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The Dominicans in the Modern World

(By Fr Vivian Boland OP)

The Dominican has always lived in the modern world. That may sound a bit too clever. Let me explain what I mean.

The Dominican Order was established in response to the modern world of the thirteenth century. Great social and cultural changes were taking place. Towns and cities were growing in a way not known before. Universities were being established at Paris, Oxford and many other centres in Europe. Important books on science and philosophy were being translated into Latin from Greek and Arabic, and were challenging the received understanding and presentation of the Christian Gospel.The Church, seen as wealthy and worldly-minded, was largely ineffective against various cults and sects, small religious groups which were at once more serious and more enthusiastic than the institutional religion.

New ways to the truth were needed if people living in radically changed circumstances were to hear the ancient Gospel truth in a way that was fresh and relevant to their changing lives. Saint Dominic responded to this challenge. He gave up his life as a cathedral canon in Spain and became a travelling preacher in the south of France. He saw that a life of poverty and simplicity had to accompany any preaching he might do if his message were to be credible. He sent his first followers to the university towns to become acquainted with the intellectual debates of the time and to bring the Gospel light to bear on them. He devised a style of religious life which combined priory-life with freedom to travel, monastic prayer with freedom to study, devotion with preaching, the old with the new.

In the system of government which Dominic left to his Order there is a built-in openness to constant change. It is a structure which is constantly revising itself. This democratic and constitutional organisation ensures that the Dominican Order is responsive to whatever ‘modern world’ it finds itself in, whether penal-times in Ireland, sixteenth-century Spain, nineteenth-century France, or twentieth-century Taiwan, or Trinidad, or Canada. The wise system of government left by Saint Dominic ensures the Dominican Order’s flexibility and adaptability to changing circumstances. It has also ensured that the order has strained but never cracked, has suffered stress but has never split.

The Dominican, faced with the modern world of the twenty-first century, thus has a lot going for him, or her. Behind him is a ‘tradition of adapting’, a constant encouragement to work out ‘new ways to the truth’ as the Dominican constitutions put.

Like his contemporaries, the Dominican will be a little bit dazzled by the speed of change in the modern world, a rate of change which marks if off from all previous ages. All the time there are new developments in technology, in communications, in artificial intelligence, in weaponry, in social conditions, in ideas and styles of living. He has no quick or easy solution to coping with such a rate of change since he is himself a participant in the process, a man of this time.

He has, however, a few clues in the response of Saint Dominic to the ‘modern world’ which he faced. One is to stay with the people: to live where they live, to be where they are, to experience the social land cultural changes which the people are experiencing.

Another clue from Dominic is that the Dominican should go to the places of learning, the places where ideas are being processed, where new ideas are being considered. This is not necessarily in order to ‘take on board’ all new ideas. Nor is it so as to reject all new ideas. It is in order to listen and to understand them, to see whether they do justice to human dignity, whether they are ideas worthy jof the human being. These places certainly include the universities and other academic institutions, but also today it means understanding and using the ‘mass media’ – journalism, radio, television – the places where ideas are processed, wherever thought is being pursued.

The connection between ‘poverty’ and ‘preaching’ takes the form, today, of an essential link between ‘justice’ and ‘preaching’. Dominic saw that authentic preaching had to come out of a life of poverty and simplicity. Today, authentic preaching must be ‘justice-making preaching’. It is not enough to talk about justice: it must be worked out in Dominican communities, in the institutions we work in, in the Church, in society. Dominicans are ‘with the Church’ in its call for a preferential love for the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed.

Questions like a proper understanding and living out of human sexuality, the education of new generations in accordance with human dignity and the destiny of the human person with God, the coming together of Christian churches in understanding and unity, the changing experience of women in society and in the Church, the question of nuclear power and the arms race, the spiritual riches of other great world religions with their ancient traditions of meditation, respect for life and compassion: all these questions, and many more are of concern to the Dominican today. He grows through facing these questions. He shares the struggles of others who are trying to understand what is right and to live for what is good.

An essential ‘moment’ in the Dominican’s experience, perhaps the essential moment today, is the time spent in listening. He must listen to the ancient Word of God, in scripture and in the Church’s life, a word ‘ancient and ever new’, a creative, saving, healing, encouraging freedom-giving work. He must pray. But he must listen equally to the world as it takes form in him and around him, an exciting, fast-moving, stimulating but, perhaps, slightly giddy, largely lonely kind of world to which the Word of God must be spoken.

Of the Dominican this demands skill, a skill which can be termed understanding.Involvement in this understanding are: openness to the truth of things, compassions for the human reality he encounters in himself and in others, patience and gentleness in nurturing new ways of expressing and living the Gospel, humility and trust in God.

In the bull of his canonisation, Saint Dominic is described by Pope Gregory IX as the prophetic instrument of a God who constantly does new things for His people in response to their changing needs. The Dominican today is not to be a curator of a museum, however impressive. He is to be in his time what Saint Dominic was in the thirteenth century – a prophetic instrument of our God, who is taking care of us, and who constantly does new things for His people in response to their changing needs.

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