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Religious Life

Dominican tradition of radical witness


There is an old shibboleth that goes this way: "There are only three things God doesn't know: What the Dominicans are thinking, what the Jesuits are doing and how many orders of nuns there are."

All three elements of this saying have changed drastically in recent decades. However, the eight-century-old Dominican family manages to adhere to much of its St. Dominic-inspired spirituality based on the apostolic life portrayed in Matthew's gospel. It boasts a vocation fueled by preaching, with emphasis on liturgical and private prayer, asceticism, Christ and his passion, the Eucharist and Mary.

The Order of Preachers -- hence the OP -- isn't thriving. Their numbers are down from 11,000 to 7,000 in the past 20 years. But history has shown that they have endured air pockets like this and survived.

At least that is the spirit conveyed by Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, master of the Dominican Order, who oversees the 7,000 Dominican priests and brothers. In addition, there are 2,000 contemplative nuns, 37,500 sisters and 150,000 lay associates affiliated with the order, which is now found in 86 countries.

Radcliffe, a 50-year-old British subject now based in Rome, is the 84th successor to Dominic de Guzman of Spain, who founded the order in 1215. Radcliffe is on an official visit to the United States, the first of a Dominican master since 1987. He hopes to meet every member of the order face-to-face before his nine-year term expires in 2001.

Just before Christmas, he visited Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Ill. The prestigious 1,100 student, coeducational school is named for Dominican Fr. Edward Dominic Fenwick, an itinerant missionary who established the order in the United States and who later served as the first bishop of Cincinnati (1822-1832), a territory that then included Chicago. While Fenwick remains its only high school in the nation, the four American provinces have 860 priests and brothers involved in a spectrum of apostolates. Although the 244-member Chicago province receives only three to four candidates each year, worldwide one out of six Dominicans is in formation.

Radcliffe, who was a full professor at Oxford and provincial of the English province before his election, views his mission as "visiting, listening, seeing and encouraging." He feels strongly that the friars, that is, brothers, must strive to recover the contemplative tradition. "Things must come out of a profound silence," he said, citing a brother monk from Asia, who had "discovered Christ in the Buddhist tradition." Clearly, his ecumenism goes beyond borrowing a few sentiments, as one would a cup of sugar. He seeks a religious and cultural blending of traditions.

According to the enthusiastic master, it would appear that religious orders with the best chance of survival will be those who understand the growing importance of collaboration with women and the growing sense -- and acceptance -- of the richness of other cultures, particularly those of Latin America, Africa and Asia.

"The next step," he said, "is an interreligious dialogue with Islam." He was firm in that conviction in spite of conflicts with Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria that resulted in the assassination of Pierre Clauerie, a Dominican bishop in Oran. "I attended his funeral in his cathedral," Radcliffe testified. "It was filled with Muslims."

In the United States, Radcliffe said he had found "great vitality, especially among the young friars who want to be preachers."

"Americans have a money-driven culture," he continued. "It can help you to flourish or to be devoured. American religious must refuse to let themselves get caught up in the culture of greed."

Radcliffe's comments strongly echoed those of his spiritual father, Dominic, who believed that for preachers of the gospel to be credible, they must return to the "apostolic life" in which priests would travel and preach, as described in the Bible. "At the same time," according to Dominican Fr. Benedict Ashley, emeritus professor of moral theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, writing in Harper's Encyclopedia of Catholicism, "Dominic was convinced that priests must be men of profound contemplative prayer and charity who would support one another as brothers (friars) in their work."

The basic unit of the Dominicans is the priory, which is headed by a chapter of friars who elect the "first brother," or prior. The priors in turn elect the provincial and the provincials elect delegates who elect a master of the order.

From 1216 to 1347, the order grew to 20,000 members. The first century was marked by brilliant successes in universities. It produced church doctors such as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas who did much to show how the findings of science and philosophy could be used to present the gospel in a systematic and coherent way. However, the Black Death (bubonic plague) all but destroyed the order, as it decimated much of the population of Western Europe.

The years 1347-1517 witnessed the era of Catherine of Siena and Meister Eckhart, who gave the Dominicans two lasting spiritualities: one apostolic and reform-oriented, led by Catherine and Girolamo Savonarola, and the other an inward-oriented "negative" spirituality, inspired by Meister Eckhart.

The third period (1530-1789) brought the order to the French Revolution and witnessed a revival of Thomism. The Dominicans played a major role in the Council of Trent and debated with the Jesuits over the nature of predestination, grace and free will.

It was followed by a period that saw a decline from 30,000 members to 3,000, followed by a revival under Henri Lacordaire and another revival of Thomism under Leo XIII.

In 1968, the Dominicans revised their constitutions, a revision that renewed the fundamentals of the spirit of the founder.

Radcliffe exudes the earlier Dominican spirit, which appears to have been somewhat eclipsed by the fame of Dominic's contemporary, Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), and by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). Dominic, who was canonized only 13 years after his death in 1221, is often credited only with the introduction of the rosary devotion, something he didn't do.

Radcliffe strongly supports Dominic's democratic process, a system credited with influencing the structure of the British parliament. He remains a traditionalist on the structure of the order's solemn vows. He views the vows as "an act of generosity, giving to an unknown future."

"The vows are tough," he continued. "They are prophetic -- out of sync, but prophetic."

Radcliffe rejects a restructuring of the vows, preferring to let the Dominican associates "create the space" while the traditional friars provide a "radical witness" through their solemn vows. He echoed the sentiments of Aquinas who urged his fellow friars "to gaze with love on God and then to share what has been seen with others."

Recently, he has also been pressing the social dimension, stressing human rights, nuclear disarmament and care for people with AIDS, complemented by a deep inward spirituality.

Dominican Fr. David Wright, vicar provincial for the Chicago province, described his fellow friars as "a community that sustains whatever they're doing."

Radcliffe put it another way. "In the Dominican approach," he said, "you try to come to a common truth you can both agree on. We don't aim for victory. We aim for community."

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 1997