Burghardt on Imagination in Preaching

I recently came across a book on homiletics that I had not looked at for quite some time: Preaching, the Art and the Craft, by Walter J. Burghardt, SJ (Paulist, 1987). Burghardt (1914-2008) was a noted preacher, theologian, and ecumenist. He served as editor in chief of the journal Theological Studies from 1967 to 1990, taught historical theology and authored more than 25 books. In later life, his work centered on offering seminars for preachers all over the country, through a program he founded at theWoodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, called Preaching the Just Word. (He started this at age 77, no less.)

I’d like to share a passage from Preaching, the Art and the Craft and ask you to consider it in light of your own experience. Are we farther along as a Church on the task of cultivating excellent preaching than we were 25 years ago? Do you experience preaching that is imaginative in the best sense, inviting us to inhabit a world rich with symbol (biblical and liturgical) that transforms us, allowing us to see Jesus with our own eyes? After the quoted excerpt, I’ll add some thoughts on these questions.

The subject of this passage is—you guessed it—imagination. Burghardt writes that after struggling to assemble concrete helps and examples for his readers to show them how to become more skilled at using imagination in preaching, he came to a new insight:

… [S]uddenly I realized we have a more basic need. What Catholic homilists require is a conversion; we need fresh insight into our priesthood. I can best illustrate this from my own life. Here I wed three elements: the “I,” the revelation, the people.

First, I who communicate. For the first half of my priestly life, I was the most objective of human beings. Objectivity had been rooted in me—by scholastic philosophy, by a theology that lived off magisterial affirmations, by spiritual masters that stressed reason and will, suspected emotion and experience. The subjective had illegitimate parents: Protestantism and Modernism. At the altar, then, and behind the confessional screen, in teaching and preaching, in lecturing and counseling, the “I” was submerged, that Christ might appear. I rarely said “I” that only the truth might transpire. Until one day in the early 60s when I had given a remarkably lucid response to a young lady’s religious question. She looked at me a moment, then said “And what do you think?” It was a harrowing moment. I am not an ecclesiastical computer, spewing forth the data fed me. I too am a symbol, a sign that says more than my words can express. In the pulpit I may well be the most powerful image of all.

Second, the revelation we communicate. How was it initially communicated? In my more callow days we had no problem: Divine revelation consists of truths set forth in the Bible and in authoritative Church pronouncements. God has embodied His revelation in propositional language so that it can claim our unswerving assent. Now I do not deny that revelation can be mediated through true propositions. I simply point out that a fresh vision permeates our century, permeates me: Revelation is symbolic disclosure. Revelation is always mediated through an experience in the world—specifically, through symbol. …

This does not mean that revelation cannot be translated into objective doctrinal statements. It means that our biblical symbols, from the theophanies of Sinai through the cross of Christ to the descent of the Spirit, are too rich to be imprisoned in any single conception. Moreover, the knowledge that symbols give is not cold, abstract information; it is “participatory knowledge.” A symbol is an environment I inhabit, live in, the way I live in my body; I recognize myself within the universe of meaning and value it opens up to me. And because revelation is this sort of truth, it can transform us, initiate us into a saving relationship with God; it can radically influence our commitments and our behavior; and it can give us insight into mysteries reason cannot fathom.

Third, the people with whom we communicate. Early on, I took for granted that they came to liturgy to learn, that the sheep needed to be led. The assumption is clear in an address I gave two decades ago to the Catholic Homiletic Society on preaching dogma. I do not disown the address, but it was one-sided: How do I preach the truth attractively? I hardly mentioned the people “out there.” Their responsibility, as far as I can reconstruct it, was to give ear to my clear message and be seduced by its beauty. Late in life I have begun to grasp why some pulpits confront the preacher graphically with the request of the Greeks to Philip: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus” (John 12:21). How simple a request… and how stunning! Here is our burden and our joy: to help believing Christians to see Jesus—not with our eyes, but with their own.

Given fresh insight, a kind of conversion, on these three levels—a homilist more open and free, a revelation charged with symbols, a people wanting to see Jesus—you will inevitably preach imaginatively, prepare imaginatively. First, you will find yourself inescapably part and parcel of your homily. What you preach will strike sparks because you are aflame with it. The word you speak will say so much more than the dictionary definition because that word has taken flesh in you. You have been captured by a dream, enraptured by a vision; you have your own “voices”; the world of the senses excites you; like Teresa of Avila, you can be ravished by a rose. You will feel ceaselessly reborn, thank God each dawn with e.e. cummings “for this most amazing day… for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes.”

Second, God’s word will never again seem “stale, flat, and unprofitable.” For you will gave discovered, with the Benedictine liturgiologist Nathan Mitchell, that “every symbol deals with a new discovery and every symbol is an open-ended action, not a closed off object. By engaging in symbols, by inhabiting their environment, [you will] discover new horizons for life, new values and motivations. The biblical symbols will overwhelm you with their many-splendored possibilities, their refusal to be imprisoned in a formula, their openness to fresh imaginings. You may even start saying, not “The kingdom of heaven is…,” but “The kingdom of heaven is like…”

Third, once you realize that your people want not catechesis or theology but only to see Jesus, you are forced to find ways to satisfy their thirst. Romeand Rahner are only a foundation. For all their objective importance, neither John Paul’s encyclical Redemptor hominis nor the “supernatural existential” are calculated to turn the faithful on. And so, like it or not, you will learn to dream dreams and see visions, retell the parables of Jesus in a modern idiom. You will create your own world of Christian imaging, learn not only to pray but to play, look for the holes in the world, listen to the space between sounds.


There are some really good ideas here, worth savoring. Even the structure is good. I liked the “wedding of three elements”: self, revelation, and people. Like a three-legged stool, it seems a sturdy construction to me.

I particularly liked the idea of the preacher enabling the people to “see Jesus” with their own eyes. Alas, it seems to me we are still rather far from this goal. A lot of the preaching I hear doesn’t convince me that the preachers are very interested in Jesus or engaged in a living relationship with him. They are conveying his teachings, but where is he? Not evident, much of the time.

Of course, the best homilies I hear are indeed invitations into a world rich with symbol, and into a genuine encounter with Jesus, and they do “give off sparks” because the preacher is “on fire.”

Finally, Burkhardt is right to point out that the preacher is inescapably part of the homily. At the same time, I wonder if we have yet gotten the balance right. Indeed, many of the poor homilies I’ve heard seem to have fallen off the other end of the scale: they can be too much about the preacher, and not enough about the good news. (Some very self-conscious homilists as well as casual ones fall into this trap, so beware!)

So, here is my personal footnote: Homilists who preach from the heart of their ministry and their experience of the Gospel are the ones whose self-revelation is invigorating. Their lived experience of service and prayer, their engagement with God and God’s people, is the credible witness I am hungry for. If they natter on about themselves, or overreach in rhetoric and drama, it’s not so good. If it begins to seem like “It’s all about me” (and we lay people have good antennae for this), it may be as authentic as you please but it won’t be good preaching.


  1. Excellent post. Thank you for this. I am reminded of a Dominican teacher on homiletics whose aim in a homily was to take the people by the hand and to take Jesus by the hand, to introduce them to each other, and then to step out of the way.

  2. For the most part, the preaching I hear leaves the preacher himself standing to the side, as if he were trying to emulate his college-level lecturers, rather than a good preacher. Preaching done well is scary, because it opens up the heart and soul of the preacher to his people. Otherwise, I could read it in a book. I realize it’s a hard thing to do.

    I am, I suppose, fortunate in not hearing much of the “it’s all about me” style, but when I do, the human being I see almost never shows himself in relationship with God. If you don’t know God, why are you preaching to me? And if you do know God, why don’t I hear that? Again, it is not an easy thing to open up to whoever it is that may be sitting in the church today. It’s hard enough for me, with catechumens in the RCIA, and that is with people I know and have an ongoing relationship with.

    I think the biggest problems with preaching are (1) sounding like a teacher instead of a preacher and (2) ignoring the stories that are all around us and contain such rich possibilities for preaching.

    To answer Rita’s question, no, I don’t think we’ve made much progress in improved preaching, and I think it’s obvious because that’s one of the biggest complaints our people have with the church.

    And then, what does the impact of growing numbers of international priests have on the quality of preaching? Even if they are wonderful, if they can’t be understood, the preaching fails.

  3. Burghardt said it took tens of hours to prepare one homily. One challenge is all the other things that have to be done besides preaching. I know a few good preachers but they feel no one has a clue how much goes into the preparation. My Protestant colleagues spend two days a week working on their sermons. I know one parish where the pastor had a funeral homily, parish homilies, A Spanish homily, and then a wedding homily in just four days.

    1. @Halbert Weidner – comment #3:
      In the book, he says, not to boast, an hour of preparation for each minute preaching. The results are stunning.

      But I would say, don’t let the best be the enemy of the good! 😉

  4. Rule one: don’t exceed a reasonable time limit, but don’t pad out a sermon to make it last a certain time. Better a short sermon that leaves people pondering the Gospel than a longer one that leaves them pondering the grocery list for after Mass!

  5. What a remarkable post, really wonderful. Before I get to the heart of my comment, I am currently smiling because I spent a big chunk of today cleaning and re-arranging my bookshelves, and came across this book, stopped and thumbed through it.

    Regrettably I feel like the bulk of the preaching that I have heard in my adult life has been lackluster. More teaching than preaching has been one big problem. Terri noted that in her insightful comment above, as well as adding that stories all around are ignored. One of the worst things is that I have heard so many homilies that are straight out of the homily help, without any modification.

    I also worry when I hear to much what I will classify as finger-wagging. That is when I am tempted to leave, although I never have.

    Then I moved to this diocese and was grateful to find a parish where there was great preaching. Using rich story, personal experience without too much “it is about me” or personal information, we also hear from someone who knows how to give us something to walk away with.

    That circumstance can create the “perfect storm” of idol worship of the priest, although gratefully, he eschews that sort of thing. His humility in life is his gift as a preacher as well.

    I wonder about the newer priests coming up and what they are taught. I can think of one very dynamic young man who is a gifted preacher, rich in the gifts of his evangelical childhood, but burdened (from my POV anyway) with his a-little-bit-too-literalistic-for me Scriptural knowledge.

    It is a tough go all the way around, but I am grateful for this food for thought, and as usual, I have lots of people that I would love to share this with.

    Thank you.

    1. @Fran Rossi Szpylczyn – comment #6:
      Fran, that’s an amazing co-incidence!

      I believe you are right in observing that people who are really good at this attract hero worship. There is such a hunger out there. You are right of course to point to the need for humility always.

  6. I had the pleasure of working with Fr. Burghardt as the musician/liturgist for a Preaching the Just Word conference in the Oakland diocese. He and Fr. Ray Kemp opened my eyes to what the homily can do.

    But the biggest eye-opener to me was when I read Fulfilled in Your Hearing, paragraph 52:

    Since the purpose of the homily is to enable the gathered congregation to celebrate the liturgy with faith, the preacher does not so much attempt to explain the Scriptures as to interpret the human situation through the Scriptures. In other words, the goal of the liturgical preacher is not to interpret a text of the Bible (as would be the case in teaching a Scripture class) as much as to draw on the texts of the Bible as they are presented in the lectionary to interpret peoples’ lives.

    For me, this one paragraph turned the whole idea of preaching upside-down and gave me a new starting point for seeing the purpose of the liturgical homily. I’m guessing this most closely relates to Burghardt’s third leg of helping the people with whom the homilist communicates to see Jesus with their own eyes.

    1. @Diana Macalintal – comment #7:
      I loved reading this comment. I read this post earlier and then headed off to mass. I ended up speaking to the priest (who I refer to in my earlier comment) about this post. He has some great stories about Burghardt from his CUA days and other times. What you describe here Diana has taken root in this priest and feeds our congregation well.

    2. @Diana Macalintal – comment #7:
      Diana, that’s a wonderful and thought-provoking quote.

      I wonder how many of us go to church wanting or expecting to have our lives interpreted. 🙁

      For me this advice underscores the need for true evangelical insight, as well as mercy, humor, and candor — and keeping finger-wagging to a minimum. 😉

  7. Burghardt : And so, like it or not, you will learn to dream dreams and see visions, retell the parables of Jesus in a modern idiom. You will create your own world of Christian imaging, learn not only to pray but to play, look for the holes in the world, listen to the space between sounds.

    @Diana Macalintal – comment #7:

    the preacher does not so much attempt to explain the Scriptures as to interpret the human situation …draw on the texts of the Bible as they are presented in the lectionary to interpret peoples’ lives.

    At my favorite parish the woman pastoral associate gave a less than 3 min introduction to the scripture readings (before the first reading) painting pictures of human situations, e.g. brief newspaper items, vivid but not front page (parables in a modern idiom). Only phrases pointing forward to the readings.

    No interpretation, raising questions not giving answers. She powerfully focused our attention on the scripture texts, and created great anticipation for the homily. How are texts related to the modern parables? How is pastor going to put this all together and tell us where the “good news” is?

    The practice was discontinued; they said the GIRM didn’t allow it, I suspect the liturgy police.

    My suggestion: an introduction “less than 3 minutes and not a second longer” before the entrance hymn after the announcements or whatever else.

    Use all the parish talent, all of modern media (slides, music, etc) to create images and parables of today in a world attuned to 3 minute parables (TV commercial breaks).

    Entrance hymn chosen to walk us from these images and parables into the world of the scriptures.
    Penitential Rite carefully chosen; e.g. Confiteor if images bring to mind personal situations.
    Gloria carefully chosen (e.g. recited to place it in background)

    Used only during ordinary time to emphasize connection to life and boost attendance.

    Laity by interpreting the world become co-responsible for interpreting the scriptures.

  8. Diana Macalintal :the goal of the liturgical preacher is not to interpret a text of the Bible (as would be the case in teaching a Scripture class) as much as to draw on the texts of the Bible as they are presented in the lectionary to interpret peoples’ lives.

    The theologian Hans Frei spoke of letting the biblical narrative “absorb the world.” This is what I at least try to do in my preaching: to figure out how our current situation looks from within the view of existence presented in scripture. So, for example, this Sunday I try to reflect on what our situations of discouragement look like from the perspective of the story of Elijah on the way to Mt. Horeb and Jesus’ bread of life discourse.

  9. The absolute best preacher I have ever heard is Avery Cardinal Dulles. He would often say daily Mass in one of Fordham’s chapels. His homilies, especially at the late-day Masses when he had more time to preach, were deeply educated but also accessible. He didn’t speak in “missal English”, but provided profound exegesis on the scripture readings for the day. His homiletic stress was certainly on the reflection of the mind and less on emotional development.

    While I latched on quickly to Cdl. Dulles’s intensely intellectual reflections, I do not know if his preaching at Fordham would have been suitable for a parish. Cdl. Dulles had served parishes — perhaps his parish homilies were quite different. I valued Cdl. Dulles’s homilies precisely because of their intellectual focus. I do not all wish to malign those who find more emotionally centered preaching important and personally fulfilling. Still, I do believe that there is a place for highly cerebral and exegetical preaching outside of universities. What I do not know is how many priests have the ability to balance empathy and the life of the mind within the same ministry of preaching.

    Sadly, Cdl Dulles is no longer with us. However, I do hope that he was able to impart his knowledge not only to his community but to the parish clergy as well.

  10. I celebrated the Assumption with Vespers followed by Divine Liturgy at the local Orthodox Church. Here is an outline of the homily

    Today we bless flowers which are used in many of our services. Especially in funerals, and today is Mary’s funeral. You can see her there in the very large wall icon in the midst of the Twelve who represent the Church.

    All of Christian life is about dying. We spend our whole lives dying in the midst of the Church. The flowers at a wedding are about dying to ourselves; the bride and groom with martyrs’ crowns.

    We know very little about Mary; the Gospels are not about her. Today’s Gospel is the usual one for most of her feasts a combination of the Martha and Mary story ( Luke 10:38-42) and Luke 11:27-28.)

    “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” 27 As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” 28 He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

    She is always in the background. She was not even the first among the myrrh bearing women. That is why she is above us in the ceiling icon as the throne upon which sits the Christ Child.

    Some say we worship Mary but we do not. She is the first among us; the godmother of us all. That is why in our tradition; Mary’s are named after other saints. Mostly after Mary Magdalene whose icon is one of the four prominent ones on the icon screen.

    As Christians we die to the world. We are not out there to conquer the world; although we may do that indirectly. We do not become famous to the world. Those who die to the world and themselves as witnesses to Christ become icons and join all the other icons on our walls.

    We will all die and be forgotten by the world but remembered here each by name on Lazarus Saturday when we celebrate all our dead.

    Your thoughts about this preaching? self, revelation, and people? imagination? modern parables? Perhaps others could share their memories of today’s homily (but of course not your own) in terms of this post.

  11. “In the book, he says, not to boast, an hour of preparation for each minute preaching. ”

    Hi, Rita, isn’t it some multiple of that? I have a vague recollection that it was something like 5-10 hours of preparation for each minute.

    A couple of miscellaneous thoughts, and a question:

    * The textbook we used in our homiletics course was in large part a tour of “Fulfilled In Your Hearing”, but the final section was a Q&A section that I found quite helpful. One idea from that section that has stuck with me is that people are hungry for poetry. If we can find ways of expressing ourselves in symbol, metaphor, and artful turn of phrase, our preaching will be much more effective.

    * Preachers need to be authentic. What was authentic for Cardinal Dulles, as related by Jordan Zarembo above, may be a very different approach and style than what was authentic for Fr. Burghardt. Preaching by its nature is subjective (as Burghardt’s passage related to “I” illustrates). I go to at least one homiletics workshop every year, and it’s really surprising how many different approaches and “good ideas” there are out there. If I come away with one good idea, I consider it a success. But ultimately, I have to integrate it into my approach, which will be very different from another preacher’s approach, because we are two very different people – both proclaiming the Good News, to be sure, but in markedly different ways.

    * The question is this: I’ve read that “Fulfilled In Your Hearing” is going to be replaced. Does anyone have an update on that?

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