While praying morning office on the Memorial of St. Gregory the Great, two of its elements struck me as pertinent to the question of Dominican identity. Dominicans chant much of the Liturgy of the Hours like Benedictines. But we do not rise in the middle of the night to pray the Office of Readings as monks are accustomed. We often combine this long “hour” with another such as morning prayer. Like Jesuits, we are deeply engaged in active ministry, which limits our prayer time.
Yet prayer, especially contemplation, is critical for the Dominican apostolate. Dominicans are “the Order of Preachers,” a profession that begs sustained reflection on the word of God. When we gather for prayer, we read the word of God unhurriedly and then pause to savor its richness. The process often leads to insights for homilies or lesson plans.
Dominicans are involved in varied ministries. St. Dominic founded the order for “the salvation of souls.” He wanted his “friars” (from a Latin word meaning brother) to be well-educated preachers. We are to refute errors regarding faith while sharing the consolation of the Gospel. Fifty years after Dominic’s death, St. Thomas Aquinas gave the order a second major thrust. He established Dominicans as world-class theologians. The fact that the “Theologian of the Pontifical Household” has always been a Dominican testifies to our theological competence.
However, Dominicans have distinguished themselves in other areas as well. They have promoted the Rosary through the centuries. Blessed John of Vercelli founded the Holy Name Society. Bartolome de las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria significantly championed human rights. St. Raymond of Penyafort organized canon law, and Fra Angelico painted his way into art museums around the world. Marie-Joseph Lagrange helped renew Catholic Biblical scholarship. Finally, St. Martin de Porres and Nobel Peace Laureate Dominique Pire worked tirelessly on humanitarian projects.
Dominicans preach by our lives as well as with words. We wear a white habit of tunic, scapular and hood to identify us externally. More to the point, efforts to develop prayer, study, ministry and community form the basis of our life together. We also hold democratic elections for superiors.
We are not only men. The genius of our founder established a community of cloistered nuns to pray for what we call the “holy preaching.” Women have also imitated Dominic’s zeal for souls in the apostolic life. St. Catherine of Siena astounded Italy by seeking reconciliation among rivals and with God. St. Rose of Lima became the first canonized saint of the Americas for her single-minded holiness and service to the poor. In truth, Dominican women have outpaced Dominican men in numbers and in the establishment of schools.
In the Office of Readings that morning, we listened to the extraordinary confession of Pope St. Gregory the Great. In it he accuses himself of not practicing what he preaches. He says, “I cannot preach with any competence, and yet insofar as I do succeed, still I myself do not live my life according to my own preaching.” Like Gregory, we Dominicans sometimes fail the vision of our founder and the legacy of our predecessors. Much like his contemporary, St. Francis, Dominic called us to poverty as a means of preaching the Gospel. Yet we can find ourselves seeking material comforts. Dominic wanted us to reflect deeply over the word as Fra Angelico pictures him doing in a famous painting. Yet we, too, can be guilty of watching too much television.
Often enough we miss the mark. That is sadly part of the human experience. But God keeps offering us forgiveness. Aquinas writes that no virtue characterizes God more than mercy. Dominicans are unique in many ways, but not in the need for God’s mercy.
I became a Dominican 45 years ago when I entered the novitiate. I had previously attended a Dominican high school and college. I felt a vocation to explain the meaning of life which is God’s offer of salvation. It has been a continual challenge, a “raid on the inarticulate.” But I am grateful for the calling.
Father Carmen Mele is with the Southern Dominican Province.