800 years in the service of the Gospel

After nearly eight centuries we Dominicans are still one Order, while enjoying that diversity of gifts which, according to St. Paul, is a sign of the working of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:12 30). Given the Order’s active involvement, since the thirteenth century, in most of the important events that have marked the history of the Church and society, this unity is astonishing. Yet it is this unity that St. Dominic prayed might bind together his followers.

Just think how different are the circumstances in which one might have encountered a Dominican during this long history, marked by both continuity and contrast. In the thirteenth century one might have come across a couple of the brethren making their way across the country lanes of Europe, singing psalms to keep up their spirits, in danger of attack by thieves or heretics, on their way to the frontiers of Christendom and beyond.

Or one might have found them preaching in our churches built in the new towns that were appearing all over Europe at that time, teaching in the newly founded universities such as Paris and Oxford, debating the hot issues of the day, the suspect Aristotelian philosophy or the new experimental sciences, and even experimenting with a little alchemy.

During the Renaissance these same churches are transformed by the artists and architects of the time, such as Botticelli in Florence or da Vinci in Milan, and are where the brethren struggle with the new questions of the moment, St. Antoninus wrestling with the moral problems posed by the new world economy or Francisco de Vitoria engaged in the first formulation of a theory of human rights.

Other brethren cross the Atlantic in search of a new world, and disappear into the jungles of Central America, refusing the protection of the armies so as to preach peacefully to the native people. In the last century we find the brethren again crossing the ocean, in the new steamships, to accompany their people as they push west in search of food and gold and freedom.

In our own age, the followers of St. Dominic are to be found nearly everywhere ninety-two countries sent representatives to the General Chapter of 1992 in Mexico engaged in every imaginable work, from running an ecological farm in Benin to exploring Coptic verbs in Fribourg. What has held all these different men and women together throughout the ages? A passion for the gospel, after he image of St. Dominic.

Recent General Chapters have tried to help the Order focus its priorities in face of such endless demands and possibilities. In particular our apostolic commitment aims to achieve four main objectives: intellectual formation, world mission, social communication, and justice. Because of the place our brother Thomas Aquinas holds in the Church, few will be surprised that the pursuit of Truth and the sanctification of the human intelligence is one of our priorities. This is a searching which God may grace. And despite, within contemporary Western culture, a profound suspicion of “arid intellectualism”, all true study is deeply pastoral. Justice cannot flourish in a society that does not nurture a passion for Truth for its own sake and not for what it may yield financially. And careful attention to texts can be a wonderful training for an attentive, patient listening to other people!

As preachers of the Gospel, Dominicans must wrestle with the arts of communication. Today this calls for every resource that science can supply, but even before the age of the mass media, of television and radio, Dominicans included men and women who had a remarkable ability to gain other people’s attention: saints of the fourteenth century such as the blessed Fra Angelico, whose depictions of the mysteries of Christ’s life still captivate us, or the uneducated saint, Catherine of Siena, whose dialogues with God and letters to ordinary people can still enchant and challenge us today. And what about the communication skills of my thirteenth century predecessor Blessed Jordan of Saxony, of whom it was said that parents locked up their children when he came to preach lest they not be seen again!

The preached word does not merely communicate an abstract truth but can refashion lives and society. If it is in any sense “the Word of the Lord”, then it is a creative and transforming word, helping to bring about the Kingdom. And so there is a deep relationship between the Dominican vocation to preach, and a passion for justice.

(Source : Bedouelle, Guy. In the Image of Saint Dominic. Ignatius, 1994. Forward written by fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, former Master of the Order)