By Jeff Miller
Special to The Texas Catholic
If the word homiletician isn’t in your personal vocabulary, maybe it should be. A homiletician could make a significant impact on your parish.
The Institute for Homiletics was established at the University of Dallas last fall through a unique collaboration with the Diocese of Dallas and The Catholic Foundation. Its mission is to strengthen the preaching done by priests and deacons across the diocese and beyond.
“Here in the Diocese of Dallas, we have wonderful and amazing priests and deacons. They truly love to serve and nourish the faithful in our parishes,” Bishop Edward J. Burns said. “With the Institute of Homiletics, we want to help our priests and deacons to enhance their preaching in ways that will positively transform lives and create deep-rooted encounters with God.”
The institute was founded in September in response to a 2018 diocesan survey that showed a majority of parishioners believed quality preaching was an important aspect of their faith experience and sought improvement in that area.
Dr. Karla Bellinger was hired as the founding executive director to oversee the operation, commuting from her home in southwest Michigan — just minutes from the Notre Dame campus where she previously directed a similar effort. In late June, Bellinger launched a two-year program involving 45 priests and deacons — 28 from the Dallas diocese — with a two-day session held at the Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House in Lake Dallas.
“The purpose of the program is to renew the preachers in order to renew preaching,” said Bellinger, who will become president of the Catholic Association of Teachers of Homiletics in December. “The purpose of preaching is to encounter God, preaching that raises their hearts, minds, soul to God. Those that have heard preaching that lifts up their hearts, they know it when they hear it. They said, ‘Relate to me, and let me relate to you. Don’t give us the same ol’ same ol’.”
The survey of Dallas Catholics was conducted through UD at the behest of Jim Moroney, lifelong member at Holy Trinity and the former publisher of The Dallas Morning News. The more-than 3,000 results showed more than 85 percent viewed quality preaching from the pulpit as either very or extremely important, and the collective grade given to that preaching was a C+. Moroney consulted with St. Rita’s pastoral administrator, Father Joshua Whitfield, who published a related book a few months later.
“I want to make clear there are some exceptionally good preachers in our diocese,” Moroney said. “I’m confident if you sent this survey to other major urban cities, you would get a very similar result.”
Next came the search that led to Bellinger, who’d previously conducted some short-term training in Dallas. Her program at Notre Dame ended last year. The institute’s associate director is Deacon John O’Leary of Prince of Peace in Plano.
Among participants in the recent workshop was Bishop Greg Kelly.
“I have great hopes for the institute and its abilities to help with this very important ministry,” Bishop Kelly said. “I’m excited to be part of it myself. Any one of us — priest, deacon or bishop — can grow in that.”
Matt Kramer, president and CEO of The Catholic Foundation, said a diocesan fund earmarked for homiletics was started in the mid-1980s.
“UD came to us and said, ‘We’d really like to start up the institute,’” Kramer said. “Jim Moroney wanted to do something about it and spearheaded a capital campaign of $7.5 million so we can endow the operations.” The goal is a $10 million endowment with fundraising ongoing.
Dr. Jonathan J. Sanford, president of UD, is particularly proud of how the university, the diocese and the foundation came together to make the institute a reality.
“If there wasn’t such friendship and collaboration between The Catholic Foundation, Jim Moroney and the University of Dallas, there could be certain anxieties,” Sanford said. “But we all want the same thing.”
Retreatants will meet monthly with their peer learning group, receive one-on-one coaching with an expert homiletician and also interact with groups of parishioners who have agreed to support them. Bellinger emphasized to the participants the importance of those lay people coming from diverse backgrounds. “Not just Father’s 10 best friends,” she said with a smile.
Also among the retreat participants was Father Abbot Peter Verhalen of Cistercian Abbey in Irving. Father Abbot Verhalen came away encouraged by both the opportunity for enhanced preaching and the opportunity to build relationships with other priests and deacons plus with the lay people who will support the preachers.
“I like her approach,” he said of Bellinger, “preaching for an encounter with God.”
The Institute for Homiletics is still seeking financial support and needs your help. Please contact The Catholic Foundation at www.catholicfoundation.com 972-661-9792 or Kris Kramer, firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about this work or to make a gift.