Honorary Dominicans for a Day

COMMENTARY: The charism of the founder of the Order of Preachers, who died Aug. 6, 1221, has something for every missionary disciple today.

Saint Dominic Receives the Rosary.
Saint Dominic Receives the Rosary. (photo: Public Domain/Plautilla Nelli)

My mentor, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, was proud to be known as an “honorary Dominican.” He went further, once telling a Dominican audience that, “Had I entered the Church 30 years earlier than I did, I might have been a real Dominican — if, that is, you would have had me.”

I might say the same. Not a convert like Father Richard, I suppose the Dominicans would have been a possibility for me. But I very much doubt that they — or any other religious community — would have had me. The secular priesthood is more congenial for a struggling worldling, but if I had to join an order, I would, with Father Richard, be a Dominican.

On the 800th anniversary of St. Dominic’s death on Aug. 6, 1221, we might all call ourselves for the day “honorary Dominicans.” (His feast day is Aug. 8, to avoid being perpetually displaced by the Transfiguration.) The charism of St. Dominic has something for every missionary disciple today.

Dominic, born in 1170, traveled in Europe as a young priest. There he confronted two realities, as explained by Benedict XVI in his catechesis on St. Dominic in 2010.

 “[There were] people who were not yet evangelized on the northern boundaries of the European continent, and [there was a] religious schism that undermined Christian life in the south of France where certain heretical groups were creating a disturbance and distancing people from the truth of the faith,” Benedict said. 

Dominic thus founded his Order of Preachers with a twofold mission, according to Benedict: “Missionary action for those who did not know the light of the Gospel and the work of the re-evangelization of Christian communities became the apostolic goals that Dominic resolved to pursue.”

For this task of missionary preaching, Dominic put a heavy emphasis on theological formation, particularly on biblical study. Hence, as Benedict said, “he did not hesitate to send them to the universities of the time, even though a fair number of clerics viewed these cultural institutions with diffidence.”

The early Dominicans were not alone in having scholars; the early Franciscans boast two doctors of the Church, St. Bonaventure and St. Anthony of Padua. Yet Dominic gave higher studies a special emphasis, precisely to be an evangelical force in the world of culture-shaping thought. That Dominican charism continues to the present day, as the Order of Preachers operates a vast array of intellectual apostolates.

The Dominican motto “Veritas” (Truth) arose at a time when there were fierce controversies about the truth about God, about salvation, about the Church. Today that motto is more provocative still, when the very idea of truth is contested. The battle for the reality of truth is engaged far beyond the university campus today.

Dominicans are not limited to the lecture hall; they engage in a wide array of pastoral work. Dominic’s original charism has grown like the biblical mustard seed into a mighty tree.

Pope Francis highlighted those different aspects of the Dominican legacy. In his letter for Dominic’s octocentenary, he mentioned about a half-dozen Dominican saints — there are more than 100! — but left out two of their doctors of the Church, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. Instead he highlighted the scholarly work of those Dominicans who laid the foundation for our legal concepts of human rights.

“The unity of truth and charity found perhaps its finest expression in the Dominican school of Salamanca, and particularly in the work of Friar Francisco de Vitoria, who proposed a framework of international law grounded in universal human rights,” Francis wrote. “This in turn provided the philosophical and theological foundation for the heroic efforts of Friars Antonio Montesinos and Bartolomé de Las Casas in the Americas, and Domingo de Salazar in Asia, to defend the dignity and rights of the native peoples.”

At a time when the missionary proclamation of the Gospel is often considered to have been an offense against aboriginal peoples — whether the Franciscans in California or the Jesuits in Canada — that Dominican heritage is as relevant as the day’s headlines.

Lest anyone think that the Dominican charism is only for the learned, it is probably true that most people are familiar (perhaps unwittingly) with St. Dominic from images of him receiving the Rosary from the Blessed Mother. So closely associated with the Rosary is St. Dominic that sometimes he is mistakenly credited with having invented it.

It was the Dominican pope, St. Pius V, who asked the whole Church to pray the Rosary for victory at the Battle of Lepanto (1571). Afterward, in thanksgiving, the feast of Our Lady of Victory was instituted, now called Our Lady of the Rosary (Oct. 7).

My introduction to sustained Dominican contact was with the Krakow priory of the Polish province. Today people the world over encounter the Dominicans of the St. Joseph Province, which is the eastern United States. Recently one of their number, Father Thomas Joseph White, was named rector of the Angelicum, the flagship Dominican university in Rome.

The St. Joseph Province has had a sustained vocations boom, producing an impressive cadre of orthodox preachers for the same task Dominic identified more than 800 years ago, the re-evangelization of formerly Christian cultures. 

Their Thomistic Institute initiative has married modern technology to the perennial wisdom of the early Dominicans. The Institute’s sponsored lectures on campus and their extensive online courses have made more than a few Catholics wish to be honorary Dominicans.

St. Dominic, pray for us!