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Posted January 4, 2003

Rev. Walter Burghardt Honored
By Washington Theological Union
With 2002 Distinguished Service Award



(November 12, 2002, Washington, DC) -- Washington Theological Union presented its 2002 Distinguished Service Award bronze medallion to Fr. Walter J. Burghardt, SJ, on October 25, 2002 at the Wyndham City Center Hotel.

We pay "tribute to Father Walter Burghardt of the Society of Jesus for the singular contribution he has made to both theological scholarship and pastoral practice," said Rev. Daniel McLellan, OFM, president of the Washington Theological Union, a Roman Catholic school of theology and ministry.

"Father Burghardt's contributions to the study of theology and the art of preaching are legendary. The world knows Father Burghardt as the preacher's preacher," Franciscan Fr. McLellan said.

Rev. Canice Connors, OFM Conv, the Union's chairman of the board of trustees and president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, stated that Fr. Burghardt "has led an abundant life of service to the Lord and his people. At a time in life when he could have justifiably decided to rest, Fr. Burghardt discerned that there was work still to be done. He conceived and co-directs the unique retreat/workshop project 'Preaching the Just Word.' This is a major effort to improve preaching across the country and beyond by emphasizing biblical justice and calling preachers to a vital spirituality."

Following the award presentation, Fr. Burghardt delivered the McCarthy Lecture, a highpoint in the Union's academic year. He spoke on "Justice 2002: Critical Issues that Confront America Today" and focused his attention on different forms of justice and the injustice of poor children in America and the use of capital punishment.

Fr. Burghardt spoke on three ways in which justice is practiced. Ethical or philosophical justice is to "give to every man, woman and child what each deserves -- what each can claim as a right ... The right to life. The right to work. The right to a habitable home." Legal justice is to "give to every man, woman and child what that person deserves because it is written in our laws.

"Now, both those types of justice are important for human living, but inadequate for Christian living. For Christian living, we have to add biblical justice. What is biblical justice? Fidelity. ... Fidelity to relationships that stem from our covenant cut by God in the blood of Christ . . . .

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

Fr. Burghardt then turned his attention to children and used an analogy from the Children's Defense Fund's The State of America's Children Yearbook 2000 describing an American family with six children, five of whom are nourished, sleep in comfortable rooms, go to good schools and are loved by their parents. The sixth child goes hungry, sleeps in temporary shelter, attends a poor school with inadequately trained teachers and is neglected.

"All would agree that such a family is dysfunctional. Should not the same word characterize the United States where its children are concerned? Its sixth child," said Fr. Burghardt. "Preaching on poverty," said Fr. Burghardt, "I have often expressed a dream of mine. Imagine every family with a fair share of this world's goods adopting one poor child. Not legal adoption. Rather a consistent effort to ensure that one specific child, personally known, will have one need supplied. It might be one nutritious meal each week; or a warm jacket; ... or simply a shoulder on which to rest. I admit, it takes not only imagination, but courage. To lessen the peril of aloneness, of singularity, it would help if a whole parish were to organize so precious a project. You know, were a dream like this to catch fire, it could transform this country now 16th among industrialized nations in its efforts to lift children out of poverty. Small beginnings, like Jimmy Carter's Habitat for Humanity, can grow like the Gospel's mustard seed."

Fr. Burghardt next spoke of his "conviction that capital punishment cannot be justified in America today. If capital punishment actually hinders the fight against crime; if capital punishment drains millions of dollars from more promising efforts to restore safety to our lives; if people have in fact been executed for crimes they did not commit; if convicts charged with capital crimes frequently do not have adequate defense counsel; if prisoners have spent as many as 15 years on death row before being found innocent; if a disproportionate number of those on death row are African Americans or Hispanics, poor, uneducated, even retarded; if states are declaring or considering a moratorium on capital punishment because of acknowledged injustices in the system; if virtually every country across Europe has outlawed it; if astute persons such as Pope John Paul II, not lacking in compassion for the families of victims, are convinced that humanity has reached a stage where capital punishment is no longer necessary to protect society; if the primary motivation behind capital punishment is vengeance; if execution only rarely if ever brings genuine closure to the agony of the bereaved; if a good case can be made for the sanctity of all human life, even the life of the murderer or rapist; and if restorative justice can at times effect a transformation in the life of even the most hardened criminal -- must we not seriously consider whether capital punishment is itself an unjust system?"

Fr. Burghardt concluded that, as Christians, we "have a prior obligation" beyond legal and ethical justice to "fidelity to relationships that stem from our covenant with God in Christ. That covenant with God in Christ demands of us something that ethical justice and legal justice may not command. It demands of us one four-letter word: love. No laws can demand it. No philosophy command it. ... Love every other as Jesus has loved us. I trust that such will be increasingly our Christian way of life."

Fr. Burghardt taught historical theology, the early Fathers of the Church, for 32 years at Woodstock College and the Catholic University of America. He set the tone in theological scholarship in America with his 44-year editorship of the seminal journal, Theological Studies. Now a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, Fr. Burghardt has published 21 books and 293 articles. He co-founded, edits and continues to write for The Living Pulput, the stellar ecumenical journal dedicated to energizing preaching. His areas of scholarly interest have ranged from preaching and patristric theology to biblical justice and ecumenism.

Washington Theological Union's Distinguished Service Award was established in 1979 to recognize individuals who have made outstanding achievements in theological scholarship or pastoral ministry. A grant from the Henry J. and Rose C. McCarthy Fund for Visiting Faculty sponsors the address given each year by the honored individual. Past recipients include Bishop Donal Lamont, O Carm (Diocese of Mutare, Zimbabwe), Rev. Roland Murphy, O Carm (biblical scholar and author), Dr. Monika Hellwig (theologian and executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities), Rev. Raymond Brown, SS (biblical scholar and author), Rev. Brian Hehir (moral theologian, educator and advisor to US bishops), Msgr. Philip Murnion (founding director of the National Pastoral Life Center), Mrs. Dolores Leckey (author and senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center), Msgr. George Higgins (esteemed labor priest and advocate), Bishop P. Francis Murphy (Archdiocese of Baltimore), and Rev. John J. Enzler (model parish priest and defender of the disabled, elderly and underprivileged).

Washington Theological Union educates to provide the Church with pastors and ministers worthy of the people they serve. For nearly 35 years, the Union has educated men and women for ministry. As an accredited, Roman Catholic graduate school of theology and ministry, Washington Theological Union educates and forms individuals for service, witness, mission and leadership in the Church. Led by the Union's outstanding faculty, men and women -- priesthood candidates, lay students and experienced ministers -- learn in a dynamic, collaborative environment. By providing the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in an increasingly complex world, the Union graduates competent, prayerful and committed ministers for service to the Church. A significant percentage of its students prepare for the priestly ministry of the Catholic Church; others intend to work in parishes, schools, or social ministries such as welfare agencies and hospitals. Still others seek a greater understanding of their own spirituality and life experiences.