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The Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., is building a new wing going to accommodate more vocations. The Register takes a behind- the-scenes look at Dominican formation.
BY STEPHEN MIRARCHIREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
WASHINGTON — When five Dominicans
were ordained on May 23 at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.,
it was the fruit of a long process.
The Order of Preachers, whose
religious and priests are commonly called Dominicans after their founder St.
Dominic, took a high profile role in Pope Benedict XVI’s U.S. visit. And their
profile is only getting higher.
The Dominican House of Studies — the
order’s prominent seminary in Washington, D.C. — recently announced plans to
build a new academic center and theological library, confirming an increase in
vocations and a broad expansion of the order.
The Dominicans’ long-standing
reputation for forming highly educated religious and priests appeals to many
called to vocations these days, but study alone is not the draw, said Father
John Langlois, master of students at the Dominican House of Studies.
“We see study as a contemplative
activity,” he said. “We seek to integrate it into our prayer life. It’s pushing
[prayerful reading of Scripture] to a new level: This is a meditative study of
theology, nourishing our life of prayer.”
To that end, the study of St. Thomas
Aquinas — one of the Church’s master theologians and a Dominican himself — is
an important emphasis for those in formation.
“They imbibe the teaching of
Aquinas,” said Father Langlois, who agreed that the Angelic Doctor is neglected
even in Catholic education these days. “If they don’t do it here, where are
they going to do it?”
The new priests for the Dominicans are: Father Martin Philip Nhan,
Father Pius Pietrzyk, Father Hugh Vincent Dyer, Father John Martin
Ruiz-Mayorga, and Father Thomas Joseph White. There are as many
stories as there are Dominicans.
“Our formation takes place in the
context of our community life,” said Father Langlois, “which models the life
for the brothers. There’s a fraternity with the older members who’ve been
active for many years, and they share their experience. It’s a complete
integration of study, prayer, common life and the apostolate, from direct
service with the poor to hospital and campus ministries to RCIA in parishes.”
Even the order’s prayers, while
deeply liturgical and traditional, have their own ring to them.
“There are distinctive antiphons and
Psalm tones,” Father Langlois said, “as well as Dominican propers. There are
some chants that are proper to the order. We do a fair amount of chant, and
we’re trying to integrate it more. While our Salve Regina and Regina Coeli are
in the same modes as the Gregorian, they are distinctive, with their own
This unique path within the living
tradition of the Church comes down from the establishment of the order, said
Father Gabriel O’Donnell, vice president and academic dean of the pontifical
faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies.
“Our way is unique in that we are
tied together by the decision of St. Dominic and St. Thomas,” said Father
O’Donnell, who has spent some of his life in diocesan seminaries. “We’re tied
inextricably together through liturgical life and community life; it’s not
possible to be formed for the priesthood without the whole life.”
That corpus, as it were, goes beyond
preparation for the priesthood. A more apt description, said Father O’Donnell,
“is formation for a way of life in which one is a priest. You’re not a
Dominican and a priest; you’re a Dominican priest.”
The same charism cannot be mirrored
in diocesan formation, which prepares a man for a way of life he carries with
him from one parish to the next.
“Dominican formation,” said Father
O’Donnell, “is not preparatory; it is the way of life we continue until we die.
Formation is never outside of the framework of the strong community of faith.
The community takes responsibility for caring for each other, and there’s a lot
of freedom there.”
Still, Father O’Donnell admitted,
community life has its challenges. “We’re all a little bit eccentric. The
greatest penance of Dominican life is the common life.”
Brother Austin Litke, who’s
finishing his second year of theology at the Dominican House of Studies,
“Community life presents you with
all kinds of involuntary penances, and they’re always more efficacious than the
ones we take on ourselves. If you embrace that, it creates a habit of deferring
your will to another, and in the spiritual life that trains you to give your
will to God.”
The common life is, in fact, what
drew Brother Austin to transfer to the Dominicans after studying for five years
in diocesan seminaries as a collegian and first-year theologian.
“Back in my home diocese in rural
western Kentucky, [diocesan priests are] pastors for likely two or three
parishes. Being very busy in the ministry of parishes is a beautiful way of
life, but I felt the draw of the common life. Part of it is temperament, but
part of it is accountability, which forms character. The common life is a
school of charity, day in and day out, and that’s a challenge.”
Brother Austin also agreed that
study integrated with prayer and the common life takes a different kind of
“In diocesan seminaries you study in
a way that you most likely won’t again. Here, study is to be a part of our
lives always, a formal commitment that distinguishes how we live our
priesthood. There’s a continuity of life here; there’s no urgency to get
How seminarians are guided along
that path — how their formation is administered, in other words — is a question
specific to their ministry, said Father Stephen Boguslawski, president of the
Dominican House of Studies and executive director of the John Paul II Cultural
“The diocesan rector establishes the
general tone of the seminary; he oversees the whole operation,” he said. “He
stands in for the bishop, and that means a high concentration of administration
in one person. In Dominican formation, those responsibilities are diversified;
I, for instance, oversee the intellectual development as well as our own” plan
That expansion of responsibility
extends down through the ranks, with the newest seminarians learning directly
from Dominicans ordained for decades.
“There is a sense in Dominican
formation,” Father Boguslawski said, “that all are being led by their older
brothers; in that sense it’s more comprehensive. What happens in the choir or
in the chapel is carried into the classroom, just as what happens in the
library affects their manner of prayer.”
This program of formation is working
exceedingly well for the Dominicans, said Father David Toups, the U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops’ associate director of the Secretariat for
Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations. “There’s a very healthy integration of
spiritual, human, academic and ministerial formation at the Dominican House,”
he said. “Section 115 of the “Program for Priestly Formation” speaks of
spirituality as the integrating force of the other dimensions, and I see that
The author of “Reclaiming Our
Priestly Character” — a scholarly and spiritual treatise on the sacrament of
Holy Orders — Father Toups lauded in the Dominican House of Studies’ formation
what he sees in successful seminary programs across the country. “In all of his
addresses, Pope Benedict XVI brings it back down to the basics: a personal,
loving, and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s about teaching our
young people how to pray. It’s a genuine relationship with Christ that grounds
Father Boguslawski also mentioned
the importance of reaching youth.
“The rising generation is coming
with a different set of challenges forged from the matrix of the culture.
That’s why the ‘Program of Priestly Formation’ will always undergo updating.”
In the meantime, the Order of
Preachers will continue to serve according to their charism.
“From the very inception of our
ministry,” Father Boguslawski said, “the order was established to serve the
Church and the bishops through the preaching office.”
writes from St. Louis.
A frank discussion with the Dominican order's new leader
BY Paul Burnell
Father Carlos Azpiroz Costa
Dominican Father Carlos Azpiroz Costa will spend his first St. Dominic's day as head of his order Aug. 4.
Dominican Father Carlos Azpiroz Costa will spend his first St. Dominic's day as head of his order Aug. 4.
The 44-year-old from Buenos Aires, Argentina, was elected the 87th Master General of the Order of Preachers on July 14, the second non-European to hold the post since the order's foundation in 1215 by St. Dominic. He spoke from Providence, R.I., to Register Correspondent Paul Burnell, shortly after the election.
What was your family like?
My father was an agricultural engineer, my grandfather and grandmother on my father's side were from Navarre, Spain. That is why my family name is Azpiroz — it is Basque. My mother was a very devout Catholic. At the same time she was quite silent — today I would call her contemplative. As the years have gone I have understood more and more about my mother.
My father would go to Mass every day. He was always helping vocations. He was always giving money for vocations but never wanted his name to appear.
I remember when I was 10, I went to my mother and told her I want to be a Marist Brother (our school was run by the Marist brothers).
I remember she told me, “You are so young. You must wait.”
I remember thinking, “My mother doesn't believe in God.”
When I was a teen-ager, I was always going to parties; I was the kind of person who doesn't stay at home. But, again, at 16, I told my mother, “I think I want to be a priest.” I got exactly the same answer: “You must wait and finish school.”
In 1979, when I was near the end of my civil law degree, I decided finally to enter the Dominicans.
I talked with my father (my mother died in 1976). He said “OK, if that is what you desire. But finish the civil law course first.” We were alone in my father's bedroom and he told me, “Your mother desired [the priesthood] for you.”
I was shocked. She had never pushed me to make this kind of decision.
My parents were very quiet. You never heard them shouting. Our house was like a priory. I once asked my friends if we could study at our house — it was very big; it had four floors. But they thought it would not be quiet. When they came they were amazed.
Throughout your teen-age and student years, there was a military junta in power in Argentina. What are your recollections of growing up in that time?
The year 1978 was a very exciting year for me as a student, but it was also a painful time for the country. Argentina won the soccer World Cup in Buenos Aires and everybody went crazy, but there were some terrible things happening at the same time.
I was president of the student body at Pontifical Catholic University in Buenos Aires. I was 22-years-old but I was pretty certain I would become a priest. That year was very special. I had had a girlfriend but we had ended our relationship. We didn't end it because I wanted to be a priest. There are often unconscious things at work in our hearts.
I was not very conscious of the political situation. For me, studying civil law was a very important link to reality, but I could never open my eyes to the real reality outside — it is part of the story of our country at the time.
Some of my brothers were studying in the U.S.A. at the same time, and when we used to have discussions about the social and political situation, I was shocked. It was another world.
I remember being on a train and hearing about sociology and having a big discussion with my brother about Marx and Engels — it was a new world. This opened big questions in my life. I found the answers in becoming a Dominican which I saw as not going out of the world but going, in one sense, deeper into the world.
You are a canon lawyer and a theologian with a largely academic background. Some people might wonder how much of the real world you see.
I teach theology to different levels of people. I teach many lay people. I teach lawyers, engineers, economists, all boys around the 22, 23, 24 age group.
It is a big challenge, because they may have learned their catechism when they were younger and nothing more.
Outside of the academic year, it is very exciting because we have a missionary commitment. We go in teams of priests, sisters and lay people to poor missions. Although Argentina is 90% Catholic, there are places that a very isolated and very poor and they may only see a priest once a year.
Why do you think the order has elected a Latin American to the post of master general?
I wasn't present at the election. I was attending the chapter as a peritus [adviser]. When the chapter was discussing the candidates, I was asked to answer a few questions, and then I had to leave.
I do not know what was in my brothers’ minds that they decided to elect a Latin American, and that they elected a younger man. It was a chosen by a secret ballot — which has been the method since the beginning of the order.
You recently described the Dominican family as being like a symphony orchestra — how would you describe the role of the master general in that orchestra?
I am the person who takes the instruments round to the musicians (laughs).
I think the Holy Spirit — or St. Dominic — is the conductor. We are a really deep democracy, not in the sense of having a ballot on everything but in the sense that we have to reach a consensus.
In the Dominican family the role is to push the life of the ideas discussed at chapter. As the major superior of the brothers, the master has very important powers in ensuring a moral sense of unity for the brothers.
Your last role was procurator general of the order in Rome, which involves dealing with friars who wish to be dispensed from their vows. How did that affect you?
I have done this for the last four years. It is very special, very delicate situations you are dealing with through papers and documents, not directly. Every case is different.
It shocked me, but it has opened my mind and heart to the compassion of St. Dominic. There are brothers who leave because of very, very different situations, but I try to open my mind to understand these people. These people are very isolated brothers and some are helped to come back — for others, it's too late. You have to be a shepherd and some sheep are lost; I am not entering into the moral question here.
Is there a generation gap between younger, more tradition-minded Dominicans and older friars?
It has opened my mind and my heart to understand our vocation, which is a beautiful vocation.
Your order has many notable saints. Who are your favorites?
St. Dominic, of course, and St. Thomas Aquinas for his open mind and stand for freedom, especially in intellectual life.
The first biography of a saint I read in my life was St. Martin de Porres; he has a special place. My novitiate was in the Priory of St. Martin de Porres, and I was later prior there. So he is special. Also, he is from Latin America and represents a mix of cultures and the special graces between Spain and Portugal. I also admire a lot of other theologians and brothers who are still living.
Your order has also had its fair share of rebels. Are there any of those you admire?
Remember St. Thomas Aquinas had his problems in Paris.
Father [Marie-Joseph] Lagrange [the scripture scholar who founded the Jerusalem Biblical School in the early 20th century] gave the Church a new approach to the Bible, although he had many critics. I am also very impressed with the French in the ‘40s and ‘50s, men such as Father Jacques Loew and Father Chenu [members of the Worker Priest movement which was halted on the instructions of Pope Pius Xll].
When they were asked for silence they obeyed; this is why I love them.
Father Lagrange was never a rebel like John Lennon. He gave the Church a new approach to the Bible and when he was asked to be silent, he obeyed.
Your predecessor Father Timothy Radcliffe wrote of a generation gap in the order between the Post Vatican II brothers who abandoned a certain amount of your tradition, and the new breed of young brothers who are seeking a return to a “classical” form of religious life. How do you view this situation?
This is a great challenge. A lot of young people like these kind of things. We cannot reject them because they are not like us. At the same time, the order has an experience of freedom, an open-minded and open-hearted tradition of eight centuries.
I thought before I entered the order I knew everything about it. Now I realise I knew nothing. It is a place where you can find peace, freedom, fraternity. Talk of freedom seems to be unusual from the lips of a canon lawyer.
You have said that the emphasis on preaching is very important for the order. Is that really still true?
I think the order's gift is to be preaching. The faith comes to us through our ears. The gift of the order — to preach — is to open hearts and to open minds.
We need to preach the truth today not as a list of contents but as Jesus the person. The Dominicans love the truth as a person, not an intellectual approach.
Today, a lot of people do not believe in God. We must dialogue with these people in a special way with the language of human beings and interreligious dialogue by respecting different positions, saying we love the truth as a person. We must be proud of our Friend the Truth and give the whole truth. We must not just say beautiful things to someone's face.
According to Father Radcliffe you have a good sense of humor and are a good impersonator. Who or what do you impersonate?
I like to mimic many things. I like to impersonate Italian people using cell phones and the different gestures they make — they're crazy but they're lovely! In the middle of meetings I have impersonated animals just to cool things down if the meeting is getting too tense.
Do you think it is significant that you are following an Englishman on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Falklands/Malvinas War between Britain and Argentina?
When Father Timothy Radcliffe was elected, I was in Rome. A Spanish brother asked me how I could be happy that an Englishman had become master. I said, “I am happy that Timothy Radcliffe is the master of the order, and not the president of Argentina.”
I have learned a lot from this man. He has opened my mind and my heart with his example and his preaching.
In the corridor of our curia is a beautiful gallery of portraits of our masters, and I wanted to play a little joke on him when he was first appointed.
I knew him already and I knew he had a sense of humor. I had a tiny copy of the official photo of him from a chapter so I had it set in a tiny frame and hung just after the portrait of the previous Master. As we walked down the corridor with the superior of the sisters who look after the brethren, he stopped and just stared at it.
I was worried, at this point, that he wasn't taking the joke well.
He turned to the sister and said in very bad Italian but good humor, “Don't worry, I'll get bigger with the help of your pasta in the next nine years.”
I still have that tiny photo to this day and will put it in my personal office just to have the smile of Timothy every day in front of me.
Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England.