Dominican Spirituality and Vatican II’s expectations of lay people

by Christopher Kiesling, O.P.

Shortly before, during, and immediately after Vatican Council II, our moment of church history was often called The Era of the Laity. The recognition was growing, both among clergy and laity, that lay people are not second-class citizens in the Church, not mere hangers-on or camp followers of the clergy and religious, but rather are constitutive of the Church along with the clergy. These ideas were enshrined in Vatican Council II’s documents, especially Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) and Apostolicam Actuositatem (Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People).

In this talk I wish to indicate first what Vatican Council II expects of lay people. Then I shall describe Dominican spirituality. Finally, I hope to show that Dominican spirituality enables lay people to fulfill the Council’s expectations of them.


Articulate Faith
Vatican II has three radical expectations of lay people–namely, that they be (1) articulate in their faith, (2) appreciative of creation, and (3) zealous for building a better world. These expectations are radical, since they are the root of many other more specific expectations that Vatican II holds out for the laity.

In regard to articulate faith, the Decree on the A postulate of Lay People states: “The apostolate of the Church and of all her members is designed primarily to manifest Christ’s message by words and deeds and to communicate his grace to the world” ( 6). Noteworthy in this statement is that all members of the Church are to manifest Christ’s message by word as well as by deeds, and to communicate his grace. The Council document acknowledges the special role of the clergy’s ministry of Word and sacraments but explicitly does not limit to the clergy the Church’s mission to teach and sanctify.

The decree makes a familiar affirmation when it states that one of the ways in which the laity exercise the apostolate of “making the Gospel known and mere holy” is through the witness of an exemplary life. But the decree goes further: it affirms that an apostolate of this kind does not consist only in the witness of one’s way of life; a true apostle looks for opportunities to announce Christ by words addressed either to non-believers with a view to drawing them to Christ, or to believers with a view to instructing and strengthening them, and motivating them toward a more fervent life. “For the love of Christ impels us” (2 Cor. 9:16), and the words of the Apostle should echo in every Christian heart: “For woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16).

What is significant about these quotations is that the Council is saying that the laity are to do the equivalent of preaching. They are to lead others — not only non-believers but fellow Christians — to a deeper faith, not simply by their lives, or example, but by words.

So Vatican II clearly expects the laity to speak about their faith and even instruct, strengthen, and motivate others, not only non-believers, but fellow Christians as well.

We are only beginning to implement this idea of Vatican II as we increasingly involve parents in their children’s preparation for the reception of the sacraments and in their children’s religious education generally. We are implementing the idea as we employ more and more lay teachers in Catholic schools and religious education programs. Lay people are implementing this expectation of Vatican II as they come forward to assist priests and religious in conducting retreats, in such events as marriage encounter weekends. A very strong argument could be made from these quotations that such a thing as a properly conducted dialogue homily could be legitimate, though present Church discipline does not recognize it.

Appreciative of Creation
A second radical expectation of Vatican II is that lay people be appreciative of creation. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church states:

The Lord wishes to spread his kingdom . . . in this kingdom, creation itself will be delivered out of the slavery to corruption and into the freedom of the sons and daughters of God (cf. Rom. 8:21) . . . the faithful, therefore, must learn the deepest meaning and value of all creation, and how to relate it to the praise of God. They must assist one another to live holier lives even in their daily occupations. In this way, the world is permeated by the Spirit of Christ and more effectively achieves its purpose in justice, charity, and peace. ( 36)

Vatican II is saying that baptized believers must see and esteem creatures in the light of revelation. This revelation testifies to creatures’ original goodness and to their relation to the fulfillment of creation intended by God and anticipated in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The laity should revere the uniqueness and beauty of each creature, even as the poet does. They should not view them with the cold, utilitarian eye of the technician. Yet technology, too, is God’s creature through the God-given inventiveness of human beings. Christians should understand and rightly evaluate technology’s place and its impact on society. Especially should the Christian be appreciative of humanity and the mysteries of being human: the body, feeling, emotion, love, sex, work, play, community celebration, art, science, the aspirations of the human mind and the longings of the human heart — all bathed in God’s universal love.

Concretely, this expectation mandates the laity to contribute to the Church’s life and mission their understanding and evaluation of the human factors involved in that life and mission. Today, for example, psychiatrists and psychologists assist religious communities and seminaries in assessing their candidates for religious life and the priesthood. Management and communications experts are occasionally called in to help dioceses, parishes. Religious communities function more efficiently, not only within but also in missionary outreach. Married couples assist in preparing young people for marriage. Architects and artists continue to contribute their knowledge and appreciation of creatures to the life and mission of Church.

Better World
Finally, a radical expectation of Vatican II (the third one) is that the laity be zealous in building a better world for all men, women, and children. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church states:

By their competence in secular fields and by personal activity, elevated from within by the grace of Christ, let them [lay people] labor vigorously so that by human labor, technical skill, and civic culture created goods may be perfected for the benefit of every last human being . . . Let them work to see that created goods are more fittingly distributed among men and women and . . . in their own way lead to general progress in human and Christian liberty. (ibid.)

Baptized believers should also, “by their combined efforts remedy any institutions and conditions of the world which are customarily inducements to sin, so that all such things may be conformed to the norms of justice and may favor the practice of virtue rather than hinder it.” They need to “imbue culture and human activities with moral value” (ibid).

The call here is not simply to social service — that is, relieving the misery of those suffering injustice. The call is to social action, to change the institutions of society that generate suffering, whether it be economic, psychic, social, moral, or spiritual.

Lay people obviously have a significant role to play in this apostolate of the Church, since it concerns the very institutions in which they and their families live their daily) lives: the neighborhood, the city, the state, the corporation, the factory, the office, the publishing and entertainment industries, the building trades, hospitals, schools, and so on. The role of the laity in this apostolate cannot be conceived, moreover, merely as executing directives of the clergy. Those directives must be developed by the laity, for they live in the institutions for which the renewing directives are meant. They know these institutions inside and out, their strengths and weaknesses, their benefits and drawbacks. No doubt the clergy can and must be involved in this apostolate as having been ordained to care for the whole community; but their role is one of stimulating, encouraging, and supporting lay men and women, who must plan and carry out this mission of the Church in the world.

So we have three expectations of Vatican Council II with regard to the laity. Dominican spirituality can assist lay people to assume their role in the life and mission of the Church as delineated in Vatican Council II. The organization that goes by the name “Dominican Laity” enables lay men and women to bring to bear on their lives the Dominican spirituality, which will aid them in entering fully into the life and apostolate of the Church. The purpose of the Dominican Laity is not to enable lay people to turn away from the world to draw comfort and ultimately salvation by cuddling up, so to speak, to Dominican priests and religious. Rather it is the means whereby the spirituality developed by St. Dominic and his disciples down through the centuries moves out into the world to contribute to the coming of God’s reign over all creation.

But what is Dominican spirituality? We must now address this question.



By spirituality here is meant practices by which we open ourselves to the influence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. These practices do not simply precede grace or the Spirit’s influence as if performed by our own native powers. They, too, are the fruit of the Spirit at work within us, opening us up to his further influence. But at certain stages, levels, and moments of our life of grace moving us toward intimate communion with God, we play significant roles. We are free creatures; the Spirit of God does not negate our freedom but actualizes it; the spiritual life issues not only from the Spirit of God but also from our spirit. So we have practices in which we freely engage, by which we place ourselves at the disposal of the Holy Spirit, and by which we thus contribute to the life of the Spirit in us. These practices constitute spirituality.

The word practices in this context, should not be limited to external conduct, such as vocal prayer, fasting, maintaining silence, or living with a minimum of material goods. Practices in this context includes a variety of internal activities, and these are, in the long run, more important. Meditation, for example, an internal activity, is a practice alluded to here. Adopting certain attitudes would also fall under the term practices in this context, for example, being willing to obey commands of legitimate superiors, loving others in a celibate manner, regarding manual labor or study as a special value, living within modest means.

The Spirit of God has worked wonders in saintly men and women down through the ages. The practices by which they opened themselves to the Holy Spirit’s influence have been remembered by other Christians and adopted by them in their own pursuit of Christian life. From time to time a whole cluster of practices of some outstanding saint has been adopted by his or her disciples, often having been imbedded in a religious rule of life by the saint. Over the centuries different religious groups have accumulated sets of practices built up by succeeding generations of saintly men and women. Thus we come to various spiritualities or schools of spirituality that are simply clusters or sets of practices, external and internal, by which women and men open themselves to the Holy Spirit’s influence. We have Benedictine, Cistercian, Dominican, Franciscan, Carmelite, Teresian, Ignatian, Passionist, Sulpician spiritualities and many others. The difference among spiritualities is often not so much in the practices themselves but rather in the emphasis given to various practices and the interrelationship seen between them. An attitude of poverty, for example, is characteristic of every spirituality but is strongly emphasized in Franciscan spirituality and takes precedence over practices that are of greater concern in other spiritualities.


Dominican Spirituality

Dominican spirituality is the cluster of practices for opening self to the influence of the Holy Spirit which St. Dominic engaged in and bequeathed to his followers in the rule and constitutions of his Order, and winch subsequent generations of Dominicans have practiced, developed, preached, written about, and expounded theologically.

Which practices constitute the cluster designated as Dominican spiritually are not difficult to state. We can list them as a number of imperatives. To anyone wishing to open self to the influence of the Holy Spirit in the Dominican way, we say: “Be loving of God and neighbor, live together in peace and harmony, proclaim the Word of God, be apostolic, be poor, be chaste, be obedient, pray liturgically and privately, study God’s Word, seek truth, contemplate and give the fruits of contemplation to others, be faithful to all the elements of this way of life.”

Other imperatives, refining these, could be added. Some of these given here overlap to some degree. But we do have here the basic practices of Dominican spirituality. They will be carried out differently by Dominicans living in religious communities and those living as lay men and women; cloistered nuns will carry them out differently from roving preachers. But all these people will be Dominicans insofar as they are moved by this cluster of imperatives to open their lives to the Spirit of God.


Now that we have identified Dominican spirituality, we can show how it enables lay people to fulfill Vatican II’s expectations of them. We will make this demonstration by relating certain practices of Dominican spirituality to each of the three radical expectations of Vatican II for the laity. There is, however, much more overlapping in actual life than will appear here.


Articulate Faith
Vatican II expects lay people to have what we have called articulate faith. Several practices of Dominican spirituality are directed to this articulate faith.

Dominican spirituality enjoins us to study God’s Word. The Dominican laity will nourish their lives on God’s Word, especially as contained in Sacred Scripture. Like St. Dominic, who carried with him the Gospel according to Matthew and the letters of St. Paul, Dominican lay men and women will daily or frequently have recourse in the Scriptures. They may thoughtfully and prayerfully read a brief passage each day — or a longer passage every fee days — reflect upon it, contemplate the mysteries recorded there. They may do this alone or in groups. When feasible they will read the Scriptures with the aid of study guides that assist the reader through the Scriptures. Such books and pamphlets offer information to help understand the various Biblical books as well as individual passages more fully than we ordinarily can because our world and culture are so different from those of the original authors. Occasionally, a lecture about Scripture may also be available. All lay Dominicans, however, aim at the study of God’s Word and the search for truth in prayerful, contemplative reading of the Scripture.

Lay persons practicing Dominican Spirituality will not hoard the good news they apprehend in their reading and contemplation of the Scriptures. They will share the fruits of their contemplation; they will proclaim the Word of God. Normally they will not deliver homilies or sermons or give retreat conferences, though some will. But they can share with friends, or those who might seek help, their insights into their beliefs, their struggles with doubts or wonderment while still believing, their convictions, their favorite passages of Scripture that sustain them in trials. Lay people disciplined by practices of Dominican spirituality such as study of God’s Word, the search for truth, and contemplation will be in good position to prepare their own children for the reception of the sacraments, to teach in CCD courses, and to participate in adult education programs. The Dominican imperative “Be apostolic” will inspire Dominican lay men and women to undertake such educational efforts.


Appreciation of Creation

The practices of Dominican spirituality foster also that appreciation of creation which Vatican Council II expects of laity. A motto of the Dominican Order is Veritas, Truth. The truth referred to is not only the truth of our minds about things but also the truth of things insofar as they reflect the divine mind that creates them and calls them to intended perfection. Ultimately, of course, this Truth pursued by Dominican spirituality is Jesus Christ, and further still, the Divine Being who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The point here is that Dominican spirituality strives to know what is, whether creature or Creator, to know it in its individuality and uniqueness, and knowing it, to respect and cherish it, and to praise God for it. Our brother Thomas Aquinas manifested in his philosophical and theological works this search for the truth of things and through it, The Truth, who is our God.

The Dominican imperative to contemplate also suggests appreciation of creation. The contemplation connotes a loving sort of knowledge arising from, accompanying, and leading to more appreciation. Contemplation, in pondering the mysteries of faith, inevitably enhances appreciation for creation, for all these mysteries entail creation in some way. Certainly, the mystery of creation does, but so does the mystery of God’s dealings with Israel and then the mystery of Jesus Christ, who is man like us in all things save sin. Even the contemplation of Divinity itself results in a keener appreciation of creatures in comparison and contrast to which we apprehend the Godhead. Contemplation is customarily associated with the gifts of the Holy Spirit that are understanding, knowledge, and wisdom. Thomas Aquinas shows how these gifts, in helping us to know and esteem God, simultaneously give us knowledge and appreciation of creatures. In a sense, we come to know and appreciate God in the measure that we know and appreciate creatures, for these latter both point to what God must be and yet tell us what he is not.

The liturgical prayer enjoined by Dominican spirituality certainly fosters appreciation of creation. Liturgy relies very much on the rhythm of the day and the seasons of the year. It differentiates our inner sense of time to preserve it from becoming monotonous duration. The liturgy calls upon the sun and stars, the earth and seas, plants and animals in its prayers; and it uses bread and wine, water and oil, cloth and wax in its rites.

Dominican spirituality says “Be chaste.” This chastity may be celibate or conjugal or single chastity. In any case it is respect for women and men in their bodily being; it regards men and women as persons to be revered and served rather than bodies to be used.


Better World

The third radical expectation of Vatican II for lay people is zeal for building a better world embodying God’s rule over his creation. Dominican spirituality leads to such zeal. At the core of Dominican spirituality is the great commandment of love of God and its companion like to it — namely, love of neighbor as self. These two imperatives stand at the head of St. Augustine’s rule, the rule that St. Dominic chose for himself and later for his companions and disciples. The injunction of Dominican spirituality stated earlier as “Live together in peace and harmony” is simply another version of the second commandment above. It, too, stands at the head of the Rule of St. Augustine as the aim of our coming together in the Dominican family — namely, that we may be one in heart and mind in God.

If we come together in the Dominican family to realize among ourselves Christian love and care for one another, we do not intend to limit that concern to our own circle. On the contrary, we pursue love and care among ourselves in order that collectively we may bear witness to the power and glory of Christian love for the inspiration of others, and that individually we may have support in our own often frustrating efforts to extend that love and care to countless others in the course of our lives.

The love of God and neighbor called for by Dominican spirituality thus inspires the lay Dominican with zeal for building a better world. True, love for neighbor in God is realized in individual instances of compassion, kindness, and relief in the midst of suffering. But love of neighbor seeks also more permanent solutions to suffering; it pursues a social order marked by justice, peace, and freedom for each human being, regardless of race, sex, age, or other distinction. The achievement of this goal seems an endless and fruitless effort, but Dominican spirituality goads us on to it when we grow weary.

The imperative of Dominican spirituality “Be apostolic” is fulfilled by Dominicans primarily by proclaiming the Word of God. But we need to keep in mind that proclaiming the Word of God is by no means limited to verbal expression. In fact, if that is the only way in which we proclaim the Word of God, our proclamation will have little effect. St. Dominic realized this when he established his religious community of preachers. He provided for his preachers a style of life that would reinforce and proclaim in action and nonverbally the Word they announced verbally. The Dominican imperative to proclaim the Word and to be apostolic impels us, then, also to be zealous for the building of a better world and to acquire the skills we need to contribute to this cause in accord with our particular position in life and in the Dominican family.

The imperative of Dominican spirituality “Be poor,” taken seriously, also fosters this zeal for building a better world and equipping ourselves to do that work. To be realistic, for the most part this imperative is not going to identify many Dominicans in this country with the poorest people economically and socially, so that our zeal for a better world springs from the despair of the oppressed. But in response to this maxim to be poor, we are enjoined to struggle to free ourselves from the value system of our society — whatever it may be — in order to judge and act by the justice of God and the norms of the Gospel. If we then work within our society with those new standards, we will be zealous for building a better world.

Dominican spirituality enjoins us to be obedient. Obedience etymologically means “to listen to.” Ultimately, obedience is listening to the Word of God. To be obedient is to strive ceaselessly to hear ever more clearly God’s Word, the Gospel, Jesus Christ. Obedience to the command of a superior or of a community presupposes that God’s Word is discerned in this command; and the obedience to it actualizes, in a particular situation, obedience to God’s Word. Listening to or hearing God’s Word implies, of course, taking that Word to heart and shaping one’s life according to it. “Blest are they who hear the word of God and keep it,” Jesus declares (Luke 11:29). Obedience to God’s Word in the Gospels, for instance, includes loving and serving the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned, the ignorant, the sinner, and all who are in any way oppressed. Obedience, therefore, leads Dominican lay men and women not only to individual acts of love and service for those in need, but also to the building of a better world that will prevent so much of that suffering in the first place.

An ingredient of any spirituality will be the imperative to persevere in the practices that constitute it. This imperative of Dominican spirituality resides in the traditional means-to-the-end calledregular observance. In its original sense, regular observance refers to certain external practices predetermined by rule, such as maintaining silence, wearing a religious habit, preserving cloistered quarters, and the like. These practices were always regarded as means to ensure that the substance of Dominican life endured — namely, liturgical and contemplative prayer, study, evangelical and common life, and preaching in various forms. The Constitutions and Ordinations of the Order of Friars Preachers revised in 1968 reflect this understanding:


. . . In order, therefore, that we may remain faithful in our vocation, we should intelligently set great store on regular observance…. (39)All the elements that constitute Dominican life and supply the arrangements of its community discipline come under the heading regular observance. Amongst these elements stand out common life, the celebration of the liturgy and private prayer, the observance of the vows, the assiduous study of truth and the apostolic ministry, in the faithful fulfillment of which we are helped by cloister, silence, the habit, and penitential practices ( 40, emphasis in original).

Significant in this quotation is that regular observance is defined to include the basic elements of Dominican life itself — the common life, liturgical and private prayer, the vows — and not simply a number of external practices. Therefore, the imperative “Be regular in observance,” which has been and remains a maxim of Dominican spirituality, can be interpreted today to mean: “Be faithful to all the elements of this way of life.” Two aspects of this imperative are to be noted.

First, this is an imperative to perseverance in, or fidelity to, the practices of Dominican spirituality. The person who opens himself or herself to the Holy Spirit is not the one who only occasionally does so, but he who continually does so. If there is failure to be open, the person repents and tries again, and again, and again, probably becoming increasingly open with every repeated effort. It is only through perseverance that any spirituality will eventually be effective. Insofar as its effectiveness depends upon us, so we should expect such an injunction in Dominican spirituality.

Secondly, this imperative call for perseverance in the totality of the practices constituting Dominican spirituality. To be faithful to only one or another or some of the practices to the neglect of others will not generate openness to the Holy Spirit — at least not the Dominican kind of openness. Dominican spirituality calls for a certain mix of practices internal and external. While at times there is tension between them, they also balance one another. To cite the frequently obvious example, Dominican spirituality calls for time devoted to liturgical and private prayer and for time given to preaching and apostolic involvement. To neglect prayer will eventually result in the deterioration of apostolate, and vice versa. Study is no substitute for contemplation and prayer, liturgical and private. On the other hand, the Word of God is exposed to distortion in preaching if study is wanting. If the vows or promises are not observed, preaching will lack credibility. If the effort to love God and neighbor is wanting, the vowed or promised style of life is not serving the purpose for which it is intended.

Dominican spirituality is a specific set of practices for opening ourselves to the influence of the Spirit of God who dwells within us through faith and baptism. Although it originated with St. Dominic in the 13th century, it clearly enables lay people to meet the Church’s expectations of them as expressed in Vatican Council II in the 20th century.

This makes the Dominican Laity a force for the reform and renewal of the Church sought by Vatican Council II.

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