instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, August 09, 2004

Family resemblance

In a way, St. Dominic makes an unlikely Dominican.

The founder of an order of theologians himself contributed nothing, basically, to theology. The founder of an order of scholars himself wasn't interested in studying. The founder of an order of academics himself never held an academic position. The founder of an order that produced two doctors of the Church in the decades after its founding himself is not a doctor of the Church (and would have no business being one). The founder of the Order of Preachers himself left us no real samples of his preaching.

But the Order of Preachers is not about forming its members into new St. Dominics. Which is just as well, since if it were all we'd know about it would come from a paragraph on the optional memorial of St. Domingo and Companions, Martyrs, who were killed while preaching the Gospel to the Tartars about the year 1220.

What the Order of Preachers is about, what St. Dominic was about, is identified in the opening words of the Fundamental Constitution of the friars:
The purpose of the Order was expressed by Pope Honorius III writing to St. Dominic and his brothers in these words: "He who ever makes His Church fruitful with new offspring, wanting to make these modern times measure up to former times, and to propagate the Catholic faith, inspired you with a holy desire by which, having embraced poverty and made profession of regular life, you have given yourselves to the proclamation of the Word of God, preaching the name of our Lord Jesus Christ throughout the world.

For the Order of Friars Preachers founded by St. Dominic "is known from the beginning to have been instituted especially for preaching and the salvation of souls."
That is the end of the Order of Preachers: preaching and the salvation of souls. It is, you'll note, a subjective end; the subjects are the souls to be saved through preaching. The means to a subjective end are necessarily subjective. The way you preach to someone dying in an American hospital is not necessarily the way you preach to someone in a university in Pakistan. The way you preach in 2004 Germany is not necessarily the way you preach in 1904 France.

That is why the specifics of St. Dominic's personality and life are not precisely copied by his faithful children. What defined him, what defines his Order, is the end sought, and the ways in which this end is sought are as different as the times, places, and people who seek it.

I'm not saying there are no means whatsoever common to all Dominicans. Preaching the name of our Lord Jesus Christ does have an objective component -- viz., our Lord Jesus Christ -- and St. Dominic's enduring vision of the Order is that a balance between prayer, study, and the common life is the means by which Dominicans acquire Jesus in their hearts in order to preach Him to others.

And I'm not saying the specifics of St. Dominic's personality and life do not at all influence his faithful children. The stories of his life have always been mined for their wisdom and guidance. Still, it's worth pointing out that he may not even have been aware of perhaps his richest personal example to the Order -- his Nine Ways of Prayer, written after his death from reports of those who had observed him -- and that the lessons they teach are not about preaching per se, but about the absorption in holiness necessary to preach as a saint.

Finally, his whole life teaches his children boldness and flexibility in response to the local need. To miss this while trying to recreate the details of a medieval Spanish priest's biography is to miss the gift St. Dominic has given the Order and the Church.

[I'll stipulate here that the above is pretty much all my personal opinion, and you can expect other Dominicans to disagree.]