Father Giles Conwill grew up in the same west Louisville neighborhood as Muhammad Ali, a part of the city so Back-of-Town that, for some reason, the municipal fathers decided that gravel roads provided a superior surface to cement until the late 1950s.
Father Conwill’s mom was a daily communicant at St. Louis Bertrand Church, and she showed her son at an early age the rare gifts of perseverance and long-suffering.
“We were in the pews closer to the sanctuary – probably in one of the first 10 pews,” Father Conwill recalled. “An usher came up and said, ‘We’ve got the last three pews in the back of church for colored folks.’ I saw my mom cry. That was my first experience with that.”
The family of six children shed more tears – Giles was 11 at the time – when their father died while scaling the outside of an apartment building to help a friend who had locked himself out of his third-floor apartment.
“My dad was holding on to the ledge to go into the apartment and he fell,” Father Conwill said.
Widowed, Giles’ mom continued to impress on her children the idea of education as the launching pad from a gravel road.
She advanced up the teaching ranks to become the first African-American principal of a Louisville Catholic school. Four of her children earned doctorates, including Father Conwill, who holds a Ph.D. in history and cultural anthropology and chaired the history department at Morehouse College in Atlanta until coming to Xavier University of Louisiana as campus minister in 2010.
“We grew up poor, but my mother was very much sensitive to the value of education,” Father Conwill said.
And then on April 14 – nearly two years to the day since he buried his mother – Father Conwill, 67, was inducted into the Martin Luther King Jr. International Board of Preachers in Atlanta. Of the 36 preachers who were honored this year, Father Conwill was the only Catholic priest.
As a university professor most of his priestly life since his 1973 ordination, Father Conwill always has viewed preaching as teaching.
“One of the major titles that Jesus was addressed by was ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Rabboni,’” he said. “That meant teacher. They are two sides of the same coin.”
That’s why Father Conwill considers the time he invests in preparing his homilies to be sacred. For a Sunday homily, he will spend eight to 10 hours reading and reflecting on the Scriptures. He will not sell his people short. Otherwise, he said, there is “too much random wandering.”
“Preparation is the woof and warp of preaching; it is foundational to the Holy Spirit,” Father Conwill said. “Grace builds on nature. If you haven’t done any preparation work, you ought to not eat that week. If a priest or a preacher hasn’t done the most important thing of the week – preparing to preach the word of God – he doesn’t deserve to eat. It’s almost sacrilegious.”
Father Conwill admits he might have been a little over the top back in the 1970s when he penned a critical essay on the slipshod preaching he had heard at Catholic liturgies. He wrote: “The pap that passes for preaching in our Catholic Church is pathetic.”
“That was alliteration,” he said, laughing.
When speaking to a largely African-American congregation, Father Conwill knows he is on the right track when “the call and response phenomenon” – the vocal affirmation of the people – is evident. A good sign when preaching to a white congregation, he said, is a silence so intense you can hear the flutter of a candle.
Father Conwill says every homily must respond to the plea from the 20th chapter of John: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
“Every sermon, every homily, should fulfill this request of letting us see Jesus, whether it’s doing so directly in the New Testament or indirectly through the Old Testament,” he said.
In the Louisville airport one day just after his ordination, Father Conwill bumped into the man he considers an icon for helping Catholics truly see Jesus – Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.
“I’m sorry I didn’t have the wherewithal to take a photo,” Father Conwill said. “He was a man who was sensitive to the power of the Word of God. I loved his mastery of the art of speaking. You could see it in his cadence and in the significant pause – it was like John Paul II, with his sensitivity to the actor’s craft. Then, of course, there was his physical attraction – those deep eyes. He knew how to pause and look directly into the camera. All of that is part of the meta language.”
And, it is sacred to Father Conwill, teacher and preacher.
“I cannot imagine myself not being a priest,” he said.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.