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The Dominican Order

History and Spirituality

The Order of Friars Preachers, usually known as ‘The Dominicans’ is a Catholic religious Order. It was founded by St Dominic, a Spaniard, in 1216 ‘for preaching and the salvation of souls.’ Today it is present in over a hundred countries.

St Dominic was born in c.1172, and was a Canon in Osma. He was travelling through the south of France with his Bishop, Diego, when they encountered the Albigensian heresy. The Albigensians, or Cathars, believed that the world was created by an evil God and so the body was bad. St Dominic is believed to have spent an entire night arguing with an Albigensian inn keeper, until the man was converted to Catholicism.

In this incident one can see in a nutshell two fundamental elements of Dominican spirituality: a belief in the fundamental goodness of creation and the importance of reason. These are both evident in the Order’s greatest theologian, St Thomas Aquinas, who was born just four years after the death of St. Dominic. Aquinas believed that although human beings were wounded by original sin, we retain a fundamental orientation towards God and a deep desire to share in God’s happiness: ‘grace builds on nature.’ The thirteenth century was a time of intellectual adventure, with the rediscovery of Aristotle, the pagan philosopher, and dialogue between Christian, Jewish and Muslim thinkers. Aquinas was open to the truth wherever he found it. He believed that our preaching of the gospel implied a respectful and rigorous engagement with the opinions of those with whom we disagree. In good debate one learns from one’s opponent.

The commitment of the Order to Catholic orthodoxy meant that, unsurprisingly, we were often involved in various Inquisitions. Some of these acted brutally, for which the Order has asked forgiveness, but often the Inquisitors were known for their concern for a serious examination of the evidence and for their leniency.

Preaching the Gospel

The Order’s preaching of the gospel has taken many forms: the frescoes of Fra Angelico in the fifteenth century, the concern of his contemporary, St Antoninus of Florence, with economic ethics; St Martin de Porres’ care for the poor in seventeenth century Lima, Peru. Dominicans were involved from the beginning in the Church’s mission to the Americas and to Asia. Our tradition of preaching has always implied a profound relationship between the pastoral care of people and theological reflection, often in parish and university settings. For example, one of the sources of a modern understanding of universal human rights derived from the constant communication between Bartolomé de Las Casas, who was passionately committed to the rights of indigenous people in the new discovered Americas, and Dominican theologians in the University of Salamanca, such as Vitoria and de Sotto.

This vibrant symbiosis between pastoral outreach and academic study remains typical of the Order today. In the twentieth century French Dominicans such as Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar were at the heart of the theological renewal that led to the Second Vatican Council. They were in dialogue with other brethren who shared the lives of the poorest people and friars such as Louis-Joseph Lebret, whose concept of integral human development and the common good was fundamental in the evolution of Catholic Social teaching. An exhibition of Dominican artists in Rome a few years ago shows that the Order remains committed to preaching the gospel through music, painting and poetry.

Community Life and Government

From the beginning, the government of the Order has been thoroughly democratic. This is because St Dominic believed that the Holy Spirit is poured upon every brother, and we must listen to all as we try to come to decisions about the mission of the Order and our common life.

The typical Dominican community is the Priory, which must have at least six solemnly professed brethren, and which has the right to elect its own superior, the Prior. Provinces consist of the priories and smaller communities in a geographical region, together with any external missions which have been entrusted to it. Blackfriars is a priory of the Province which covers Great Britain, and has a mission in the Caribbean. There are about forty Provinces and Vice-Provinces in the Order.

The brethren make their vows to the Master of the Order, the successor of St Dominic. The unity of the worldwide Order is fundamental to our preaching. A divided Order would contradict our mission, which is to preach God’s reconciling mercy and the Kingdom of God, the hoped-for unity of all humanity in Christ. Our unity is not based upon a shared narrow ideology. There are brethren from every part of the wide theological spectrum of Catholic orthodoxy. We nourish unity through mutual listening, seeking consensus through discussion and prayer. The highest authority in the Order is the General Chapter, which meets every three years, with representatives from the whole Order.

Dominican Family and Facing the Future

From the beginning, St Dominic envisaged that the brethren should belong to a wide religious Family. The first community of the Order was begun by St Dominic at Prouilhe in the south of France in 1206, ten years before the official foundation of the brotherhood. It was a contemplative monastery for women who had been converted from Albigensianism. Today there are over 3000 Dominican nuns. Lay Dominicans also made their commitment to St Dominic, and from the mid-thirteenth century were gathered into fraternities, to share in the preaching mission in all sorts of ways. There is a vast variety of fraternities, from gatherings of academics to prisoners. There are also about 160 congregations of Dominican sisters, with 36,000 members, most of whom belong to Dominican Sisters International, who co-ordinates the mission of the various congregations and liaises with the General Council of the brethren.

In 2016 Order will celebrate the 800th anniversary of its foundation. Yet it remains young and vibrant. There are more than a 1000 friars in formation today, more than a sixth of the Order. These are from all over the world. Unusually, compared with many orders, we have good vocations in the West, including in the United States, Ireland and the UK. In some parts of the world, old provinces are being unified, such as in France and Italy. New Provinces or Vice-Provinces are being born, for example in Bolivia, Central America and West Africa. New missions are being opened in Indonesia, Burma, East Timor, Equatorial Guinea and many other places. The preaching continues.

St Dominic, pray for us!


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