An Interview with Dominican Father Gregory Heille, OP

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism



Dr. Knight: Would you please share with us your early Catholic formation.


Father Gregory: As a child, I reluctantly attended Catholic Mass in rural Minnesota with my Catholic father and Presbyterian mother. At 16, however, my reluctance suddenly disappeared when a young priest taught my religious education class one Wednesday night in the Catholic grade school cafeteria. When I heard him say that Jesus was raised from the dead, I experienced a sudden conversion and knew from that moment that I wanted to be a priest.


Dr. Knight: What did your family think about your entering the Dominican Order?


Father Gregory: At first, I thought about being a diocesan priest in rural Minnesota. Then I attended St. John’s University in Minnesota and was drawn to the Benedictines. However, the monks discerned that I had a vocation as a preacher and generously introduced me to the Dominican vocation director. As a junior, I visited the Dominican novitiate in Winona, Minnesota, and I knew the Dominicans were for me. My parents were very concerned that I graduate college first, and I followed their advice. It wasn’t until my Mom and Dad visited me at the student priory in Dubuque, Iowa, a few years later that they came to love the Dominicans and fully support my vocation. I few years later, a Dominican of my Province received my Mother into the Church.


Dr. Knight: You went to college and became an educator. How did you make that decision?


Father Gregory: My Dad was a high school math teacher, and in college, I majored and did student teaching in math. The change to seminary theology was difficult for me, and I certainly never intended to teach as a Dominican. Then, about 15 years after ordination, I took the opportunity to study part-time for a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching degree at a Protestant seminary in Michigan. With that credential, I reluctantly stepped in to teach preaching at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. About halfway through my first year, I realized I loved it—and now I am in my 27th year!


Dr. Knight: What Dominican Charisms did you discern in your Order?


Father Gregory: The mission statement of my Dominican Province says, “The Dominican Friars of the Province of St. Albert the Great communicate the Word of God through preaching, theological education, and the promotion of peace and justice.” I rejoice to have lived fifty years of Dominican life as a preacher and a theological educator with a passion for justice. This summer, when I taught a course with 18 Catholic priests, deacons, and catechists on “Preaching and Racism: Finding Our Way Forward,” I felt so engaged with my Province’s Dominican mission.


Dr. Knight: What was the mission of your Order? Did you realize that mission?


Father Gregory: Ever since I did a deacon internship at a campus ministry in South Dakota, preaching has been my thing—just as the Benedictines had suspected. I have served as a campus and parish preacher, as a chaplain and program director at a Dominican Sisters’ motherhouse, and now as a teacher of preaching and director of the world’s only Catholic doctoral program in preaching. For many years, I was the Promoter of Preaching for my Dominican Province. Now I serve on an international steering committee of the Dominican Preaching Network, a collaboration of Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis with the Dominican Institute for Pastoral Homiletics in Germany and the Dominican Institute of Preaching in the Philippines. I love serving the Order as a promoter of our preaching charism.


Dr. Knight: After you finished teaching, did you decide to pursue another ministry? What was your next discernment?


Father Gregory: At Aquinas Institute of Theology, I did leave teaching for eleven years to serve as Academic Dean. But then, three years ago, the time seemed right to return to teach preaching to our student brothers and to direct the Doctor of Ministry in Preaching program. I love what I am doing, though I sometimes wonder if God will bring me full circle back to a preaching ministry in one of the campus ministries or parishes of my Dominican Province. All I can say is that God hasn’t failed me yet.


Dr. Knight: Do you think of your work in writing a journal part of your spiritual mission?


Father Gregory: In 2015, I wrote a little book on The Preaching of Pope Francis: Missionary Discipleship and the Ministry of the Word. Now, I am finding time to finish a book tentatively titled Reframing Christianity for Discipleship. I am also talking with some Aquinas Institute doctoral graduates about doing a book on Catholic preaching for racial reconciliation.


Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that your life is somewhat a mosaic of your different gifts?


Father Gregory: Yes, indeed. I am a Christian with gifts of preaching, teaching, and administration. All these gifts keep coming into play.


Dr. Knight: What do you want the readers to understand after reading your interview?


Father: As I try to understand my life, I always go back to my initial coming to faith at 16. I believe that Jesus in his Resurrection gives life. As disciples of Jesus, our calling is to give life to one another and our world. Our deeply fractured world needs to be raised up to new possibilities of being a beloved community together, and I believe the Gospel points the way.


Dr. Knight: What are some of the challenges of the future Church?


Father Gregory: Because church and society are deeply intertwined, the Church can fall prey to the social sins of our time. The Social Gospel challenges us to keep in mind those many people whose backs are up against the wall. We will do well to remember the Good Shepherd, who knows the sheep by name and lays down his life for them.


Dr. Knight: What are some of the joys you’ve experienced as a follower of Christ?


Father Gregory: I love being “on the Way” with other disciples. Our life as Christians, and for me as a Dominican, is communal. To be “in Christ” is never to be alone. Christianity is a love story that calls for our individual and collective response as disciples.


Dr. Knight: Are there any other issues you, as an accomplished writer, want to bring to your readers?


Father Gregory: In his first Easter Vigil homily in 2013, Pope Francis invited believers to “go back to Galilee”—each of us to remember the origin story of our faith in Jesus. He also said, “Do not be afraid.” In my preaching, teaching, and writing, I try to announce the good news of Jesus and Christian discipleship to others. Each of us receives a call to respond to God with our gifts and with our love. Seeing this and being faithful to this in each other is hard work, worthy of a lifetime.