Blackfriars Research fellow receives honour.
‘the main reason why we are gathered together in community is so that we might live in harmony in the house, of one mind and heart in God… The unanimity of our life has its roots in the love of God and it ought to be a living example of universal reconciliation in Christ which we proclaim by our preaching’ (Dominican Constitutions, 2).
The Priory of the Holy Spirit, Blackfriars, is a house of formation with Dominican students in formation living in community with Dominican priests. In order to give you some flavour of daily life in a Dominican priory, here are the accounts from the perspectives of a student brother, Br Matthew Jarvis OP, and a priest brother, Br John O’Connor OP.
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A student brother’s perspective:
We share a single common life in the priory, because we are all brethren (Mt. 23:8). I think this becomes clear to any visitor who sees us doing our washing up! We all pitch in together, share the tasks efficiently, and have a really good time while we’re at it. But it remains true that we student brothers in Oxford have a particular focus to our life: we are being formed and educated in preparation for the apostolic endeavours we will undertake as Dominican priests. In concrete terms, this means we are here to undertake full-time studies in Philosophy (2 years) then Theology (4 years), along with many related courses in Biblical languages, canon law, church history, and so on, by means of ‘Oxford’ tutorials, lectures and seminars (see the Studium for a fuller account).
Full-time studies, of course, are not the whole picture. Student brothers participate in all the daily liturgies, from morning to evening prayer, leading the Divine Office as cantors or as hebdomadarius (weekly brother on duty); besides assisting at the conventual Mass by reading and serving, after being instituted Lectors and Acolytes, respectively. Although all brothers contribute daily to the running of the priory, some house jobs tend to be done by student brothers, to form us in the essentials of Dominican community life – for instance, sacristan (liturgy), guest master (hospitality), and provisioner (eating!). The brethren take an equal share of the cooking, as well as all sorts of minor tasks that arise every time the priory puts on big events. The fact that we perform these tasks readily and joyfully, like the washing up, is an important expression of our fraternity.
‘Apostolic’ placements during term and over the summer provide us with experience of pastoral practice in parishes, university chaplaincies, prisons, and hospitals. This is a vital component of our Dominican formation as preachers, since we must connect our intellectual studies with the daily realities of life for people in all kinds of situation. Extra-curricular activities can also enrich our social lives and re-energise us before returning to study, whether playing in the University orchestra or getting muddy for the Blackfriars football team!
Finally, the student brothers meet regularly for fraternal discussions and spiritual conferences on apostolic mission and the religious life. This is especially valuable for those of us preparing for Solemn Profession (vows for life). But, of course, the Dominican vocation is a constant striving for growth in holiness, wisdom and zeal to bring souls to Christ, and so – as the older brethren will attest – our formative years are never really over!
Matthew Jarvis OP
A priest brother’s perspective:
When people ask me what I do on a day-to-day basis I find it difficult to give an adequate answer because of the variety of things I do. But some things remain constant. We have daily Mass and sing together the Divine Office, the Prayer of the Church, in the morning, at midday and in the evening. It breaks up the day, sanctifies the day, reminding us of the presence of God.
Another constant part of my life is ordinary community living. A priory is not only where we live, it is our home. Just as families have to be together in order to make a home, so too do Dominicans. Sometimes people expect a great deal of separation between the student brothers in formation and the priests, but this is not so. We are all Dominican brothers and share the life together. So we eat together, do the dishes together, chat and relax together and, of course, pray together.
My principal role at Blackfriars is as Prior of the community. This involves being concerned with the fraternal and religious life of the community, the needs of the brothers, and fostering the good of the community and its mission. That’s very general, but among the things this involves on a daily basis are dealing with correspondence, especially emails, representing Blackfriars at various events, and organising and taking part in the meetings that are part of the life of a Dominican priory.
Of course, the priests have roles that the non-ordained do not have, such as hearing confessions, saying Mass and preaching at Mass. Because the Dominican Order is the Order of Preachers we take a lot of time over our sermons. To be a good preacher requires study, because we need to engage with the scriptures on which we preach and we need to be aware of the needs of those to whom we preach. So study is an important part of my life. It is not an end in itself, but is directed towards preaching, preaching understood in the sense of preaching sermons but also in the wider sense of communicating the Good News in whatever way I can. My particular interests are in philosophy and philosophical theology. I find these subjects fascinating. Not infrequently some of the ideas I study make their way into my sermons and even influence how I engage with others and live my life. We are blessed with a beautiful church, and many people come to Mass at Blackfriars. Sometimes people come to speak to a priest, and so pastoral work is also an important part of what I do.
My role as prior involves planning and organising the meetings in the community. I once heard a Dominican speak of the ‘spirituality of meetings’! That might sound bizarre, but it makes perfect sense to me. I cannot say that I enjoy meetings, but I have no doubt that they make a very considerable difference to the fraternal life because they allow the brothers to express themselves, to be listened to and to take part in the decision-making of the community. We must trust each other and listen to one another. This is especially important because while we can sometimes be quite different from one another, we also need a common core of unity centred on Christ and following in the footsteps of St Dominic.
Our Dominican sister, St Catherine of Siena once stated: ‘Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.’ Living the religious life in a committed and loving way helps create the kind of unity that does not diminish our individuality, but helps us to become more ourselves, to become more human. Hospitality is an important part of community life, and I am always very pleased when guests tell me that they did not expect to hear so much laughter from people in religious life. This laughter is truly a blessing, a sign that are being truly being ourselves, a sign that we can help set the world on fire.
John O’Connor OP