Epistle: Acts 9:1-20
Response: Go out to all the world and tell the good news.
Psalm: 117: 1,2
Gospel: John 6:53-60
I like to think that as a religious order we are well named: The Order of Preachers. Sometimes it is difficult to explain to people who inquire what the O. P. means after one's name. When you try to explain it, then they wonder why a bunch of Catholics would call themselves preachers. At least that was the case in Texas where I grew up and where I later spent a lot of time as a priest. Preachers were not Catholics. Yet I think we are well named, because it ought to be the case that each of us who becomes a Dominican becomes a Dominican in order to go out to all the world and tell the good news. That is our purpose. It is why we were established as a religious order. Everything else about us is subservient to that fact.
There are, of course, a lot of other factors about our life as Dominicans which are very important in self-identification. One must understand and appreciate these factors if one is to have a romance with the Order. (I have supposed it to be true that unless someone has a kind of romantic approach to the Dominicans, he or she will not very long be a part of the family).
What are some of these qualities that give us our self-identity? One of them, obviously, is study. St. Dominic made all kinds of exceptions to rules and regulations, in order to facilitate study. You are as familiar as I am, of course, with the attitude he took toward the possession of books, priceless things in the age before printing. The possession of books in his view had nothing to do with religious poverty, but he was a desperately poor man by choice. Study is a. lifelong feature, or ought to be, of him or her who claims to be a Dominican. The present Master of the Order, Father de Couesnongle, said one time: "We ought to ask one another not 'Why do you want to go away to study?' but, 'Why don't you want to go away and study?'" In order to proclaim the Gospel, to preach, one has to have an ever deeper understanding of it and of the ways in which one can show its relevance to the contemporary world, and that requires a great deal of patient study, a lot of reading and a lot of serious conversation. Study is an important feature in our self-identification.
Another is our concern for the liturgy. Because study was so important an element in the view of St. Dominic, he wanted us to solemnize the liturgy -- to celebrate it with a great deal of beauty and devotion, with song particularly, in order that it might be for us an emotional experience as well as an intellectual one. This controlled exercise of the emotions can offset the temptation which is always part of our life, to be too intellectual, too disembodied almost about our approach to things. The celebration of the liturgy with solemnity was a way of reminding us that we fulfill in liturgical life a serious obligation that falls upon each one of us by reason of baptism, namely, that we not only can be -- but we must be -- those who worship God most suitably; that is, in the sacramental system (which is our liturgical life). Liturgy, its solemnity, its loveliness, its beauty ought to be an essential feature that characterizes us.
Another factor is common life, community. It is a funny age when you hear the word "community" so much, not only within the Church or within our Order, but even outside. Various groups denominate themselves as communities. There is the black community; there is the Hispanic community; there is the gay community. There are all these various groups that designate themselves in a way that has not heretofore been the case. There are strange experiments going on with community. One only has to think of the various communes that have been established in the mountains of New Mexico or out in the Big Sur, Califomia. All this because, I think, there is a break-up of genuine communities.
In the United States we are seeing a veritable epidemic of divorce, not only involving those who are not of the Church but also those within the Church, within Catholicism. Family Ife, which is community life in a most essential sense, is in trouble. In the Province of St. Albert the Great of which three of us are members, I find as I make the rounds of our province that ministerially or apostolically our priests and brothers do fine work. Our weakest area is community life. We haven't yet found out how to live community life in a way that appeals to men of this day. It is our weakest point. We are conscious of that and we have a lot of ambitions. Community life, however, a sense of community, is an essential feature of what a Dominican is.
But these elements are all designed to contribute to the reason why we belong to this family and that reason is, of course, to proclaim the gospel. I believe that reason applies not only to those of us who are priests and brothers and sisters, but also, particularly, to the Dominican laity. There is a great deal that is being said in our time about lay ministry. It would be supremely ironic -- supremely ironic -- if the Dominican laity didn't take some kind of lead in that movement in the United States.
What is lay ministry? A great deal of discussion about this needs to go on. Lay ministry, I think, is not a question of lay people doing some of the things that are customarily done by priests. Lay ministry is not a question of being distributors of Communion, taking on in a way, the functions of deacons. What does it mean when the Church says to a lay person who is baptized and a committed Catholic that you must go out to all the world and tell the good news?
Preaching is what denominates us. We are the Order of preachers and I understand this to mean primarily pulpit preaching; a proclamation in an official capacity on behalf of the Church, with liturgical settings and to the members of the Church, what the gospel is -the preaching or the proclamation of Jesus Christ. It is the role of our Order in the
Church to accept the primary concern for promoting the ministry of preaching. Not that all the best preachers in the world have to be Dominicans, but as a family, as an Order, we accept this as a matter of special concern on behalf of the whole Church.
But there are other extensions of the meaning of preaching and they belong properly, of course, to those who are members of the Order but who are not deacons or priests. What is lay ministry? There is a fine Catholic in public life in the United States, Sargent Shriver, who has become a very good friend of a member of our province, Father Dan Morrissey, who comes from of all places, Milwaukee. Sargent Shriver has often complained to him that Catholics or other committed Christians in professional life seem no different from those who are not committed Christians. Those in the legal profession who might be Catholics and otherwise committed Christians go about their professional lives in quite the same way, following more or less the same ethics, as those who are not.
How do you proclaim the Gospel in professional life in a way that someone who is denominated as a minister of the Church, a priest, or a deacon, or a religious woman or a lay brother, cannot? How do you proclaim the gospel in a way that none of these others can? Everybody has a public life and in that public life he has to witness to the Gospel not simply by what he is, though that is important, but also by what he teaches in his own time and place and within the limits of his professional life. That is lay ministry and that is something that is not a substitute for clerical ministries. It is something that clerics simply cannot do, except in the odd case where a religious may be an attorney, a medical doctor, or other professional.
The Dominican Third Order, as we used to call it, or as we more appropriately call it now: The Dominican Laity, is not worth your time, or mine, or Father Malatesta's, if you do not get beyond those characteristics that go into our self-identification to the purpose for the order which is preaching; the proclamation of the Good news.
I happened to be, for better or for worse, the delegate from my province to the general chapter of the Order that met in Ireland in 1971. It was at that chapter that we dropped out of our Constitution the references to the first order, the second order, and third order and began to speak about the Dominicans as a "family" which is also an order in the Church. Some people have not yet accepted this. Some people who have accepted it haven't understood it. But what that general chapter had to say was that everybody is called to the mission of the Order (not to the internal structure and the internal life of the Order, but to its mission) to be proclaimers of the Gospel in the way that St. Dominic understood ft; backed-up by a life of study in the degree that is appropriate to the individual, backed-up by some community interest and community contacts, backed-up by a solid liturgical life. Out of those things one comes to proclaim the gospel and to know what he or she is to do in time and place.
It is the eleventh hour for the Dominican Family in the United States. It is a crisis time for us -- for all of us. Somehow we will weather this crisis, I feel confident, because those who are our patrons in heaven are too powerful for us not to weather the crisis; but, the degree of our success in weathering it will depend upon what we can achieve together and not as separate little units proclaiming the Gospel out in the world to all creatures.