Dominican Friars Follow the Footsteps of Their Forebears
To mark the 800th anniversary of the arrival of St. Dominic’s order in England, four friars make a 225-mile pilgrimage from Kent to Oxford.
This year marks the 800th anniversary of St. Dominic’s Order of Preachers coming to England. To celebrate the occasion, starting Aug. 1 and going through Aug. 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption, four Dominican friars are undertaking a 225-mile pilgrimage walk from Kent to Oxford. This is in honor of the original journey undertaken in 1221 by Prior Gilbert of Fresney and his companions.
Aug. 6 marks the 800th anniversary of the Spanish saint’s death. The Church celebrates his memorial on Aug. 8.
Before the friars’ departure, Register U.K. correspondent K.V. Turley spoke to one of them on this year’s pilgrimage, Dominican Father Samuel Burke. Ordained last year, he works as a university chaplain in Edinburgh, Scotland. Before entering religious life, he served in the Royal Naval Reserve, worked as a trial attorney and later as parliamentary aide with Lord David Alton in the Houses of Parliament. In 2004, he spent a year in Washington as a congressional aide with Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.
Tell us why you are walking from Ramsgate to Oxford.
We are walking the pilgrimage to retrace the steps of the first Dominicans who first arrived in England 800 years ago. Our journey will be a way of marking this jubilee anniversary, an opportunity to celebrate our rich history, and to continue our mission of preaching the Gospel in a spirit of joyful simplicity.
How many miles is that, and how long will you be walking for?
It’s a journey of approximately 225 miles over 15 days. It’s a route that takes in historic cities and backwater villages, towering cathedrals and small parish churches, royal palaces and deprived communities. The first part takes in much of the well-trodden pilgrimage route “The Way of St. Augustine” — only in the opposite direction. We will then walk through London, our nation’s capital, before finally walking along much of the Thames path en route to Oxford. It’s far from the quickest route to Oxford, but it’s a route that’s designed to bring us into contact with people and to have opportunities to preach.
How many are taking part?
There will be four Dominican friars walking the entire route, two priests and two student brothers: Father Toby Lees, Brother Bede Mullens, Brother John Church and myself. Our great hope is that many people come and join us for a day of walking here and there, as we make our way to Oxford.
Many of our starting points and destinations are near train stations to help facilitate this. We also would love for many who cannot join us for whatever reason to accompany us in prayer and in spirit. Our website and the wonders of modern technology will facilitate ways of following our progress and interacting with us on our pilgrimage. We welcome people to send us their prayer requests!
Where will you stay?
We have been overwhelmed by people’s generosity in opening their doors to welcome us into their homes along the way. Various parish priests, parishioners and religious houses have offered us beds and floor space. It is humbling to receive hospitality from people whom we don’t yet know but certainly will soon. We’re also grateful to friends and supporters who have offered to help in various ways.
What are you hoping to experience on this pilgrimage?
It’s an opportunity to return to our Dominican roots. Our medieval forebears traveled across Europe on foot with no money. They relied on God’s providence and the goodwill and generosity of others. What they brought with them was a zeal to preach the Gospel, a deep prayer life, a simplicity of life and a joyful brotherhood. Faithful to the same itinerant preaching mission, we will not only follow in their footsteps but in that same spirit of St. Dominic.
I know from previous pilgrimages about the remarkable encounters with people along the way. Walking through the English countryside and cities in a Dominican habit gives rise to many interesting conversations and exciting opportunities for evangelization and catechesis. We are praying that our preaching and witness will bear much fruit. This is more than a retracing of steps for us; it is sharing in the mission and charism first brought to these shores all those years ago.
It has been 800 years since the Order of Preachers came to England. Is this just a historical anniversary or is the Dominican presence in England still relevant?
Our preaching mission today is vibrant and informed by prayer and study. But we’re not stuck in the past. Rather, in celebrating our history, we renew our founding charism to inform and equip our preaching mission today and in the future.
We live in a confused and troubled world where vast swathes of the population have never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, where many people think the Church is redundant, and where the very notion of “truth” is contested.
Against that backdrop, I’d say that the presence of Dominicans in 21st-century England not only remains relevant but is more relevant now than ever. So many people think they know about Christianity and have rejected it, when all they have heard is a secular presentation of it. We want to help them to think again, not just in our formal preaching, but in the incarnation of that Gospel joy in our lives.
As you are newly ordained, what attracted you to the Dominican Order?
That’s a question I get asked a lot. You might have thought that, after several years, I’d have the answer down to a fine art. Alas, I haven’t! Somehow each time I try and express why I became a Dominican, it comes out differently. And each time I feel unsatisfied with my answer. I think that’s because no account can quite do justice to this great gift that I — we — have been given in our vocations.
In my own case, I traded the gown of a barrister for the habit of a friar-preacher. Everyone knows the Dominicans have the best habits. You could be forgiven for thinking I’m just someone who likes dressing up. Sometimes I jest that I’m still an advocate, only with a new and important client!
But a vocation journey starts not in the outward signs but the inner promptings of the Spirit, the thirst for God, for truth. Fundamentally, I wanted to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. This desire led me to the Dominican Order, whose motto is Veritas (truth) and whose mission is to praise, to bless and to preach the Gospel. I wanted to be a preacher of truth in a challenging context, a truth that is intellectually and morally demanding but punctuated with a wry humor and laced with love and compassion.
Thus I gave up what I was for who I might become, to give what St. John Henry Newman called “some definite service” to which God has called me. And I give thanks to him for this gift each day.
Intellectual formation and engagement are noted aspects of the order. What are the theological challenges of the 21st century, as opposed to the medieval period?
The context of the same essential preaching mission has changed considerably. Basic literacy in Scripture and church attendance are sadly exceptional these days, but were commonplace in the medieval period. Today, England is a country not only poorly catechized but amongst younger generations, in particular, largely unevangelized. This is the case even among “baptized nonbelievers” or those who are so non-committal about the faith into which they were baptized as to amount to what Pope Benedict once referred to as a kind of “practical atheism.”
The theological challenge is to speak God’s truth, ancient wisdom, into new conversations, to challenge false assumptions and bad arguments. Dominicans, therefore, place their study, prayer and energies at the service of this urgent task. Our presence and ministry in university cities like Oxford, Cambridge, London, Leicester and Edinburgh means that we are engaged in public and private conversations where fundamental questions are asked and addressed.
Dominicans are noted as preachers — what makes a good preacher in today’s England?
Tough question! In the first place, I’d say prayer is the sine qua non of any preacher. Prayer is where we forge and deepen our friendship with God each day. It has been said that the preacher who preaches without praying only ends up with a sore throat. Second, study. A preacher cannot proclaim a God whom they do not know, let alone called us friends. This applies especially to sacred Scripture, of course. Third, a preacher needs to be humble. We must retain a sense of our own sinfulness and be aware of our own frailties because we all have them and these are often similar to others. Self-righteous preaching, whether explicit or implicit, is repellant. Fourth, we need to be authentic. Preaching has to be honest, coherent and faithful. It needs to reckon with the cross, with suffering and trial, with betrayal and hardship. Lastly, and this is very important: joy! I’m not talking about telling corny jokes in homilies but, rather, a joyful wonder in God’s goodness and the absurdity of life and human complications. We should strive to take God seriously but not ourselves. Good preaching conveys something of the joy of the Gospel, of Jesus’ levity, of hope, and of Christ’s final victory. This is all Good News!
Details of the pilgrimage and how you can join, whether in person or remotely, can be found at DominicanJubilee.com.