On February 10, 1931, my father escorted his 16-year-old son from our home in Manhattan to the Jesuit novitiate outside Poughkeepsie, N.Y. At the door of St. Andrew-on-Hudson we were met by a novice appointed by the master of novices to be my personal “angel,” a sort of big brother. His greetings? To me: “Welcome, Brother Burghardt!” To my father: “You have 15 minutes with your son.” Three-quarters of a century have fled since that defining day, years too eventful to be recaptured in a short article. Let me simply sketch several significant facets of Christian thinking and living that have not only transformed my own priestly/professional life but are, or should be, important for the vitality of the church as a whole.
First, my early and lasting infatuation with the early Christian theologians: controversialists like Origen, preachers like Chrysostom, profound thinkers like Augustine, popes with the stature of Leo I and Gregory the Great. Why thrust such theologians from a distant past into contemporary Christianity? Because their theology was itself a spirituality. Not for them the medieval movement that, for justifiable educational reasons, divided theology and spirituality into two distinct disciplines. Once convinced of the need to close the divide, I could, and did, plunge into a large array of patristic tomes with the comforting assurance that not only would my head be enriched with new knowledge but my heart and soul would be nourished as well.
Phrased another way, the more remarkable of early Christian theologians were searching not only for ideas about God; they were searching for God’s very self, struggling for union with divinity. My immersion in the fathers of the church, the early Christian theologians, has appreciably aided my immersion in the center of my Jesuit spirituality, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. In the exercises there is indeed a theology: a sense of sin as sacrilege, a Christology, a theology of redemption and salvation through Christ’s crucifixion, of life after death. But the exercises are not primarily an intellectual enterprise; from beginning to end they are an experience. Ignatius asks me to walk with the Jesus of Nazareth, talk with the Jesus of Jerusalem, suffer with Jesus on the cross, rise with Jesus from death. In his final meditation, Ignatius wants me to see Jesus working within me “as a laborer,” literally a collaborator. As with the early theologians, my theology and my spirituality must converge.
Following the Council
The Second Vatican Council (1961-65). I followed the council’s discussions and declarations so intently and intensely that the council became part and parcel of my thinking and living. Two of the 16 documents may suffice here to suggest why Vatican II has cast so significant a spell over me and why it merits the gratitude of the entire church.
One splendid example is the council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom.” In unmistakable language the council declares that “especially in matters religious” a human person “is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience, nor is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience” (No. 3). French delegates wanted a deeper, more sophisticated treatment of religious freedom; but others, like the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, one of the primary architects of the document, were convinced that what the times demanded was a clear, unequivocal statement that the Catholic Church is unreservedly committed to religious freedom. Not only in places where the church is a minority, as in largely Islamic countries, but also where Catholicism is strong and influential, as in Italy. True, indeed, and still it remains a deplorable fact that the church arrived late on the religious freedom scene. As Father Murray wryly commented, this affirmation of religious freedom “brought the church into the 19th century.”
This was the most controversial document of the whole council, if only because it raised so acutely an issue of supreme significance: the development of doctrine. The actual development from the Syllabus of Errors (1864) to the “Declaration on Religious Freedom” (1965) still has to be explored and explained. And the opponents of religious freedom were many and powerful. In this regard I shall not soon forget a swift statement by Father Murray during a lecture at Georgetown University between the third and fourth sessions of the council, with the declaration still in peril: “The great adversary of the document was Michael Cardinal Browne, who proved more unsinkable than his famous Irish cousin, Molly.”
The “Declaration on Religious Freedom”—subtitled “On the Right of the Person and of Communities to Social and Civil Freedom in Matters Religious”—contributed significantly to my scholarly activity as a Jesuit, because it stimulated, implicitly demanded, widespread research on the theological meaning of Christian freedom. In Murray’s crisp summary: “The issues are many—the dignity of the person, the foundations of Christian freedom, its object or content, its limits and their criterion, the measure of its responsible use, its relation to the legitimate reaches of authority and to the saving counsels of prudence, the perils that lurk in it, and the forms of corruption to which it is prone. All these issues must be considered in a spirit of sober and informed reflection.”
Equally influential has been the council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” Of primary importance for my personal theology and for my writing is the constitution’s vision of the church’s role in the modern world. Against all pretensions of ecclesiastical omnicompetence, the church believes she can best serve the human family, make it more human, by admitting her own limitations and the genuine autonomy of the human, and providing a “basis for dialogue between [the church and the world]” (No. 40). This means true dialogue, not dictation or imposition by the church, but a process of persuasion. It is clearly a service that includes the unique role of the Christian laity in the temporal city.
From the justly acclaimed section on culture I select two statements in the area of doctrinal development that are highly important for the church at large and for my own approach to theology. Culture, the text argues, “because it flows immediately from the spiritual and social character of man, has constant need of a just liberty in order to develop; it needs also the legitimate possibility of exercising its autonomy according to its own principles” (No. 59). Donald R. Campion, S.J., then editor in chief of America commented, “As contemporary human culture unfolds, the Christian—and especially the theologian—must maintain close contact with all its aspects, particularly those emerging from the research of secular sciences.”
The closing lines of the section on culture offer a welcome charter for thinking Catholics: “...let it be recognized that all the faithful, clerical and lay, possess a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought, and the freedom to express their minds humbly and courageously about those matters in which they enjoy competence” (No. 62).
A third substantial influence on my work and spirituality has been biblical justice. I discovered it most poignantly in 1992 through the works of the Jesuit Scripture scholar John R. Donahue. The discovery opened the most exciting period of my life—at age 78! Exciting because of biblical justice’s very definition: fidelity to relationships. What relationships? To God, to people, to the earth. Love God above all idols; love every human person as an image of God; touch all of God’s nonhuman creation with respect and awe. This biblical justice I inserted as the central theme of my project Preaching the Just Word, a combination of retreat and workshop for clergy and laity, aimed at enhancing the knowledge, strengthening the courage and refining the skills of persons committed to preaching and teaching about justice issues. Between 1992 and 2003 our team conducted 106 such programs across the United States and in Canada, Jamaica, Australia and Germany. With God’s grace I missed only one day in those 12 years. I am delighted to report that, under the enthusiastic guidance of the Rev. Raymond Baker Kemp, Preaching the Just Word is alive and well.
A striking fact about biblical justice, and a significant contribution to church and society as well as to my Jesuit life, is a recognition that here we are gifted with an engaging spirituality and a stirring cry to action. An engaging spirituality, because biblical justice involves us in all the relationships that constitute human existence. This means we must attend not only to the two commandments of the law and the Gospel: love God above all else, love every human person like another self. We must also develop a deep-seated awe of God’s creation that keeps us from plundering the earth for our gratification, casually discarding what we no longer need, needlessly accumulating more and more, knowingly poisoning land and sea and sky. A well-rounded spirituality includes realizing what was sung by the Psalmist, “The earth is the Lord’s and all it holds” (Ps 24:1); we are only temporary tenants.
And a stirring call to action. God’s word in Scripture—from Psalm 72, Micah 6:8, and Isaiah 58:6 7 to Jesus, “the Just One”—impelled me to lecture, preach and write in eight areas of serious injustice. (1) In the richest country on earth, 12.6 million households, with approximately 13 million children, experience hunger with increasing incidence of malnutrition. (2) In the United States the elderly face uncertainty that was unheard of half a century ago. Pension benefits, including health insurance, are being yanked away with no warning (even more shocking, these assaults are inflicted with the blessing of the government). (3) Here, where the Statue of Liberty still proclaims a warm welcome to immigrants, far too many persons whose parents or grandparents came to this country as recently as the last century are eager to close the borders and take care only of “our own.” (4) Our criminal justice system is not fair, impartial or balanced, in part because its focus continues to be on punishment, rarely on rehabilitation. (5) It is clear that innocent people in the United States have been executed; the only question is how many. By contrast, the European Union bans from its membership any country that still practices capital punishment. (6) By not adequately responding to the ecological realities of the link between global warming and devastating hurricanes, as well as the alarming cause and effect of deforestation and mudslides, water pollution and poisoned fish, smog and life-threatening lung illnesses, we are not only killing our planet, we are also killing ourselves. (7) The traditional Catholic conditions for declaring a war just—defensive necessity, the last resort, approval of a large number of nations, endorsement of the United Nations, high probability of success—were not met by the Bush administration in the 2003 pre-emptive attack on Iraq. (8) A blot on our national conscience and international standing is the shocking number of homeless veterans (the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates 500,000 veterans experience homelessness in a given year). Despite various pieces of legislation aimed at meeting special needs of homeless veterans, many will be ignored and left to fend for themselves on the very streets they fought to keep safe.
I cannot end without expressing gratitude to the hundreds of Jesuits and a host of others, religious and lay, whose sharing of their own spiritualities and acts of justice, as well as their friendship and love, has combined to make me a more effective priest, a more dynamic Jesuit, a more competent theologian and a more human person.