Dominican Family: Call & Response

Liam Walsh, O.P.

These addresses were presented at an Annual Dominican Family Awareness Day held at Providence College, Providence, Rhode Island, in March, 1978. They are offered to all the members of the Dominican Family through the cooperation of the Dominican Laity in the Provinces of St. Joseph and St. Albert the Great, U.S.A.
Dominicana Publications, 1979.

The story of an Evangelical Community of Preachers
When a family gets together it is a time for telling stories, stories about what each one has been doing sin they were last together, about great moments in the past, and about future hopes and dreams. It is in remembering and telling such stories that we reinforce our identity and gain the confidence that, as we write a ne chapter in the story, it will be a true response to our particular call.

In most of our best Dominican stories the word “evangelical” or its equivalent keeps coming up. St. Domini is described in one of the songs for his feast as being “made an evangelical man (vir factus evangelicus)”. He discovered when he left his orderly life as a Canon Regular at Osma – you know the story well-that the Church was not coping well with all the new forces at work in the world – political, social, educational, and spiritual movements that seemed to identify the Church with the structures of the old world so that it was unsure how to evangelize the new without destroying itself Dominic took to the roads. He became a poor man, and a talkative man, with something to say – questions as well as answers – to everyone he met along the way: he became a preacher.


His followers’ stories continue the dialogue. They even include Dominicans challenging their own family when they found it had somehow grown tired of traveling and had settled down to safe, respectable mediocrity when they saw it had nothing much to say to the new, when it looked backward too much. Today stories of such Dominicans would include the three Dominican priests in Valencia I visited. They live in a small apartment in a poor barrio, working as taxi drivers or in an auto assembly plant, and in the evenings they talk and share the Eucharist at their kitchen table with those in their neighborhood whom they gather together. And a community of Dominican Sisters in Bombay, India, in an even smaller apartment working to aid their neighbors and to give the believers among them a sense of belonging to a Church that cares for them. And a

Dominican lay chapter of young married couples in Australia who especially want to follow the Gospel by praying the Gospel and teaching it effectively to others.

I must wait till later to know how you react to these stories. But sometimes when I tell these stories, feelings of unease and uncertainty — even of hostility — arise, and a question like this might surface: Do these stories represent a response to the particular call which God addresses to the Dominican Family? The same sort of stories, the question goes on, could be told about many Christian individuals and groups today and even about many people who are not Christian at all. Some Dominicans who participate in newer movements and apostolates of today, the question continues, feel a tension between loyalty to these new evangelical groupings and their own Dominican community. If this is so, is the Dominican charism really evangelical? Can it provide a special and different way of living the evangelical life today as it did for Dominic and his first followers?

To give you my answer to these questions, I have to take you on a rather theoretical excursion about the meaning of the word “evangelical”. “Evangelical” means what is of the Gospel, and “Gospel” – “good news” – is two things: it is an event and it is the story of the event. The event is the coming of the Kingdom of God in Jesus and in the Spirit. It is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, all He taught and all He did and all He accomplished. And it is God sending His Spirit on those who followed Jesus and who believe in Him. The Spirit makes those He touches and indwells new creatures, free from all the divisive, death-dealing forces Jesus had conquered. He makes them a power in the world for reconciliation and community-making so that a new world might evolve, a world in which God will be all in all. That is, in inadequate phrases, the Gospel event.

The Gospel story, on the other hand, is the telling of that event and the effect that it had on their lives by the men and women who experienced it. The first group who knew Jesus and received the first outpouring of the

Spirit were obviously in a unique position to tell this story. They told not just the story of Jesus, but also they told of the kind of community they formed, they told of their relationships with those outside the community and of how they carried out their mission to announce God’s kingdom. The New Testament is the stories told by the first evangelizers.

And so, when we say something is evangelical, we have to specify whether it is of the Gospel event or of the Gospel story. It must always be of the event: it must somehow reproduce the coming of God’s kingdom through Christ and the Spirit. There is no single model of community that can be called evangelical because the story has variations and developments. The primitive church in Jerusalem offers one model, the pauline community in Corinth another, the churches of the pastoral epistles another. And while certain features of the story recur so regularly that they must be considered a permanent feature of evangelical community, there is no suggestion in the New Testament that the story ends there and that there cannot be further evangelical models in the future.

As the early Church began to cope with the idea that there might be a significant time interval before Christ would come again, they began to accept other leaders besides the first apostles, they began to send out other deacons, other preachers. And the call and the sending was recognized as being a charism of God. The Church began early in its history to come to terms with waiting, with remaining in the world. And as the world began to become Christian, the Church, almost inevitably, began to become worldly. It accepted a public role in the structuring and support of civil authority, in education, economy, in projects of human welfare.

It was in this situation that a new form of evangelical life began – the first monastic religious families and orders. They were inspired by the original Church of the apostles, but they were not simply a romantic imitation of them. They saw their charism as a service to the actual Church (people of God) of their own day, With all its structures, ministries and relationship to the contemporary world. For example, the first monks were a pro test against all that was not of the Gospel in the

Church and world of their times. They accepted the ordained ministry and the hierarchical structure of the Church, but they worked to re-evangelize the spirituality of popes, bishops, clergy, and to educate them. They accepted the cloistered communities of women, but they worked to make their lives more evangelical within the structure of cloistered life. By their simple work and labor, they witnessed to the laity the possibilities of secular tasks.

Communities such as these monastic religious families survive today because and to the extent that they can give the Church today the service they were called to give to the Church of their origins. If that service is addressed to permanent features of the Church, there will always be a place for that religious family. But only if it continues to provide that service. Inevitably it will have to renew itself regularly, and its renewal will have to be evangelical – not a romantic recreation, not general evangelical standards common to all Christians, not a pirating of the evangelical charism of another group or movement even when they seem more effective or needed. For better or worse, each religious family has to be its own evangelical self, and stand or fall on its own merits, on its own charism.

With that bit of theorizing in mind, let us return to our Dominican stories. In them we should be able to find the images that mark the call from God which is our particular charism. Dominic himself made friends easily, people gathered around him, he was a community-maker. The first brethren promised him “obedience and community”. Nuns formed communities in Prouille, in Rome, and in Madrid under his direction. Lay people who followed him grouped into communities and become known as the Third Order of Penance.

From the beginning, each of these three communities had its own structure, government and law. At first this in itself might seem un-evangelical. No such divisions appear in the first Christian community. That community was one: slave and free, male and female, rich and poor. But Dominic was called to be evangelical to his Church, his world. There and then such separations were accepted. There were evangelical movements at the time

which tried to eliminate these divisions, but Dominic tackled the problem of restoring evangelical values in a different way. What did he do to overcome the un-evangelical features that existed in the Church because of these divisions? Obviously he set for his followers demanding standards of evangelical poverty, prayer, penance, and identification with the poor and oppressed, but this was not the distinctive note of his charism. That note is to be found, I believe, in the oddest place: in the stories of the working out of our legislation and system of government.

That might seem strange since the Gospel is quite guarded about law and government. But on second glance, already the Council of Jerusalem is making rules for the Christian community, and Paul, in spite of himself, lays down the law from time to time. In a Gospel sense, the willingness to accept laws is an act of loving respect for others, a guarantee of their rights, an agreement to live and act together, to forego capriciousness and the dominance of the strong, to be sure one can count on and be counted on. Rules and law can express belief in the ultimate equality of those who come under it and are in themselves a support and guarantee of that indispensable evangelical value Jesus came to establish: the brotherhood and sisterhood of all God’s children.

But the Gospel is not just Word, it is also Spirit. If the word of law is to be evangelical, it must be tested by and be open to the Spirit. And the Sp~rit resides in the Christian community. In Dominic’s creation, it is the community which makes the law, which changes the law when it considers it necessary, and which applies the law. He and his followers devised a system of community government in which all individual authority is temporary and checked by regular community advice and consent. Dominic and his followers were remedying in an evangelical way the authoritarian Church structures, and, in so doing they created a community in which all were equal and together bearers of the Spirit. Such a community, he seemed to believe, would never let law enslave anybody (or even cramp their individual flair because he allowed for liberal dispensation), yet it would be a structured, regular community in which people could be secure, free

It would take many stories to tell how each group of the family made use of the evangelical community Dominic designed for them. But more important for us is the way “evangelical community” has worked out between the different branches of the family. Dominic laid the foundations for the autonomy of each group, and to that extent he gave them a kind of independence from each other, the kind of independence that can lead to respect for each other’s roles, and for genuine Christian community. It must be admitted that the early chapters of the Dominican community of men and women, religious and secular, priests and lay-people, are full of ambiguities. It took a long time for women religious to shake off ecclesiastical and social conventions and approach real independence. The story is certainly not ended yet. But recent developments in the Dominican family is a story of growing respect for the independence of each group, expressed in practical cooperation as well as in structure and legislation. That is truly a working out of Dominic’s charism.

I have been claiming that the structured character of Dominican community life – within each group and between the groups – far from obstructing evangelical values is the very thing that ensures them for us Dominicans. Some of our efforts at renewal have taken their form from outside our own tradition – from Vatican II surely, but also from new religious families and movements and from secular prophets. These movements have new charisma and a new way of being evangelical, but they are not always our way, and would not work with our structures. Sometimes the Order seems stolid and conservative because of its structures, but the tenacity with which we have maintained our fundamental structures isn’t just obstructionist or conservation – it is a matter of fidelity to our own way of being evangelical, which still has, we believe, a ministry to offer the Church. It is a way that has to be constantly renewed, to be sure, and that is why we need radicals – radicals who ask questions until they get at the root of things, and then cen stop asking questions and begin accepting answers, card start building back up again.

A Dominican radical is one who trusts Dominic’s way of the Gospel, who is prepared to stop his questions where

Dominic stopped them, to start his answers from there and to put those answers into practice. This will, no doubt, limit his options. But the radical Dominican believes that the charism Dominic ministered to the Church and the world is still needed today, that the Dominican family is structured to provide that ministry, and that Dominicans can fulfill their vocation now by using that structure, and not another one.

The Order’s community structure itself provides for this kind of radical renewal. Any individual can raise questions; community discussion and decision-making should be able to verify the answers proposed. And, apart from the testing that goes on within each group of the family, there is the testing that goes on between the different branches. The interaction between the different branches of the family is becoming more and more common in our day, and there is a new respect for the independent and special evangelical sensitivity of each group. This is Dominican community at its best, and is one of the surest guarantees of fidelity to our charism.

You are probably wondering how I can have gone on for so long talking about Dominican without mentioning the word “preaching”. The reason is that ours is a story of an “evangelical community of preachers”. We preach as an evangelical community. I thought we had to understand what evangelical community means for us before trying to understand the kind of preaching we are called to do.

Some of the charisms of religious families give a witness of ultimate holiness to the members of the Church so that they can be more evangelical in the exercise of their own apostolic charism. The monastic and contemplative orders have this role. Other religious families seem to have been called to a more direct but still internal role of bringing an evangelical quality to the pastoral ministry of the Church. Such were the orders of canons regular. The originality of Dominic was to bring the evangelical spirit to the evangelizing ministry itself -to call those who speak the Gospel to the world into a community that would by very definition be a community of evangelizers – the Order of Preachers.

Dominic himself was a man who went out – to those in the Church but not really hearing the Gospel, to those cut off from the Church as heretics, and he wanted to go beyond the boundaries of the Church, to those who had not yet heard the Gospel. The recent General Chapter set a new stage in the continuing story of Dominican evangelizing when it set the priorities of Dominican preaching as catechesis of the dechristianized, preaching to people from non-Christian cultures, addressing the problems of the poor and oppressed, and finding a way to speak to those whose eyes and ears are open only to what the mass media is saying.

But if we say only this about our priorities, we are not telling the whole story. These we recognize to be common tasks to all christians, and they are, in fact, being carried out by many christian and evangelical groups besides our own. Looking again at the illustrated stories of Dominican preaching, we see preaching that is thoughtful and studied, that calls for conversion indeed, but for an educated kind of conversion, that has a concern for the truth of things.

Dominic sent his men to school and made them teachers. He made theological study a distinctive element of Dominican community life. He gave his followers a concern for doctrine and orthodoxy of teaching. Each of these themes occurs again and again. They are exciting and problematical for many of our brothers and sisters today who are inspired by contemporary movements of evangelical renewal: study can seem an academic escape from involvement with people, caring for truth and addressing the intelligence of our hearers can seem elitist and snobbish. Once again, the challenge is to accept our charism, to accept the marks of the “waiting Church” that we carry (a Church that is in the world until the Lord cones again), and to see if and how we can live that charism evangelically today, to see if and how our Order, dedicated to what our tradition has called “doctrinal preaching”, can fulfill its mission in an evangelical way.

The Gospel event of the coming of the Son and the Spirit is meant to unite people, to form them into a community of love which is the Church so that they can be the center of a wider communion of love which is the human family. But people have to understand one another and share some basic vision about human goals and values if they are to live together in love. And because people grow up through so many different experiences and because distances of time and place isolate us one from another, one group from another, differences of ideas and ideologies arise. If these differences are not properly handled, they become divisive. A large part of the story of the Church is of its constant struggle to maintain its unity of faith as it drew to itself peoples from different cultures and times. It is the story of creeds and councils, heresies and schisms; it is the story of theological enterprise; it is a love story, fraught with the effort of keeping people understanding one another, comfortable in talking with one another so that the community would continue and grow.

Dominic appeared in the Church at a moment of crisis. You know the story of the Albigensian heresy, the new social classes emerging in the cities of Europe, of the new scientific and philosophical ideas coming from the Arabic world. A tired theology and a dogma of laws rather than love had little to say. What the Church needed was a more thorough and positive understanding of how these new ideas and experiences could be reconciled with the Gospel and with one another in the Gospel. It needed good theology and theological preaching. ~Dominic was called to offer that service as his particular contribution to building up the evangelical community of love. He planned his community so that it would be able to provide that kind of preaching. His communities valued study, schools, books, teaching, research. From Thomas and Albert, from Catherine of Siena to our contemporary Biblical School in Jerusalem and other efforts we see that we have tried to follow that charism.

To be sure, we can also find much that is unevangelical. We have had our Inquisitors, our theologians who stifle truth in the name of Thomistic philosophy, but we have resources to protect us against those distortions. Our community life is designed to generate the kind of evangelical radicalism I spoke of earlier. Through the doctrinal dimension of our studies and lifestyle, we ought to be able to face down and work our questions that arise about the meaning of the Gospel; we ought to be able to save one another from aligning ourselves uncritically with any movement whether it be conservative or progressive, Thomist or existentialist, Marxist or Freudian.

In our international community we can be saved from identifying the Gospel with any culture or civilization; in fact, this is one dimension that we have not yet I think, exploited sufficiently. What a vast range of experience of reality is available to us through our brothers and sisters around the world! What contact with all that is happening! What a spectrum of sensibilities and insights! If every member and group of this family of ours were using his eyes and ears, his heart and mind to observe and understand what is going on in the world he or she is experiencing, we could be a community that listens not only to the Word of God but also to the world of men. And if, in our community fellowship, we could talk together about these experiences and ideas we could surely develop a vision of the Gospel that would incarnate in contemporary flesh and blood the Word of God and let His Spirit bind people together in understanding and love.

Together we might find an understanding of the Gospel that would make men and women with technological, scientific, and artistic backgrounds feel at home in the communion of faith. We might be able to liberate the Word of God and His Spirit from any one culture or system of ideas, and show it to be the ground of unity and comprehension between all human cultures and systems If we could interact in this way, within our Dominican family then we would be the kind of evangelical community of preachers we are designed to be.

As I have been telling it, our Dominican story is too good to be true. But this is what we have to try to achieve because it is our charism and it is what God expects of us The basic Dominican structures to which we are committed to make it possible – they certainly do not obstruct it The cautious recognition that there are many ministries in the Church beside those of the ordained, the movement for the liberation of women, the facilities that are being developed for world-wide and local communication,

the general movement of evangelical renewal – all these and others give us opportunities that Dominic would have thanked heaven for, because they make it easier to do what he wanted to do. The Dominican family in its official chapters and meetings and in its experiments and researches is moving towards a better handling of these opportunities.

Our gathering here today, for example, is a step forward. You have kindly let me dream my dream. Now we have to wake up. And though reality may sometimes be discouraging, it also contains new opportunities. One thing I believe you can be certain of. What you do will write at least a little paragraph in the story of that evangelical community of preachers that is the Dominican family. And, because God is good, He will be with you.

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