800 years of Dominican Tradition Continues
In the changing Europe at the close of the twelfth century, many Christians, from the loftiest of bishops to the most common of lay men and women, from remote cloisters to bustling ports, began to worry that the Church was losing her way. While the Church has always turned to the Scriptures as her permanent and abiding model and guide, at the dawn of the thirteenth century Christians were captivated by what they called the “apostolic life.”
For these Medieval Christians, the life of the apostle was bound up in two principal images: the Gospel narratives sending out disciples by twos as poor beggars preaching the good news, as well as the description of the community of apostles sharing all things in the Acts of the Apostles, bound together by the common life: a community of goods with common prayer and the “breaking of the bread.” The concern was that the Church, founded on the life, witness, and preaching of the apostles was not sufficiently “apostolic” in its witness and way of life, however true its teaching.
An even deeper anxiety was that there were those who taught heresy, those like the Waldensians who denied the authority of the Church or those like the Cathars who denied the goodness of the material world, who lived lives more “apostolic” than the sons and daughters of the Church.
In response to this dilemma, St. Dominic, a cathedral canon from the city of Osma in Spain, gathered around himself a band of men who would live truly apostolic lives : in fidelity of teaching, in manner of life, and in zeal for mission – the preaching of the Gospel for the salvation of souls. What Dominic produced might look something like two half measures, a community in part dedicated to a life in common, with common prayer and classic observances of cloister and penance, in part dedicated to an external mission and apostolate.
In truth, the Dominican vision is something quite different. Dominic knew that that the only effective preaching is one which is unapologetically faithful to the apostolic tradition of the Church, but also one which comes from a life which resembles the life actually lived by the apostles themselves. He saw that no apostolic work, no life of mission, would have anything to offer the world if it was not the fruit of a life of contemplation lived in the “school of charity” that makes up the life of common prayer and observance within the community. Yet, he also saw that no common life, prayer, or observance was truly apostolic if it did not flow over as mission into the world.
Dominic also saw that the faithful needed not only a community dedicated to preaching the Gospel and committed to the apostolic life. It also needed preachers committed to a life of study. Dominican study was from its beginnings a zeal for the Gospel. “Study” itself comes from the Latin studium, meaning “zeal.” However, Dominic saw that there were many people who preached, many who even preached knowing the texts of the Scriptures, but who led others into error.
Dominic understood many hearers of the Gospel needed more than exhortation; they needed preachers who could explain the difficulties and doubts which arise in the minds both of the faithful and those hearing the Good News for the first time. So, from its beginnings, the Order of Preachers was dedicated to the study of all of the human sciences, both to enrich their understanding of the Word and to enrich their own flourishing through the contemplation of all truths which find their origin in Truth himself.
So it was the Order of Preachers quickly gained a reputation as a body of poor, dedicated, highly learned preachers in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They came to dominate, along with the Franciscans, the university teaching of theology, even while jealously maintaining their own tradition of teaching both their own students and all who would listen in their own priories. This was the great era of Dominican “giants” – St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas among the friars, but also St. Catherine of Siena among the sisters. Still, they were also equally energetic in the work of mission, learning Hebrew, Arabic, and a whole array of languages as they sought to engage the peoples of the East, as far East as China, in spreading the Gospel.
This vision of the apostolic life would find its way across the globe in the era of European exploration and conquest during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Dominicans established communities in Asia and the Americas, bringing with them their common life and prayer, their study in the universities of Peru and the Philippines, and their mission to the poor. The Dominican experience in the Americas was to lead such figures as las Casas to see that Gospel mission must be linked to the defense of human dignity, and he and others were crucial in the development of a theology of human rights and international law in their advocacy for the native peoples of the New World.
Even in the nineteenth century, when the French Revolution and the militant republicanism of Napoleon had left the faithful wondering whether religious life, even the Church itself, had any future, the Dominican Order was able to rise from the ashes. Edward Dominic Fenwick, a native Marylander who on January 13, 1822, was consecrated as the first Bishop of the new Diocese of Cincinnati, saw a fertile ground for apostolic mission in the newly-formed United States of America. From the frontier territories of Kentucky and Ohio, these American Dominicans introduced new dynamics into the life of a Preacher, becoming part of the parish landscape as circuit-riding preachers and eventually as pastors. Later, in France, the work of Lacordaire and Jandel revived a zeal for bringing the preaching of the Gospel.Through their work the classic apostolic life of the Preachers was able to respond to the concerns and needs of the modern world.
Today, as in every day, we live confronted with change and challenge. Our difficulties are in some ways less, in other ways greater, but they are the ones God has given us. Some see in our Church and world today little reason for hope. Others are excited about the spirit of the New Evangelism. Whether anxious or hopeful, the Order of Preachers, founded eight hundred years ago, still has something critical to offer the world in its living out of the apostolic life. The words of Lacordaire in the nineteenth century surely have as much truth for us today in the twenty-first century:
“If God granted us the power to set up a religious Order we are sure that after considerable reflection we should discover nothing newer or better adapted to our times and its needs than the rule of St. Dominic. There is nothing old about it save its history, and it would be pointless to rack our brains for the sole satisfaction of dating from yesterday.”