Father Giles Conwill grew up in the same west Louisville neighborhood as Muhammad Ali, a part of the city so Back-of-Town that the municipal fathers decided that gravel roads were a superior surface to cement until the 1950s.
Father Conwill’s mom was a daily communicant at St. Louis Bertrand Church, and she showed her son the 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 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.
Giles’ mom continued to impress on her children the idea of education as the launching pad from a gravel road.
She 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.
Preaching honor to priest
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 since his 1973 ordination, Father Conwill always 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.
When speaking to a largely African-American congregation, Father Conwill knows he is on the right track when 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.
And, it is sacred to Father Conwill, teacher and preacher. “I cannot imagine myself not being a priest,” he said.
Peter Finney Jr. is executive editor and general manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.