RIP Bill Graham, drama professor and teacher of preachers

From the Washington Post:

William H. Graham, an acting director and teacher who led the drama department of Catholic University, directed and acted in plays at the Olney Theatre, and gave lessons to clergymen on preaching and politicians on public speaking, died Oct. 15 at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md. He was 87.

The cause was acute kidney failure, said his daughter, Carole G. Lehan…

…As a leader of liturgical workshops, Mr. Graham told homilists to emphasize “personal witness. The preacher must be speaking from faith rather than knowledge. What he is saying has to touch my life and my experience in faith,” according to a 1998 article in the Tablet, a publication of the Catholic Church.

Some years back, Arthur Jones of the National Catholic Reporter watched him at work:

When Bill Graham talks, priests listen; when priests preach, Bill Graham listens.

Graham, in his late 60s, is a big fellow with a grandfatherly potbelly, plenty of neatly parted gray-and-black hair and lightning-fast humor that blunts any of the sting in his rapid patter.

He’s to one side of a mock altar now, and a priest is processing toward it, his arms untidily bouncing as he walks. “Why’d you do that?” quizzed Graham in a mild, Jonathan Winters sort of way.

“Do what?” asked the priest.

“You could have walked in with your hands behind your back, over your head, folded. Any number of ways. You made a decision not to. Why?”

Why, if his concern is preaching, is Graham worrying about how a priest holds his arms as he walks down the aisle?

Because, explained Graham, “the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [Vatican II, 1962-65] refers to the liturgy as one single act in two identifiable parts: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, flowing seamlessly from one into the other.”

To Graham and his colleague, Dominican Fr. John Burke, founders of Word of God Institute, fully explaining the preacher’s art — which is what the institute is dedicated to — involves questioning everything that goes on in the liturgy. Everything: music, nonverbal ritual, voice modulation, responses, the preparedness of the readers and petitioners, the manner of prayer — everything as part of the preaching, with preaching a part of the whole of which the Eucharist is the center.

Graham is retired after 41 years on the faculty of the drama department of the Catholic University of America in Washington, the last 16 years as chairman. He also is chairman of the Olney Theater Center for the Arts in Olney, Md., and executive producer of the National Players Classical Touring Co., now entering its 49th year. Back in the 1960s, Graham and Burke started a preacher’s institute at Catholic University and kept it going for nearly two decades.

As for the flapping clerical arms, there were a few tense exchanges until finally the priest said, “I’ll show you.”

He clasped his palms firmly together, held his arms straight up. Elongated spine, austere elongated head, he proceeded in tight military fashion up the aisle.

“I’ve seen guys do this. Not me, that’s phony,” said the priest.

So he was sloppy, commented Graham to NCR as he recalled the workshop, as a reaction against a rigid, formal rubric.

Burke and Graham have been teaching preaching, together and separately, for more than 30 years in a variety of venues, from university settings to seminaries to church halls. And the scenes described here could come from any of the hundreds of workshops and practicums they’ve given; the priests could be any of the thousands Burke and Graham have put on the spot. Over the years, NCR has sat in on more than a dozen sessions watching Burke and Graham going through their master’s classes.

Read more about what NCR discovered.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him…


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X