Saturday, August 30th, 2008
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.
One paragraph in particular caught my eye. It contains sage advice for all of us who want to grow in our devotion to the Word of God.
“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.”