For the Feast of Christ the King, Nov. 25, Register features correspondent Tim Drake spoke to Dominican Father Carleton Jones, retreat master at St. Stephen's Priory in Dover, Mass., on the quandaries of today's secularized society resulting from its unwillingness to recognize Jesus Christ.
If I may ask, what led you to your vocation as a Dominican?
I was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1982 from the Episcopal Church, where I had served as an ordained minister for 14 years. For 10 of those years, I was a member of an Anglican religious community—the Society of St. John the Evangelist—living the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in a community of brothers.
From my experience and formation as an Episcopalian religious, I was sure that I had a vocation to the priesthood and religious life. The monks of St. Benedict's Abbey in Still River, Mass., who had given me hospitality for several months after my reception into the Roman Catholic Church, introduced me to Dominicans. I suppose my Benedictine friends could see that I had an inclination to the work of theology and preaching which is the particular charism of Dominicans.
They were right. I have been very happy as a Dominican student, parish priest and now retreat director—always emphasizing in this pastoral activity the central importance of preaching that is grounded in the study and contemplation of the Word of God.
How have you come to experience Christ in your own life?
Yes. As a member of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, I learned to meditate on the Gospel stories following, as it happens, the method of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
As I grew in the practice of meditation, Jesus emerged more and more in my consciousness as an exemplar of the inwardly free man—free to witness to the truth, and free to give himself in love.
I was especially struck by the phrase from the Vatican II document on The Church in the Modern World(Gaudium et Spes), that Jesus not only reveals God to man, but reveals man to himself—what it means to be a human being. John Paul II has made this, what might be called Christ-centered humanism, a central theme of his teaching.
The concept of Christ the King seems somewhat foreign to many of us living in a democracy. Is the title still apropos?
It's only apropos if we keep our focus on what the Gospels tell us about Christ's Kingship. That is the subject of his dialogue with Pilate at his trial: “my kingship is not of (or from) this world.” His is not a king-ship of power, but of love—or rather, the power of his kingship is the power of divine love, which his resurrection shows to be invincible.
As Mary knew by faith and sang in her Magnificat, God has “cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” That is a fine summary of the Gospel of Christ the King.
How might a fuller embracing of Christ as King transform a misguided world?
A fuller embracing of Christ as King must go beyond a nominal profession of his Lordship, which is, after all, the content of all Christian worship; it must include an embracing of his Cross, which was, on earth, his royal throne.
The world of today is misguided in its equation of freedom with power. The more we Christians—individually and collectively—take the risk of renouncing worldly power, the more we will discover freedom of the spirit—inward freedom—that will give us a share of Christ's sovereignty over the world.
The Church is corrupted by the patronage of the powerful. We should not be longing nostalgically for the past “ages of faith.” The community of faith lives most vigorously, and gains most victories, when she is undergoing persecution for the faith. A misguided world will be transformed, as it has been in the past, by the witness of martyrs.
In a sense, the Dominicans were formed to defend Christ. Could you briefly explain the history and the charism of the Order of Preachers? Why were they founded?
St. Dominic did not gather his first preachers and form them into a preaching order exactly to “defend” Jesus Christ. That is hardly necessary.
Dominicans defend Christian doctrine as a necessary, but strictly secondary, aspect of the apostolic mandate to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of mankind and Lord of all.
Originally, St. Dominic and his followers did this by preaching throughout a geographical region—Provence, in southern France—that was overrun by a dualist heresy that denied the goodness of the material creation, and thus, of course, the Incarnation and the grace of the sacraments.
This Albigensian heresy promoted a “culture of death,” in which suicide quite literally had sacramental value.
St. Dominic was moved by a strong and compassionate charity to bring the people who were spiritually bound by this heresy back to the light of Christ and the communion of his Church.
Last July, at your general chapter, Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to the Dominicans. In that letter he suggests we face a similar denial of the Incarnation today. Do you agree with the Pope's assessment?
In his letter to our chapter, the Pope, who was educated by Dominicans, has made an excellent summary of our mission as preachers to the people of our time. He says that there exists in our own sophisticated, globalized Western culture a “new form of the recurrent Manichaen [dualist] heresy with which Christianity had to contend from the beginning.”
Jesus, he says, in the minds of secularized people—even Christians—“remains distant: he is not truly known, loved and obeyed, but consigned to a distant past or a distant heaven.” Religion becomes something purely subjective, “removed from the processes that govern social, political and economic activity;” and “this leads, in turn, to a greatly diminished sense of human possibility, since it is Christ alone who fully reveals the magnificent possibilities of human life. … When Christ is excluded or denied, our vision of human purpose dwindles; and as we anticipate and aim for less, hope gives way to despair, joy to depression.”
Thus, ironically, the Enlightenment project of liberating mankind from religious “tyranny” has produced a much-diminished sense of human possibility, “a profound distrust of reason and of the human capacity to grasp the truth.” Moreover, human life “is not valued and loved; and hence the advance of a certain culture of death, with its dark blooms of abortion and euthanasia.”
The practical denial of the Incarnation also leads inevitably to the degrading of human sexuality, “which shows itself in a tide of moral confusion, infidelity and the violence of pornography.” The “misuse and exploitation of the environment” is another part of this new culture of death, within which Dominican preaching must again find a way of proclaiming Jesus Christ, bringing people once again to the light of his truth and the communion, in divine love, of his Church.
How might those surrounded by a culture that seeks to hide Christ be able to experience Christ in the modern world?
People experience Christ—in whatever era—only, really, when they see real saints at work. Mother Teresa has probably done more to help people in our secularized culture to experience Christ than any number of preachers—including the Pope himself!
We preachers have to remember that kind of thing, even as we try our best to find ways to proclaim the saving Gospel more effectively.
Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.