This title is provoking and it puts forth a question, a call, which takes into account the doubts; it is a cry hoping to be heard. We chose it because we think it summarizes well our situation as Dominican Laity today. We are members of the “Order of Preachers”, called to witness. But how do we hear the Word of God we ought to convey to others, and how do we bring others to understand that it makes us live? To proclaim the Gospel or to not proclaim it, that is the question. And we may condense this in an English catchphrase: “To preach or not to preach, that is the question”.
Who is sending us?
Recognizing ourselves as “messengers” is an important step because the messenger is very well aware that he receives the message from someone else. Before conveying anything, we are firstly in the receiving position. We receive the grace of faith and our mission has its roots in baptism. Like all Baptized and Confirmed Christians, we are “Priests, Prophets and Kings”. The texts of the dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium and the Apostolic Exhortation of John Paul II Christifcdeles laici, proposed for the preparation of this encounter, clearly evoke for us this three-fold affirmation.
We are “Priests” because we share in the common priesthood of the faithful, “Prophets” through our testimony of faith and hope, and “Kings” in the image of Christ the king, i.e., to serve our brethren and the glory of God.
The Church, conscious that she has received her being from God, sends us on the mission. We can read in Lurnen Gentium: “even when preoccupied with temporal cares, the laity can and must perform a work of great value for the evangelization of the world.” (L.G. IV, # 35). We are sent by the very fact of our condition as baptized Christians.
One day, with the desire to better live out the Gospel, we came to the Order. In turn, the Order speaks to us of its wish to see all the members of the Dominican Family share in the proclamation of the Gospel. In the “Documentum Bononiense de Familia Dominicana” (4.1), we find this: “The membe,rs of the Dominican Family live out their baptismal commitment and their special Dominican charism. The particular mission we receive is the proclamation of the Word of God, above all by sharing, as Dominic did, God’s mercy as a sign of liberation.”
Still closer to us, during the encounter of the Dominican Family in Manila, in October 2000, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe reminded us: “Being a preacher means that every one of us is sent from God to those whom we meet. The wife is sent to the husband and the husband to the wife. Each is a word of God to the other. The nun may not be able to leave her monastery, but she is just as much sent as any brother. She is sent to her sisters, and the whole monastery is a word of God sent to us. Sometimes we accept our mission by remaining where we are and being a word of life there.”
We are called to take part in the proclamation of the Gospel, to be messengers and witnesses. By consenting to our baptism, through our commitment in the Order, we receive this mission to be messengers.
‘To be’ messengers
Would it be enough for us to recognize that we are sent into the mission in order to fulfill our role? At first, we may want to smile at the naivety of this question, especially after having to a large extent encountered the difficulty of announcing the Gospel message in the different apostolic fields we are in. But, let us put the justifications aside for just a moment, and let us go back to the Gospel, to the text about Emmaus et to the sentence that inspired the disciples to go back to Jerusalem: “Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?”
We need to understand, we need to have a clear vision in order to progress, but the impetus that makes us move comes from the heart. Being a messenger of the Word of God does not mean simply repeating a message but sharing the “contents of knowledge”, it implies burning inwardly with the fire that keeps us from living out what we have received without trying to share it. The apostles already “know” that Christ has risen. If the disciples go back to Jerusalem, they do so not only with the intention of announcing this to the others, but also to share their joy in what they together recognize as the truth. And the Eleven and their companions receive them saying: “The Lord has indeed risen and has appeared to Simon.” They are recognized as messengers even before they have spoken because the very fact of their coming back to Jerusalem speaks with evidence.
We are transformed by the thrust of conversion and the intimate bond with Christ. We are quite aware of what is going on when someone has an intense experience, but sometimes it is necessary to ask for the grace of having the courage to speak. We often repeat this verse of Psalm 50: “Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will speak out your raise” …
In the Gospel’s account of the event at Emmaus, the disciples’ attitude is changed by their listening to Christ explaining the Scriptures to them and sharing the bread with him. This experience is still burning after he has gone. Today, we Lay-Dominicans also love to seek out assiduously the truth in the Scriptures. Christ said to us: “I am the Way; I am Truth and Life”. When searching the truth we are seeking Christ and he accompanies us. We find this Truth only by sharing it, without pretending that we alone possess it. As Dominicans, we often remind ourselves to “Contemplate and share with others the fruit of our contemplation”. We know very well that we cannot be messengers unless we are ready to share, in one way or another, what is burning our hearts.
Living the mission on the long-term
In the midst of the enthusiasm of the revelation or of conversion, we are spontaneously active. In order to remain faithfully prepared to give the reason for the hope we have throughout our entire life requires us to be patiently vigilant and to nourish ourselves continuously at the source. We know that, even when our hearts are burning, it is not always so easy to witness. Experience teaches us that along with moments of great joy, we may encounter criticism, misunderstanding and refusal to dialogue, all things capable of chilling our original enthusiasm. When this happens, one is strongly tempted to remain silent or to speak only with small, restrained groups, where one can have some certainty of being understood.
But acting in this manner, means that one has forgotten that going to “the margins”, as Saint Dominic wished, means leaving our familiar fields and going out to meet others. Fr. Pierre Claverie, assassinated in Oran, said to us: ” I need the truth of others”. This is an unending quest that exposes us to others. Our life is rarely easy, insofar as we are concerned, but we may have peace of mind. Saint Paul already taught us in his letters that Christians should be prepared for spiritual combat.
In the Epistle to the Ephesians, he said to us: “So stand your ground, with truth a belt around your waist, and uprightness a breastplate, wearing for shoes on your feet the eagerness to spread the Gospel of peace and always carrying the shield of faith so that you can use it to guench the burning arrows of the Evil One. Artd then you must take salvation as your helmet and the sword of the Spirit, that is, the Word of God.” (Eph 6:14-18).
These are terms that seem very bellicose to us. A messenger’s life is not necessarily easy, and Saint Paul tries to say this in his own way. On the other hand, even if he is well prepared, the messenger does not have the pretence of being self-sufficient. He needs to know how to listen to those he meets, how to go into a dialogue in order to be understood. Today, we are often facing the challenge of finding the “margins” of faith, to which Saint Dominique sent his brethren, very close to us, and that our way of approaching the questions is of the greatest importance for the credibility of our message.
Finding the support we need Christ himself told us: “I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.” (Mt 28:20). The confidence in the faithfulness of Christ is sometimes the only thing we can be certain of when events jostle us and when it is difficult to be certain about what should be done. For us, as well as for the members of our fraternities, it is important to know that a messenger is never alone; however this should not only be an intellectual conviction but a concrete experience of closeness to Christ that is truly a support. This supposes that our life is indeed nourished by prayer and the frequent reception of the sacraments.
In the Order, we are very attached to emphasizing the mercy of God. But in order to be able to speak about it, one needs to have experienced this mercy. All of us ask for the mercy of God when we enter the Order. And even if this word sounds a bit outdated in our language, we know the inexpressible greatness of the experience this word connotes: the love, the forgiveness and the gentleness of God. We can witness to this very simply.
However let us not be misled by this simplicity. The quest for the truth is not possible without active research, which may sometimes be laborious. Study and formation have always occupied an important place in Dominican life. We have the responsibility of developing them for us personally and for the members of our fraternities, so that we may also evolve in accordance with the necessities.
The Gospel can be proclaimed in many ways, and we sometimes regret our lack of visibility in the fields of art and culture, in the business world. And while we have timidly begun to appear on the Web, we are conscious that we cannot face the task alone. We need very much to work together in order to make our diverse experiences bear their fruit. We affirm that we desire a kind of fraternal life. It is important for us to truly live this fraternity together so that we may count one another in prayer and in action. An encounter like this one gives us the chance to meet and share experiences. May we truly know how to benefit from it by listening to each other!
An experience to be shared
What I have just said is, in a certain way, the basis of the messenger’s action. I believe that the time of this encounter should go beyond the meeting itself. We need to try to share something of the “way” of being messengers, and this seems to me to be a major concern for us. If we do not talk about our experiences “in the field”, under the pretext that our contexts and situations are different, we risk losing interest in the points we have in common and that could help us. This is why I will allow myself to share some reflections with you.
We are, in the Church, a place of peace and listening
I belong to the organizational team of the center we call “La Maison d’Église Notre Dame de Pentecóte” at La Défense, close to Paris. “La Défense” is a very important business quarter, where a minister of the government has his office and a certain number of large public and private businesses their national headquarters. It is also a very large financial center.
We say: “Maison d’Église” (House of the Church) and not just “Église” (Church) because this place was, from the very beginning, intended to be polyvalent. It’s a meeting place for exchanges, formation, expositions, lectures, fellowship, prayer and sacramental life. We celebrate the Eucharist there six days a week.
Our church was consecrated on January 7. This means that we have five months of experience in this center, but this experience was pr~ceded by 20 years of presence in smaller premises not far away from there.
Malevolent gossipers had predicted that the place would be deserted, that no one from the business quarter would come pray here. For the inaugural celebrations the House was packed … Before Easter, we were 300 at the Wednesday Masses and on Ash Wednesday we were over 450.
What strikes us, on a day-to-day basis, is peoples’ insistence on telling us: “ah … there’s a bit of peace here, a bit of serenity …” The Church is seen as an oasis in the middle a violent atmosphere. This violence is not necessarily physical, with aggressions, but it is the violence of a world where too many things are controlled by money and the need for power. This violence is also generated by the uncertainty about what tomorrow will bring and the related fear of losing one’s job.
Going into the church implies the sentiment of entering into an oasis in the midst of all of this. It is not so complicated to offer a place of peace, where one can freely go in and out, to present something beautiful for the eyes, to organize the space with soft light and the Word of God. When this is accompanied by the presence of someone prepared to listen if need be, that is already a lot.
Some people come to pray for a while and then leaving again, without saying a word but smiling, while other sometimes just say: “Thank you”. Thank you for what? Simply for being there… because the mere fact of being there allows them to come spend a quite moment praying, without being desperately lonely. The “messenger” who is there remains very discrete. This also requires working on one’s self because it is not always easy to set up the organization necessary for the House to function and for the reception service; this organizational work his may in itself be a source of conflict. Creating a brotherly climate often requires one to go just a little further.
The Church is a place of listening
The request to be listened to varies greatly according to the individuals, but it is addressed to laypeople as much as to priests. What seems to strike the people who come, and come back or send us their friends, the most is the readiness to listen. Many people today do not have places to go where they can and someone who will simply listen to them. The Church has the chance of being one of these places. Listening implies sometimes listening to the silence … and respecting it. There was, for instance, the man who arrived quite depressed; he did not answer when we talked to him, but he stayed for a meal with us and was visibly relieved to be able to be there without saying anything and being accepted as he was. It took months before he began expressing himself in very elementary sentences. Today he still does not talk much, but he has regained his balance, and we have had the surprise and the delight of seeing him make his first in steps in a Gospel singing group whose members sing at the top of their voices in the entrance hall of the church … The joy of being there was largely shared. This is a small example. But of what is one then a “messenger”? Perhaps of the capacity of regaining one’s dignity in the Church, of the possibility of living an experience that is not tied to money, to calculating. “Look, I am making the whole of creation new” (Rev. 21:6). In any case, we try to witness that we can always rely on the Spirit of God, who lives in each man, in order to progress. Accepting people as they are helps them to accept themselves. It seems to me that this attitude corresponds to what the Order means when it asks us to be a sign of the mercy of God.
The Church is a place of reflection, of study, of formation
In general, for a Dominican, this idea is natural. This is one more reason to create places for discussion. In our “House”, there is a great variety of reflection groups. Some of them are related to the movements of executives, of employees and of workers, while others bring together people of the same profession: financial administrators, human resource directors, and still others meet to treat particular subjects: for example, they work on the consequences of rapid changes in companies; other groups study the Gospel according to Saint Mark together, reflect on the bond between the Gospel and solidarity, pray and sing together … etc. Nothing that interests man is indifferent to God, and the simple fact of offering a place and times for reflection is, in itself, a message of solidarity. Other proposals are made, with outside contributors. One undertaking is the project we call “The Thursday Café”. Those who come bring a subject of their choice – concerning the business world – for discussion over a sandwich and a cup of coffee. During the first quarter of an hour, the participants decide amongst themselves on their topic of the day. This procedure allows people who do not know each other to speak freely about the problems they encounter at work, without hierarchical relations coming into play and disrupting the exchanges. Where is the Gospel in this? It is already in the service offered: a possibility for exchanges and deepening able to help people to construct themselves and to face the problems they come up against. The Gospel also inspires the way in which the participants respect one another in the midst of the exchanges, and this is sometimes quite different from the attitudes they find at work. The Gospel is often present when the question is explicitly raised: “But, as Christians, can we allow what is being said and done to continue without reacting?”
Opening the “Upper chamber”
You have undoubtedly noticed that, in contrast to the usual order, I did not begin by talking about the “Church” section of the “House of the Church”. In our place, the church is on the upper floor, just like the “upper chamber” where the disciples and Mary were praying on Pentecost. It is there, but one does not enter directly into a place of worship; one has to be led there. This is at once an invitation to lift oneself up, in all the senses of the expression, and a way of respecting those who do not share our faith but to whom we wish to offer a place for reception and brotherhood. The “House” is open to all, and not just to Catholics.
What often surprises visitors is the fact that we leave the Word of God open on the reading of the day. This is very rare in the churches in France, simply because of the fear of theft. Each day we notice that people, often very timidly, come and read in silence… By having an open church, where one can read the Word of God, it is possible to transmit God’s invitation to come meet with Him; certain people take this to be a real gift.
What does being Dominican add to this context?
The “House of the Church” is a creation of the diocese of Nanterre, of which “La Défense” is a sector; this was not a Dominican initiative. However, our concern for fraternal life and harmony in prayer, study and the apostolate is very much in keeping with the project. It would be extremely difficult to share such an adventure without the support of prayer; it would be impossible to take interest in the subjects developed without the desire to study; and we woutd not be there, if we were not open to the apostolate… I am not trying to say that all who participate in this project are Dominicans who ignore themselves but I am saying that it is possible to feel totally engaged in the mission of the Order in such a context even if the work is not directly connected with the Dominican Family.
Of course, I sometimes ask myself if these kinds of undertakings would possible in collaboration with the brothers and sisters.
The messenger directs the other’s attention
To conclude, I would like to mention the example of a messenger who greatly helped us to understand the importance of the consideration we have for people and things.
We were looking for a subject to present on Christmas having to do with Incarnation and in connection with the arts. Since esthetics is also a way to turn to God, we wanted this dimension to be among our proposals. We asked an artist and author, Claude Henri Roquet, to come present some commentaries on paintings of Bruegel. He taught us how to observe. The first painting represented a village scene in winter, like many one may imagine at that period. But only by being attentive and by searching a bit is it possible to discover a scene of the Nativity, there in a barn, identical to the others, but dominated by activity and by a special kind of atmosphere. Our presence at La Défense is finally not very different. Our “House of the Church” is fully integrated in the environment of this very urban and modern site, but it is a sign of God’s presence in the everyday life of people.
When we invite those who work at La Défense to take part in our activities, we are indeed messengers of something that is bigger than us. You know the Chinese proverb that says: “When the finger points to the moon, the fool looks at the finger, while the wise man looks at the moon…” Being a messenger often means accepting to simply point with one’s finger.
ECLDF member 1998-2001