November 2016 Print

Lights of the Church

by Fr. Albert, O,P.

The Order of St. Dominic is celebrating this year the eighth centenary of this solemn decree of Pope Honorius III, December 22, 1216, by which it was officially approved by the Church. This approbation, as Fr. de Paredes, a Master-General of the Order in the early 20th century, remarks, was something entirely new, and was to give the Order it distinguishing mark:

“By a privilege until then unheard of in the history of the Church, the Vicar of Jesus Christ delegated to our blessed Father and to his Order the power, reserved solely to bishops, the successors of the Apostles, to teach sacred doctrine in an habitual, permanent manner, in such a way that this power exercised in the chairs of churches or schools gives to the Order its specific difference, its distinctive character and, as it were, the reason for its existence” (Quoted in Langlais, Emile-Alphonse, O.P., Le Père Maître des novices et des frères étudiants dans l’Ordre des Frères-Prêcheurs, Rome, 1958, pp. 25-26).

A History of the Order

This extraordinary new power of what was called the “universal predication” had its historical reasons. On the one hand, there was a growing awareness of the existence of the direct jurisdiction of the Sovereign Pontiff over the entire Church, which allowed him to give this immediate power to preach in every diocese in the world. At the same time there was a pressing need for such a universal predication because of the alarming outspread of heresy in the south of France and in northern Italy, which the bishops seemed unable to stop. “Friar Dominic” had already been preaching against this heresy for over ten years and for this end had formed a little community of itinerant preachers in the diocese of Toulouse. Having now received this power from the pope, however, the mission of his friars would no longer be limited to this region, and on the feast of the Assumption 1217 he scatters them to the four corners of Europe, a daring manoeuvre obviously inspired by God, for it succeeded so well that three years later the first general chapter of the Order assembles hundreds of religious from all over Christendom.

What exactly was this new sort of religious Order that suddenly appeared and so quickly spread? Fr. Emile-Alphonse Langlais, in an authoritative instruction manual for Dominican novice masters written just before Vatican II entitled Le Père Maître des novices et des frères étudiants dans l’Ordre des Frères-Prêcheurs, explains (pp. 32-33):

“The genius of St. Dominic was to be at the same time a man of tradition and a veritable innovator. He takes the different institutions established in the Church at his time and, far from destroying them, he unites them, orders them and adapts them to the apostolic life. The innovation will be to revive the evangelical predication of the first centuries of the Church by the union of the religious life and the apostolate of souls, according to the very institution of Our Lord Himself.”

Origin of Religious Life

Indeed, according to Tradition, the origin of religious life, that is, the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, is Our Lord Himself, who was the first to lead this life and who taught His apostles, whom He sent to preach the Gospel, to lead it as well in imitation of Himself. Through the centuries, however, these two things, religious life and apostolate, had come to be separated, to the point where many considered them incompatible: monks were to stay in their monasteries and pray, leaving preaching to the bishops and the priests whom they ordained to assist them. The originality of St. Dominic was to unite the two again and institute a religious Order whose very purpose would be to preach the Gospel in imitation of Our Lord and the Apostles and so, as is said in the special preface in his honour, “renew the apostolic form of life.” Thus one of the friars of this first generation of Dominicans explained their ideal simply saying: “I haven’t read that Our Lord Jesus Christ was a monk, neither black nor white, but a preacher in poverty” (M.H. Vicaire, O.P., Histoire de saint Dominique, In Medio Ecclesiae, p. 142).

There is, then, a certain complexity involved in the Dominican life, since it combines in a delicate balance several diverse elements, which find their unity in their direction toward their end, as again Fr. Langlais explains (pp. 32-33):

“The Dominican is not a simple religious, nor simply a canon regular, or a monk vowed to penitential observances, nor a man of study. He is all of that together and more than that ; he is an apostle vowed to the salvation of souls by the preaching of sacred doctrine. His apostolic end is added to the rest and is his soul, his principle of unity and life.”

In spite of this diversity then, there is a profound unity in the Dominican life, as Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange writes (La Spiritualité dominicaine, pp. 80-81):

“In such a life there is no dualism or opposition between liturgical piety and monastic observances on the one hand, and study and apostolate on the other. Everything is harmonised, as long as one sees clearly that the cult and the austerity of the observances are ordered, like the study, to this divine contemplation which itself is ordered to a greater charity which must overflow upon souls. This is all summed up perfectly in the motto: Contemplate and give to others what one has contemplated.”

The Four Cornerstones

Thence come what are called the four “means” of Dominican life, its essential elements which cannot be changed because they are all necessary to attain its end. Fr. Langlais enumerates them saying (pp. 35-37):

“These are the four cornerstones upon which the Order is based and on which depend its stability, equilibrium and strength: . . . 1) the religious vows; 2) the canonical, regular life according to the Rule of St. Augustine ; 3) the monastic observances ; 4) study. These primary institutions, or four constitutive elements of the Order were ordered by Saint Dominic to its apostolic end: the salvation of souls by preaching.”

This delicate balance of diverse elements is why another Dominican, Fr. Clérissac, speaks of what he calls the “complexity” of Dominican life (L’Esprit de saint Dominique, pp. 2-4).

“St. Dominic is a complex personality. He is at the same time a man of study, of prayer and of action. . . . Dominican life is absorbing and exclusive; it allows neither the indiscreet interventions of affectivity nor the tumult and noise of exterior activity. But in St. Dominic’s Order, intellectual life needs to be completed, at the same time, by a profound interior life and by apostolic activity. . . . Thence the characteristics of our Order: we are coenobites, we are doctors, we are apostles.”

Study, Prayer, and Action

We see these three characteristics of study, prayer and action, first of all in the life of St. Dominic himself. He first spends ten years at the schools of Palencia studying intensely, forming and furnishing his intelligence for the battles he would later have to wage against error. Then he passes ten years as a canon at the cathedral in Osma where, as Blessed Jordan of Saxony, his first biographer, puts it: “Night and day he wore out the floor of the church, giving himself up unceasingly to prayer and appearing practically never outside the enclosure of the monastery.”

This prayer however, far from closing him in on himself, enflames his heart with a burning zeal for the salvation of souls. Blessed Jordan writes:

One of his frequent and particular petitions to God was that he give him a veritable charity which would make him effectively cultivate and procure the salvation of men : for he thought that he would only truly be a member of Christ the day when he could give himself completely, with all his strength, to saving souls, just as the Lord Jesus, Saviour of all men, consecrated himself entirely to our salvation.

And God heard this prayer, as Blessed Jordan witnesses: “He had in his heart a surprising and almost incredible ambition for the salvation of all men.”

Thus after this time of study and prayer follows the time of action for the salvation of souls: first ten years of hard, often sterile, apostolic labor in the south of France preaching against the heretics and laying the foundations of his Order, and then, finally, five brief, brilliant years before his death when he implanted his Order all over Europe.

These three characteristics of study, prayer and action, or rather their combination under the unifying influence of the ultimate end of saving souls by preaching, are found equally in the members of the Order St. Dominic founded. St. Thomas Aquinas was a man of study, certainly, but he claimed to have learned more at the foot of his crucifix than in all the books he had ever read. His intellectual efforts were always directed towards saving souls by combating error, from the false interpretations of Aristotle in his commentaries on his works as well as to the anti-Christian dogmas of Islam in his Summa Contra Gentiles. St. Catherine of Siena was certainly one of the greatest mystics in the history of the Church, but her writings often read like a theological treatise and her influence on the political and ecclesiastical history of her age was immense. St. Vincent Ferrer was one of the greatest apostles the church has ever known, converting thousands of Jews and Muslims and preaching from one town to another every day for over twenty years all over Europe. But if he spent his days working miracles and haranguing cities, curious spectators could see him passing the greater part of his nights in prayer. He also composed a treatise on logic against nominalism, which he considered a public danger because of its corrosive effect on society.

Along with these and the other some twenty saints canonized by the Church, there are the myriads of Dominican friars and nuns who down through the ages have studied and taught and prayed and preached and governed with this same spirit. From the four popes and thousands of bishops who ruled in the Church to the humblest of lay brothers, from the great schools of theologians to the crowds of missionaries and martyrs, from the hundreds of convents of contemplative nuns to the legions of teaching sisters: down through the ages one can always discern this same distinctive spirit. We read that Blessed Joanna, St. Dominic’s mother, saw a star on the forehead of her son, and this same star seems to appear in the souls of all those who are called to his Order, a star that symbolizes the calm, imperturbable, celestial light which leads their souls, guiding them in the steps of their founder towards heaven.

Decadence and Hope

Like all the great religious Orders in the Church, the Dominican Order has not been spared the problems which have troubled the Church since the convening of the Second Vatican Council; in keeping with its eminent place, the Order was even, unfortunately, eminently responsible for a lot of this trouble. Several of its members were key figures at Vatican II, in particular Yves Congar, Marie-Dominique Chenu, and Edward Schillebeeckx. At the same time, however, other Dominicans were in the vanguard of the reaction against this new spirit, starting with Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, whose famous article “The New Theology, Where is it going?” refuted the errors of Vatican II already in 1946. As well, his disciple, Marie-Rosaire Gagnebet, was a member on the theological commission during the Council and fought valiantly, although in vain, against the novelties it introduced.

In 1968 the decadence which was already well underway in the Order was officially adopted and put into legislation by a special Chapter held in Chicago. This legislation profoundly disturbed the delicate balance of the different elements of Dominican life we have mentioned, especially with regard to the practice of the vows and monastic observances. The attempts made to reestablish the traditional rule have been thus far refused any official recognition, and there seems to be no hope for the immediate future of any change in that position.

It is said, however, that St. Theresa of Avila predicted that the Order of St. Dominic would last till the end of the world. At some time the Order will come back to its senses and continue to play the role Providence assigned to it, expressed very simply in the antiphon sung to St. Dominic every night at the end of Compline which salutes him saying: “O Lumen Ecclesiae: O Light of the Church!” This is not just filial pride but is based on a passage of the Dialogues, Chapter V of St. Catherine of Siena where God the Father Himself says to her:

Now look at the ship of your father Dominic, My beloved son: he ordered it most perfectly, wishing that his sons should apply themselves only to My honour and the salvation of souls, with the light of science, which light he laid as his principal foundation (…) to extirpate the errors which had arisen in his time, thus taking on him the office of My only-begotten Son, the Word. Rightly he appeared as an apostle in the world, and sowed the seed of My Word with much truth and light, dissipating darkness and giving light. He was a light which I gave the world by means of Mary, placed in the mystical body of the Holy Church as an extirpator of heresies.