Preaching Social Justice in Homilies

When the project Preaching the Just Word was initiated almost 10 years ago, I applauded. After my recent participation in a five-day retreat/workshop with 66 other Jesuits, I stand converted to a program with enormous power and potential. At the age of 75, Father Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., had finished distinguished careers as a professor of patristics, the longtime editor of Theological Studies and as a homilist with national recognition. He became convinced that the church was failing to communicate through homilies the Second Vatican Council’s linking of faith and justice. Catholic schools and periodicals were relentless in linking faith and justice. But Catholic social doctrine was somehow not being heard from the 20,000 Catholic pulpits each Sunday morning.

As a result Father Burghardt, who is now 86, in collaboration with the Woodstock Theological Center based at Georgetown University, started a project entitled Preaching the Just Word. It has now sponsored 88 retreats/workshops for 4,200 priests in dioceses in Canada, Jamaica and Australia. The project has been welcomed by the archdioceses of Boston and New York and all across the country. The feedback from priests and other professionals has been overwhelmingly favorable.


The problem is admittedly difficult. Manyperhaps the majorityof participants at weekend Mass do not welcome a sermon that raises issues like the death penalty, hungry children, gun control or other moral-political topics. It is easy to say that these Catholics have too narrow a view of the scope of Catholicism. But the problem is there; it is pervasive, stubborn and possibly getting worse.

The upside is that these Catholics want to hear the Gospel and to have affirmed the beautiful truths of God’s love, his redemption and his abiding presence in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist. But the downside is that the church’s call for social justice that culminated in the documents of Vatican II has not permeated or even reached these loyal Catholics.

The fault is not with the Catholic Church in America. The excellent proclamations on social policy issued by the U.S. Catholic Conference are available everywhere. Summaries of the bishops’ letter Economic Justice for All have been published and are widely available. But the Catholic social doctrine is still too little known; it has been called the church’s best kept secret.

The main thrust of Preaching the Just Word is to remind retreatants of the countless ways in which the Bible repeatedly stresses that the people of God must be devoted to justice in every way. For five days the participants in the program learn again and again the demands for justice from Christ, the prophets, the Apostles and the Evangelists. When placed together, these biblical demands for justice are overwhelming. Some participants in the workshop come to understand as never before the compelling dedication to justice inherent in Christian tradition.

The awesome demands for justice in the Bible and in Catholic teaching are highlighted at the retreat; the participants are given a 77-page brochure written by John R. Donahue, S.J. (the current writer of America’s The Word column). Published by the Institute for Jesuit Sources in St. Louis, Father Donahue’s book focuses on the astonishing way in which the Bible expresses devotion to the poor, the downtrodden and the persecuted. The words of Christ reported in Matthew (25:31-36) are forceful and frightening. The passage makes clear that the criterion for separating the sheep and the goats will be how they treated the son of man when he was hungry, thirsty, naked, sick or in prison.

When one closely examines and prays over Scripture and papal teaching on justice for the poor, it almost seems as if these passages had never been heard before. If the faithful learned about these teachings on a regular basis and in a non-political manner, would they be more able to connect the dots and come to believe firmly in the strong views of the church in its preferential option for the poor?

Preaching the Just Word believes that if the sword of the Spirit enters the heart of the preacher, he will be able to transform the minds and hearts of those who hear his sermons. He will be able to persuade his hearers that his opposition to the death penalty or his support of health care for the poor derives directly from the word of God.

Father Burghardt’s project is carried out by the Rev. Raymond D. Kemp, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, who has been pastor in two African-American parishes for 17 years. The program is advanced by lectures on justice from the Bible by Sister Barbara Reid, a Dominican nun who has her doctorate in Scripture and is a professor at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. The theoretical and practical parts of the courses on justice are presented by John Carr, the able director of the Office of Social Development and World Peace of the U.S. Catholic Conference. But the basic purpose and the thrust of Preaching the Just Word is to infuse in the retreatants the biblical attachment to the poor and the victimized so that their lives will be changed. They will preach the partnership of faith and justice with a deeper conviction and a new fervor.

The creative project of Father Burghardt has now reached about 10 percent of the parish priests in America. It is difficult to measure the difference it has made. But this writer can say that Christianity’s devotion to the poor and the victimized has taken on an entirely new and transforming meaning.

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