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Institute For Homiletics Featured in The Dallas Morning News Column

The Dallas Morning News
Sunday, August 7, 2022

By BeLynn Hollers

At this preaching institute, a woman teaches priests
A University of Dallas program reaches the ‘stained-glass ceiling’

This column is part of our ongoing Opinion commentary on faith, called Living Our Faith.

On a sweltering day in June at Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House near Dallas, close to 50 Catholic priests and deacons watched as Karla Bellinger tapped to a beat. She asked: “Can you tell what song it is?”

Without a melody, no one could guess the song. Bellinger started to tap again, singing along: “Happy birthday to you.”

The song that’s playing in your head is not the song that is playing in the head of other people, she explained. That was one of many examples Bellinger used to show how important it is for those preaching to connect with their hearers.

Bellinger is the executive director of the first Catholic Institute for Homiletics in Texas, possibly the first permanent endowed homiletics program in the entire world, according to leaders involved in the effort. Newly founded by the Catholic Foundation, the Diocese of Dallas, and the University of Dallas, the institute aims to improve preaching within the Catholic Church. And it’s led by a woman.

For Catholics, the idea that a layperson, let alone a woman, would have something to teach priests about preaching is what first sparked my feministic interest into what sounded like a “glass ceiling” story. 

As faith traditions around the world continue to grapple with sex abuse, most notably in the Catholic Church in the early 2000s, and now within the Southern Baptist Convention, female voices are starting to be prioritized.

Last month, Pope Francis appointed three women to the Dicastery of Bishops, a Vatican office that evaluates recommendations for new bishops. The committee has historically been a male-dominated and mostly clergy group.

The Homiletics Institute arose out of the desire from Catholics in Dallas to have better preaching. In 2018, the University of Dallas came to the Catholic Foundation to collaborate. They secured funding from two private sources, including a project spearheaded by former Dallas Morning News publisher Jim Moroney. Moroney surveyed 3,000 Catholics in Dallas about their experience in the pews. Parishioners graded most homilies in the “C” range, Moroney said.

One of the guys
“Women seem to have chapters in their life,” Bellinger told me earlier this spring. Coaching priests to preach better is her fourth chapter.

In her first chapter, Bellinger was raised in a faithful Presbyterian family. She was the only girl among four brothers. She described her upbringing as “athletic.”

In her second chapter of life, she went to forestry school and met her husband. They married in the Assembly of God Church where they were “hooping and hollering during college years.”

At 21, Bellinger and her husband converted to Catholicism.

She’s the mother of five children and the grandmother of seven. Bellinger says she always stayed busy outside the home, even while raising her children. She started an organic food co-op. Today, she has translated her passion for forestry into a garden which produces enough vegetables to feed her family.

In the ‘90s she began leading Vacation Bible School, creating her own program with eight different churches and 3,000 people, she said. In 1996, when she put those studies forward for publication, one publisher said she didn’t have the “credentials” for it.

A lack of credentials led her to the University of Notre Dame, where she obtained a master’s degree in systematic theology that focused on transmitting theology to those in the pews.

“I started doing all the things a woman with a master’s in theology does. I was a hospital chaplain, youth minister, theology teacher, pastor associated with the parish,” she said. This, she says, was the end of chapter three.

The preaching chapter
She was teaching high school theology when, one Saturday morning, “happily sound asleep” a thought came through her head: a doctorate in preaching.

“What is a Catholic laywoman going to do with a doctorate in preaching?” Bellinger said she thought the idea was ridiculous. “I can’t preach at Mass, and I’ve never really had the ambition to preach at Mass.”

So Bellinger checked it out with all the “holy people” she knew. This began her fourth chapter in life.

As Bellinger sought discernment, she began to witness a vital component in the life of the church missing.

“I saw that there was a gap between the pulpit and the pew and sort of felt a call to speak to that gap to those in the pulpit on behalf of those in the pew.”

Bellinger surveyed 561 Catholic students for her doctoral thesis on preaching titled: “Are You Talking to Me? A Study of Young Listeners’ Connection With Catholic Sunday Preaching,” which sought to better understand where young people found disconnection with what they were hearing.

Eventually, she was hired as an assistant director of a homiletics program at the University of Notre Dame.

“I don’t mean to be rude, but you don’t ever preach. Who are you to teach me how to preach?” Bellinger recalls a conversation with a young, newly ordained priest at Notre Dame. A valid question, she conceded. “And I said, well you know, some of the best, very finest coaches in the National Football League never played at that level in the National Football League, but they’re very good coaches. And after a year, he was quite a fan,” she said.

After five years at Notre Dame, Bellinger retired. She spent 364 days content in her garden. Then Dallas came knocking.

A woman’s place
Clergy who champion her teaching say her gender really has nothing to do with her effectiveness.

“She understands preaching from the pews perspective; she understands connections that are made and not made and need to be made between the preacher and the person listening to preaching,” said Joshua Whitfield, a priest at St. Rita’s in Dallas.

Whitfiled wrote a book that helped inspire the Homiletics Institute, The Crisis of Bad Preaching: Redeeming the Heart and Way of the Catholic Preacher. He advocated for Bellinger to lead the program. 

Whitfield said it was due in part to her ability to connect the pew and pulpit and bring connection as the forefront to her instruction.

“The fact that she’s a layperson, I think, only adds to her credibility in that area,” Whitfield said. He said the way Catholics engage with preaching today is not representative of the preaching throughout history. He hopes that Bellinger and the institute can be part of “the reconstruction of a culture of good preaching that the Catholic Church used to have.”

Better preaching might address the growing crisis of relevance in Christian circles. Americans have neared a record low confidence in faith institutions: Only 37% of Americans have confidence in the church. Church attendance has continued to fall, and not everyone is returning to their places of worship after COVID-19. A March survey showed that only 32% of U.S. adults say they “typically go to religious services at least once or twice a month.”

The focus on the pews has never been more paramount, Dallas faith leaders agree.

Auxiliary Bishop Greg Kelly said, “The purpose of the institute is not just to help preachers preach but also to help listeners listen.”

Which is why having Bellinger, a laywoman in this position who’s sat in the pews, allows for a better understanding of what the faithful are encountering.

“Preaching is not just about rhetorical practices, you need to have the heart of the matter straight. [Bellinger] has a deep knowledge of a deep love for the teachings of the church,” University of Dallas President Jonathan Sanford said. “She understands that and whether she was a man or a woman, the lay perspective is really important here.” Sanford helped select Bellinger for this role.

The institute will take on different cohorts and conduct seminars led by Bellinger. Each cohort will have monthly meetings during which students will review each other’s homilies. A distinctive component to the program includes feedback from a group of people from their parish, whom Bellinger will meet ahead of time to prepare.

The stained-glass ceiling
When asked how her gender relates to the work she does with all-male clergy, Bellinger described a picture from the movie Hidden Figures  In the picture, Katherine Johnson is standing, wearing a bright blue dress, in a room full of men. It’s not hard to put Bellinger in that photograph. She was a sister in a sea of brothers, a female student at forestry school, and now she spends her time coaching male clergy.

“It just kind of makes me chuckle, that God would lead me into this sort of a place. So what is my role? As far as I can see, I am speaking to clergy on behalf of the people in the pews,” she said.

Bellinger says that her advocacy for the listeners has turned into a mutual advocacy for those who are the speakers.

“We don’t give them much of a real life,” but yet they are expected to speak to young married couples, parents, widows, all of whom have experiences that priests will ever experience, Bellinger said. “I think it behooves those of us in pews to form a vibrant relationship with our clergy and share how we encounter God.”

Not everyone can hear the melody; it’s the job of the speaker to transmit beyond such barriers, but it is also the job of the listener to listen. The best homilies are active encounters, not passive.

Bellinger has reached the height of the stained-glass ceiling, but instead of breaking it, she’s pulling out a rag and clearing the dust off so the light can shine through for all. It seems from that height, Bellinger finds visibility, so clear she’s now shared it with at least 150 priests, seminarians and deacons, with many more to come.

When I first started speaking with Bellinger, I began by asking, “What role do women have in the Catholic Church?” I realize now how heedless I was in my line of inquiry. I wasn’t listening. But now I am.

Bellinger’s work has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with one’s ability to listen.

BeLynn Hollers is an editorial fellow for The Dallas Morning News editorial board.


 



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