Dr. Christopher Bellitto: the historian; the journalist
By Gabrielle Gale Prendatt-Carter| Published Dec. 10, 2015
Dr. Christopher Bellitto, associate professor, public speaker, media commentator, historian, and journalist, is considered to be one of the most respected papal experts in the world.
The former chair of Kean University’s History Department, Bellitto is most recently credited for his coverage on Pope Francis’ visit to the United States. He has been quoted in The New York Times, the Washington Post, et al., and has appeared on The History Channel, CNN, MSNBC, PBS’ News Hour, NPR, and various other local radio and TV stations.
Bellitto received his Bachelor of Arts degree from New York University, where he double majored in Journalism and Politics, and double minored in Classics and Religion. He also received his Master of Arts degree and Doctorate in History from Fordham University. Bellitto has been working at Kean University since 2004 and is very passionate about teaching. He is married to wife, Karen, and they have a 10 year-old daughter named Grace.
The Tower recently sat down with Bellitto when the Pope came to town this past September.
Q: Can you please touch on your coverage of the Pope?
A: Sure. When the Pope was in Cuba, and then came to North America, went to Washington, New York, Philadelphia, it was a whirlwind. From two Wednesday’s ago until Sunday night, I was on set 23 hours total. Most of that was with Time Warner Cable’s national pope channel and they were broadcasting out of the offices of NY One. Then I did the coverage of the Pope’s Mass in Madison Square Garden for WNBC and his visit to a Harlem school. Then I did one other hit. But in between what I was doing, I did an interview with the NY Times. My mother made this point while watching me that some times I’m called upon to be a church historian and some times I’m called upon to answer a question as a Catholic.
Q: Are you Catholic?
A: I am of the progressive school. If people are handing out communion at Madison Square Garden, I’m not interested in converting anyone but, that’s the moment to explain what’s happening; and to explain what’s happening, you have to explain what Catholics believe about the Eucharist. I happened to have lunch with Austin Ivory, who wrote the best biography of Pope Francis called “The Great Reformer.” He was saying the very same thing; that you’re always teaching. Some times you’re the biographer or some times you’re the church historian, some times you’re the Catholic, some times you’re the critic. It’s very gratifying to be able to help inform; help teach. I see all of this media stuff as just another form of teaching. I had great teachers who put their arm around me. Great teachers have great mentors, and I think that’s why I like working with media today. I hope that the media likes working with me because I’ve been a journalist. This history department is outstanding for many reasons. And, one of them is that, we all believe that history doesn’t belong in a lecture hall only. So many of us in the department do about 50 public lectures a year, adding us up; libraries, parishes, synagogues, local historical centers, societies, because we believe history is relevant and history has to be out there. We have so many great live wires because we’re teachers. We love to teach. Informed by scholarship, but we love to teach.
Q: Why is journalism such an influence?
A: When a reporter calls me, my goal is not to get quoted. My goal is to teach the reporter. I was a Journalism major. The dirty little secret of my life is that I was not a history major. I was a muggle. Back in my day, which was the mid ‘80s, I was at NYU. We had clappity-clap typewriters. Professors would give you a fact sheet and you had to write a story about a fire in 45 minutes or something. There was a big sign that said, “Better Never Than Late,” and that’s how I learned about deadlines. I would never ever give up my Journalism degree because it helped me so much in other parts of my life. It taught me that kind of focus to ask a really good question and it taught me that sense of precision and discipline; but there was always this call of being a teacher. My mother was a teacher.
Q: Which subject did she teach?
A: She taught for 12 years in Catholic School; St. Lucy’s Grammar School in the Bronx. She taught a range of things, but social studies was her favorite. My mother always wanted to be a teacher but in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you stayed home and raised a family. It was kind of the way things were. When I went to Kindergarten, she went back to get her Master’s degree. So I’m a teacher for a number of reasons. One of them is my mother. My father was a trial attorney. There’s a little bit of performance art in teaching, and you have to be a bit of a performance artist to be a Litigator. That’s how I got into teaching.
Q: What made you decide to come to Kean University?
A: I had worked in Catholic institutions and wasn’t all that comfortable there because I am a bit more on the progressive wing. Some times you have to censor what you’re working on and saying and that made me uncomfortable. I very much enjoy doing what I do at a state institution. I’m not in any way trying to convert people. I’m not in any way trying to evangelize or prophetalize, but at the same time, in order to understand the middle ages, you have to understand a lot about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What I do is very much along the line of history of ideas, history of reform, history of religion, and of course, the middle ages. I really like doing interreligious dialogue. In fact, I have a friend who is a Rabbi; Brook Susman and I do a lot of work together on the history of Jews and Christians, even though that’s a very difficult history. Our notion, and what we hope, is that people will see the great respect that the two of us have. There is an Islamic dialogue partner with whom we’ve worked before. Instead of being a duo, we’ll be a trinity of a Jewish, a Muslim, and a Christian voice meeting together to talk about our commonalities. The course is called the Crusades, but in my mind, it’s the Crusades: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.
Q: How many classes do you teach at Kean now? And which ones are your favorites?
A: We all teach four classes, but I have a rotation of about 10 classes. Which are my favorite courses? Whatever I’m teaching now, because I owe my student 120%. The goal of the teacher is just to disappear. I tell people, the goal of the teacher is to die empty, with nothing left. Everything you have, you’ve given away.