is profoundly social. It sees and knows all people as children of God, sisters and brothers of one another. And what a difference this makes to our outlook and evaluations, and therefore in what we will decide to do.

The social focus of God’s Book is evident on the first page. As I indicated above, God’s creative intent centered not on isolated individuals but on a people, a community, a family. In that divine vision, women and men “are God ’s representatives and conversation partners in the world, with a fundamental dignity that must be respected and fostered. They are to exist in interdependence and mutual support and are to care for the world with respect, as for a gift received from God ....” (John R. Donahue, S.J., What Does the Lord Require? A Bibliographical Essay on the Bible and Social Justice [Studies in Jesuit Spirituality 25/2: March 1993; St. Louis: Seminar in Jesuit Spirituality, 1993] 20-21)

This divine idea began to take concrete shape when God, bringing an oppressed mass out of Egypt, created a people which was to gather in prayer and thanksgiving (cult) and to live according to God's constitution (torah). Those who were no people God made into a people. The Exodus, therefore, was not simply a liberation from slavery; it was the formation of a new social order—what Norbert Lohfink called “a contrast society.” (Option for the Poor: The Basic Principle of Liberation Theology in Light of the Bible, Berkeley: Bible, 1986) God sum-moned the entire community to response and responsibility (see Deut 6:20-25).... “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your might” (Deut 6:5); and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18)....

This is the tradition that sparked the ministry of Jesus. It was summed up in the synagogue at Nazareth, in what Luke presents as Jesus’ programmatic summation of his mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for [the Lord] has anointed me, has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and sight for the blind, to send the downtrodden away relieved ...” (Lk 4:18; cf. Isa 61:1-2).... This is what our covenant demands—what Jesus summed up when he said, “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). (pages 167-169)

Father Burghardt casts his eye—thus honed in understanding, feelings, imagination, concern for others, freedom from myopic self-interest, and a profound sense of human community—on a broad range of issues in this book: racism and human equality, ecology and care for the environment, the plight of children, ecumenism and Christian unity, population and birth control, and teaching authority in the Church. Each of these deserves description, but one example, unfortunately, must suffice: the contribution of women to our world and to the Church.

From his early days as a patristic scholar Father Burghardt was taken with the role of Jesus’ mother Mary in the life of the Church and as a model for the Church. From there he wrote appreciatively of the role of women in the family, not only in the nuclear family, but in the whole human family. And more recently he has focused on feminism and the new debates that surround it.

After listing on a page and a half (315-317) a rash of articles published in Theological Studies while he was editor, he says that, “It was in the context of such scholarly contributions by women that I began to appreciate the feminist movement.” And then goes on: “Let me try to summarize my understanding of (1) feminism as a generic term, (2) feminism in a Christian context, (3) a new feminism gaining some strength today, and (4) feminist challenges to the mother of Jesus.

And we can practically feel him wrestling with this issue as he reflects aloud. What is the driving force behind the feminist movement? Women's experience of being marginalized, accessories to men, systematically devalued, unable to make significant decisions for the whole community. The offending system? Sexism, a prejudice that views women as essentially less valuable than men on the basis of biological sex. The harmful effects in civil society? Denial of political, economic, legal, and educational rights; disparity in working hours, wealth, land, literacy, and food; bodily and sexual exploitation and abuse. Feminism brings these situations to consciousness, analyzes the situations, criticizes and resists the pattern as unjust. As with other surges toward emancipation—colonized nations, subjugated peoples, people of color, the young, the economically poor—women are rising up and claiming their human worth.

What does Christian feminism add to this? Once again I find Elizabeth Johnson illuminatingly succinct:

Christian feminism is a worldview or stance that affirms the equal human dignity of women, criticizes patriarchy for violating this dignity, and advocates change to bring about more just and mutual relationships between women and men and human beings with the earth—and does so based on the deepest truth of the gospel itself. Its assumptions, criticisms, and goals are drawn from the message and spirit of Jesus the Christ encountered from the perspective of women's experience. (Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., “Feminism and Sharing the Faith: A Catholic Dilemma,” Warren Lecture Series in Catholic Studies 29, Tulsa, Oklahoma: University of Tulsa, 1994, 2)

The basic assumption of male-female equality leads to a criterion for what is true, good, and beautiful: “Theories, attitudes, laws, and structures that promote the dignity of the female human person are salvific and according to the divine will; theories or structures that deny or violate women’s dignity are contrary to God’s intent.” (Ibid., 4) (pages 317-318) Father Burghardt goes on to speak of specific contributions of women in society and in the church, including a careful historical, canonical, and theological analysis of the question of women’s ordination.

This chapter on “Women in the Church” ends with a discussion of “Women Preachers?” Father Burghardt’s final thoughts are so typical: I have but one regret: that “the days of our life are 70 years, or perhaps 80 if we are strong” (Ps 90:10). In that context, I shall not experience the day when women preach the gospel with the same freedom I have enjoyed for more than half a century. “Alas! poor Yorick.” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1, lines 201 ff) (page 327)

Conclusion: the enticement!

I could go on and on. The above is simply a “sampler,” a “taster’s choice,” to whet the appetite.

Read the book! Travel the journey over past years and into contemporary issues with this gifted and genial guide. It is not just that you will learn a lot of facts about people, issues, and events. You will. But, more important, you will find yourself entering into his way of looking at things, appreciating them, judging them, and deciding what to do about them. It can be an apprenticeship in Christian discernment.

And, very likely, you will find yourself looking at people, issues, and events in your own daily life in a whole new way. And what you end up doing about them may come as a delightful surprise to you.

We started off talking about “unchanging fidelity in times of change.” We have watched a man changing with his times while rooted in changeless fidelity. He has given us an example. He has left us a challenge. Ours is to “go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37).

Thank you, Walter.

From the dust jacket:

...This intellectual autobiography is an amazing display of erudition in the cause of edification—an ever-inquiring mind, capacious spirit, and creative imagination open to all the ways the Spirit builds up the Church.... Here is a compleat Jesuit open to all the developments in academy and society that stretch the mind and mission of the church; the memoir is required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the theology lying behind Vatican II and carrying its vision forward.” Monsignor Philip J. Murnion, director of National Pastoral Life Center

And, oh yes, to order Long Have I Loved You by Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., The cost is $20.00 for all 506 pages—less than four cents per page!
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