ANNAPOLIS -- To move Roman Catholic preaching from "all the imagination of a dead fish" to something compelling, the Rev. Walter Burghardt, S.J., is as blunt with priests as he wants them to be with their congregations.
"How can your gospel be so interesting and you who preach it are so goddamned dull?" he asks.
His audience of preachers erupts in laughter and a shout of "Praise the Lord."
They are gathered at Manresa-on-Severn, a Jesuit retreat house near Annapolis, where Father Burghardt is leading one of a series of preaching retreats he is conducting across the country. His "Preaching the Just Word" project aims to move preachers to confront personally and in the pulpit "questions of poverty, racism, abortion, women's issues," he says. "These are human and Christian issues to do something about."
At last week's retreat at Manresa, the fourth since the project began last year, Monsignor John B. Brady, a slight, quiet man, was preparing a homily to be delivered in Calvert County about "deeds of darkness" -- the chasm between rich and poor, misplaced U.S. spending priorities and the collapse of social obligations.
And he was preparing for the consequences in rural Southern Maryland.
"They'll write to the bishop and try to have me removed," Monsignor Brady said.
"No, I've never preached that way in my life," he added. "When we were ordained [in 1955], we were told, 'Never get into politics, stick to the gospel.' "
But he was animated by the "fire in the belly" that Father Burghardt said he wanted to stoke in all Catholic preachers.
The incendiary behind this effort is a widely published Jesuit theologian with a creased, tan face, a thatch of white hair, and white slacks and sports shirt that suggest a tennis player from the past. Father Burghardt, 77, speaks in a deep, smooth rumble.
When writing theology in all those years past, Father Burghardt recalled, "All you reach is a small number of Catholics."
Retiring from Georgetown University in 1990, he decided to embark on the national project to reach priests who preach, as well as permanent deacons and nuns, because each in turn reaches Catholics in the pew.
When preparing to preach, "Scripture becomes the air I breathe," Father Burghardt told his audience of other preachers lounging in their shorts and T-shirts. "The whole of scripture is social," he said, distinct from the private morality of an individual "getting right with God." The point was that Catholic social teaching follows Scripture.
"Justice is a whole web of relationships based on a covenant between God and human beings," and the consequences of that covenant are how society treats strangers, poor people and others at its margins, he said.
A priest who preaches about social justice must know what he's talking about, Father Burghardt said, offering a 28-page single-space bibliography of mostly contemporary works on everything from racial divisions to feminist critiques of the church.
And the preacher must find imaginative ways to express the message, drawing upon art, literature and the surrounding culture, he said. "If your sermon is merely an example of Cartesian clarity, you're limping along on one leg," he said.
No one at the retreat appeared to need conversion on these points. But one priest who had served in mostly middle-class and wealthy suburban Washington parishes said that confronting poverty, urban violence and other areas of injustice could be overwhelming.
He was reassured by inner-city priests accustomed to preaching where parishioners want to hear about their struggle.
The Rev. Sam Lupico of Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church, at 42nd Street and Old York Road, agreed that the issues could be painful. "But the very act of preaching frees me from pain," he said. "Sometimes words fly out of my mouth, and I don't know where they come from, but they come in the right order."
The Rev. Joseph Muth, pastor of St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Church on Loch Raven Boulevard, who was formerly pastor of the inner-city St. Ann's parish on Greenmount Avenue, brought an inner-city perspective. "There were as many drug dealers on the corner outside St. Ann's when I left," he said, "but the gospel had to be preached."
Many priests took part in the retreat to mix with like-minded colleagues.
The Rev. Frank Desiderio of St. Paul's College in Washington came because of a disturbing trend he said he has discovered through his religious training of seminarians.
"There's a younger generation of priests coming up who seem to be less involved in social issues," he said. "That's part of why I'm here."
No matter how earnest most young men are who enter the seminary, the church still reflects trends in society, including the self-centered impulses of the 1980s, Father Desiderio said. "If you've got Yuppies in society, you've got Yuppification in the church."
Over dinner, priests compared their experiences -- everything from giving one-tenth of parish revenues to the poor and paying for months at a time the rent of families who have run out of money to distinguishing those in need from the occasional con artist who rides in a taxi from church to church seeking alms.
As preachers, they learned they must distinguish between confronting their listeners with the demands of the gospel and offending them.
Father Burghardt urged avoiding specific strategies, the province of politics, while not mincing words.
"Sometimes it might be wise just to give the brutal facts and leave them there," he said, "but not as a steady diet."