The Dominican Order suffered after Vatican II, but the English province is at the center of a renaissance of Dominican life.
LONDON (The Catholic Herald) - From St Thomas Aquinas to Fra Angelico, St Dominic de Guzman to Meister Eckhart, the Dominicans have been a dominant force on the intellectual life of the Church.
Marked by a rigorous academic tradition matched with a duty to save souls, to be both apostolic and contemplative, the Order of the Friars Preachers has been around for almost 800 years. But in the period spanning between 1963 and 1984, it looked as though the Dominicans might be among the first casualties of the collapse in religious life that followed the Second Vatican Council.
Like many other religious orders, the Dominicans revised their constitutions and began to re-examine their charism. In that period, over 3,000 brethren left the Order, world-wide, and by 1975, over 700 priests were laicized, according to Fr Benedict Ashley, an American Dominican. They were in the midst of a serious identity crisis.
But today, in the English Province, the Order of the Friars Preachers, is witnessing a slow and steady resurgence. Over half the friars are under 40, while most of the older ones are over 60. The English Province has 75 friars at present and a small but constant trickle of energetic novices. Young and enthusiastic or older and experienced, they are all Dominicans. Whatever their differences as men, they see themselves as called to follow St Dominic's mission to preach and save souls.
A running catchphrase in their conversations is "that is typically Dominican" and a strong formation marks that identity. Fr Richard Finn, the Regent of Studies at Blackfriars, Oxford, says: "We are blessed with vocations and their educational backgrounds and interests are important to us. We don't take them to turn them into a standard Dominican product, but there is a strong Dominican formation and that is a strong intellectual formation.
"But of course, because truth is one there will be a common core of understanding and an appreciation of the economy of salvation in the Catholic Church."
Fr Timothy Gardner, a friar based at London's St Dominic's Priory, believes that the growth of the last two decades is the result of the order rediscovering its charism. It has returned to the intentions of its founder to be defenders of orthodoxy, through study, prayer and preaching.
"We were founded to combat against the Albigensian heresy, an essentially dualist heresy which separated the body from the soul. Our contemporary world suffers from a similar sort of sense of separation and the Dominican way of life, which offers a coherent whole, has never been more necessary," he says. "We are a hinge between the apostolic tradition and the monastic tradition, because we live together, pray together but also go out and preach the truth of the Gospel."
Fr Simon Gaine waits outside the Cotswold stone building that is home to 26 Dominicans, at once a priory, house of formation and an Oxford University permanent private hall. It is a Thursday morning during Oxford's Trinity term, just before Lauds. Habited in distinctive white and cloaked in black, enormous rosary hanging at his side, the tall, neatly bearded Dominican is the prior of Blackfriars, Oxford, elected by his peers to lead the priory. He gives a friendly greeting and strides into the austere gothic chapel, where the brethren are gathered in choir for the first Divine Office of the Day. Together the brethren sing the Office in English.
There are 12 Dominican students in the Studium at the moment, while the other 13 students include other religious and some lay people. Blackfriars Hall, which is the part of the priory attached to the university and caters to lay as well as religious members, has another 20 students, some of whom are Dominicans.
After the Office, the friars troop through the sacristy into the Hall, which is also the priory, to grab breakfast and go about their morning's work. For the younger ones in the Studium this means tutorials, lectures in philosophy and theology, writing essays in the overfilled library and remembering to take out the recycling or whatever individual duty in the life of the community they have been assigned to. Others are working on secular degrees at the University, like Fr Richard Ounsworth, who is working on a doctorate in New Testament studies, will work on his thesis, teach and fulfil duties to the community. The older friars at Blackfriars are on the whole teachers, either in the Studium or at the university or both.
For the young brothers the time in Oxford prepares them for their lives as Dominicans. Some may end up in Blackfriars teaching while others will be like Fr Gardner, working in priories in Edinburgh, Cambridge, Leicester, Newcastle and Glasgow. Here they will take on pastoral work as hospital, prison or school chaplaincies among others, as well as normal parish work. But regardless of what the Order calls them to do, they are all trained to preach and are subjected to an intellectually challenging formation.
Fr Finn says that the academic formation is necessary "because people deserve to have sense made or to be helped to make sense themselves of the faith that has been revealed to us.
"People deserve to hear a good sermon. For that to be done, it doesn't just take pastoral experience; it means hard thinking, hard studying about theology. To think well about theology requires the study of philosophy as well.
"As Dominicans we have a passion for truth, but that has got to involve learning that things are often more complicated than we think. And as a kind of fundamental Dominican asceticism which is detachment from that which isn't wholly true, actually surrendering some of our prejudices, our half-truths - the shorthand we often live by - we have to be prepared to give that up and focus on the truth of what God has revealed and thinking hard about it really."
This takes years of training, says Fr Finn, and being a Dominican involves a life-long vocation to study. For Dominicans dialogue is important too, he says, being patient and listening to hear what another person is trying to say even if the perspective seems different. "There's a kind of sympathetic hearing which then has to lead to critical reflection. It's not saying everything's true when patently some things are not but it serves to work out what the truth is," Fr Finn says.
"If you look at St Thomas's Summa, he is very much interested in the objections that are going to be put forward. It's allowing the objections to sharpen up one's sense of what the correct answer is."
Habits swish down the semi-cloistered corridor, beads clink. The smell of coffee fills the refectory and the sound of lively conversation floats through the hall. At the bursary, some of the brethren are queuing to apply for pocket money for the needs that aren't covered by daily life at the priory such as a new pair of trousers or a toothbrush.
At simple profession, an early step towards becoming a friar, they take a vow of obedience for three years which incorporates vows of chastity and poverty and there is no private property in the community. "Earnings", money paid in salaries to those who have jobs or received royalties or donations or Fr Ounsworth's grant, for example, are handed over to the domestic bursar who uses the money for the running costs of the community.
For Brother Robert Gay, who is the cantor at Blackfriars and holds a doctorate in plant physiology, the decision to enter the novitiate in Cambridge four years ago came after visiting the priory in Edinburgh. The 30-year-old convert from the Welsh Presbyterian church came to the Church by going to Mass with friends and later reading the works of Cardinal Basil Hume and other Catholics who had followed a religious life. After his conversion he had a strong sense of vocation and knew that he wanted to enter into religious life.
"The ideal thing about the order was the balance between the contemplative and the active. Because I'd approached Catholicism through the monastic lens, that sort of thing seemed very attractive to me, yet I recognised that I have that sort of extrovert side that I would really want to go out and do something with that contemplation," he says. He is due to make his solemn vows this September.
Alongside his academic formation as a Dominican, he works in a prison once a week where he takes a faith discussion group. He says that he tries to help the prisoners relate their experiences to the values of the Gospel and give them the message of hope and forgiveness. He relishes the challenge. It is definitely outside his comfort zone, he says, but that is a good thing and something that Dominicans are called to do.
"We all should be looking forward to the challenges. Going into a place like that takes you out of your comfort zone, but that's exactly what we are supposed to do, I really feel that. We wouldn't be effective in our preaching mission if we didn't do that," he says. This summer he will be in the prison five days a week as part of the pastoral placement all Dominican students are called to do.
Fr Vivian Boland, Master of Students at Blackfriars, says that the pastoral placement is an essential part of a Dominican student's formation. It exists, he says, "to help them see the connection between their studies and pastoral care. That the studies are not just for an academic purpose but that they are preparing them for the mission. The way we do it always requires study because it's a preaching and a theological mission wherever we do it."
Brother Robert says the prison ministry is important because it offers the prisoners something that they otherwise have no recourse to.
"We can preach a message there, that there is a way forward through Christ and we give them as much help as we can, if it's one-to-one catechesis that's required or something like that or just to generally talk about faith."
Brother Robert is realistic about life in the community. It's not always easy to get on with the brethren and tensions do exist and flare up, but he says he has relished the support he has received and the dynamic of a life based on Christian love. Learning from the others in the community has been an important part of his Dominican life, he says, and so has the English Province's dedication to saying or singing the Divine Office together.
Lunch, which follows sext, is a quick affair at Blackfriars the brethren prepare sandwiches or whatever they can find in the vast industrial kitchen.
The domestic aspect of life in a community becomes apparent later. Over coffee in the garden with Fr Gaine I spot Brother Daniel Jeffries, 25, who is the community's youngest member, immaculate white habit covered with a striped apron, lugging a recycling bin almost as tall as he is. Brother Lawrence Lew, another one of the young brethren who is sacristan, leans over a flowerbed cutting plants for the evening's Mass.
The evening meal is communal, a lively affair where the brethren sometimes argue about points of doctrine or liturgy or tell funny anecdotes.
The Dominicans have ambitious plans for Blackfriars which they see as a place of outreach and dialogue between the Church and the secular world. The Aquinas Institute, which is three years old, seeks to bring Aquinas scholars from around the world and the order is planning a centre for Faith in Public life at the Hall.
In the meantime the priory itself needs serious structural work. The friars have been hard at work raising money, but they need to reach £700,000 in order to pay for all the necessary changes.
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