Ambassador of Christ in Memory of Walter J. Burghardt, S.J. (1914-2008)

By O'Donovan, Leo J. | Theological Studies, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Ambassador of Christ in Memory of Walter J. Burghardt, S.J. (1914-2008)


O'Donovan, Leo J., Theological Studies


WHEN THE MASS OF CHRISTIAN BURIAL for Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., was celebrated at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown on February 20, 2008, the readings were among the most frequently proclaimed and prayed in the contemporary church. His longtime friend and associate Katharyn L. Waldron read the stirring lines of Micah 6:6-8: "With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? ... and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" Walter's cousin Danielle Burghardt McDavit read from 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, the text in which St. Paul defends his apostolate serving "the ministry of reconciliation" as "an ambassador for Christ." With the parable of the Great Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46 as the gospel reading, James Connor, S.J.'s homily reflected on Walter's theological accomplishments, his childlike simplicity, and his passion for social justice. Among the countless friends, students, colleagues, fellow Jesuits, and admirers who thronged the church and mourned him throughout the country and indeed the world, Jim's brother Marty was typical in his sentiment: "I'm sorry to hear that Walter Burghardt died yesterday. Not for him, of course, but for the void he'll leave."

A DISCIPLE'S LIFE

Walter's parents, Marya Krupp and John Burghardt, were immigrants from what is now Poland; they came to New York through Ellis Island a year apart from each other. His mother worked for three years as a maid before she married. His father labored long years delivering milk from a horse-drawn wagon, eventually becoming manager of an apartment house where the family then lived. Devoting themselves entirely to the care and education of their elder son Eddie and his younger brother, the Burghardts were understandably proud when young Walter proved such a good student in grammar school that he was three times promoted in the middle of the year. At great sacrifice they sent both boys to St. Francis Xavier, a semimilitary academy in Manhattan.

In 1931, in the middle of the 17th year of his life, Walter Burghardt left New York for the Jesuit Novitiate at St. Andrews-on-Hudson, near Poughkeepsie, trading his Xavier uniform for a novice's habit. There was both pain and wry humor in the story Walter told so often afterward: The novice appointed to welcome him said to Walter, "Welcome, Brother Burghardt!" and to his father, "You have 15 minutes with your son." (1)

Following the novitiate, but still at St. Andrew's, Walter pursued the traditional juniorate (or early college) years, the first focused on poetry, the second on rhetoric. During the latter, a Jesuit professor handed him the letters of Ignatius of Antioch. The young Jesuit's mind took fire, and the bishop-martyr became, as Walter later said, the springboard for his intellectual journey--as a later Ignatius, of Loyola, was to be for his spiritual way.

After three years of philosophical studies (1934-1937), the promising student became a promising teacher (of Latin, Greek, and English) at Regis High School in New York (where he also coached the freshman basketball team with great success!). Though he had been destined to study with the patristics scholar Joseph de Ghellinck in Louvain, the approach of war led to a cautious change in plan, and Walter was sent south to Woodstock College in Maryland, where in many ways he discovered not only theology (from 1938 to 1942) but also his most lasting home.

He loved theology, not as a requirement, but as the church's search for what God has said and is saying still (even if a "searching" style was not yet common at the time). John Courtney Murray had arrived at Woodstock in 1937 to teach, and the young theologian credited Murray's appreciation of the early Christian writers and his more historical approach to theology as formative of his own. In the Church Fathers he found centrally posed "the problem of the development of Christian thought through its historical past, and the problem of the address we are to make to our own intellectual and spiritual world. …

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