It is the task of every preacher, indeed of every believer, to instruct people in order to bring them to the faith. (Summa Theologica, 72, 4 ad 3)
It is also a part of the [lay]Dominican vocation to promote the unity of Christians and dialogue with non-Christians and unbelievers. (Rule of the Lay Dominican Fraternities, n°12b)
ANNOUNCING CHRIST TO THOSE FAR OFF IN ORDER TO CONFIRM THE CHARISM OF THE ORDER
At the general audience on Wednesday 21 September 1994, Pope John Paul said – and he was addressing the faithful all over the world – : ‘The promotion of lay life in the Church authorizes a burst of new hope. Christian laity are taking an ever more active part in the Church’s missionary work. The future of the announcement of the Gospel in today’s world depends to a marked degree on their generous contribution.’
At about the same time, in February 1998, the third European Assembly of Lay Dominicans was held in Warsaw. There, the participants declared: ‘In order to fulfil its apostolic mission today the Order needs lively lay members, ready to undergo formation and to work to give meaning and hope to the contemporary world.’
Both the Pope and the Order are expressing all the hope that the Church and the Dominican Family place in us lay people for evangelisation.
Things are no different today: there is still a need of lively lay members and if we think of our Dominican identity we certainly can’t disappoint the expectations and the trust placed in those activities that are proper to lay Christians.
The words I have quoted express recognition of the increasingly vivid awareness that lay people have of their mission on the Church. And this is important: it’s a positive fact of the century that ended just four years ago and it’s significant that this livelier awareness of their mission has been linked to, and is the fruit of, the development of Ecclesiology. Since Vatican II there has been a huge increase in the number of Lay Institutes, and this is seen as ‘a gift of the Spirit to the Church and to the world’.
What this means is that we are aware that the identity of the whole Church, which was the central theme of Vatican II, is reflected in the baptised lay person. And this in its turn shows the close union between the Church and the lay man or woman.
For instance, it has been said that ‘lay people’ are Church and so have various tasks for the life and development of the Church. Lumen Gentium says we are ‘like leaven… engaged in the business of the world’, and our work touches many fields: the social, the financial, the political, the cultural, the family, but it is necessary too in the various structures of the Church that are designed for evangelisation: we have been told that ‘the announcement of the Gospel depends to a considerable degree on the generous contribution of the laity’.
So, God willing, lay people’s co-operation can truly bring ‘a surge of new hope’.
At the General Chapter at Madonna dell’Arco in Naples (n.224), the Order drew attention to the identity of Lay Dominicans who, ‘live in communion with the spirit and intentions of Saint Dominic’ and affirmed that they ‘are an integral part of the Order, sharing its spirituality, its way of life and its mission in a fundamental sense’. So we are bound to feel that we are reflected even more than addressed in this role, in this image that the Church offers of its laity.
We can say, in a sense, starting from Vatican II, in Lumen Gentium and other documents such as Christifideles laici, what the Church has been saying about lay people has always been in line with the identity that our Order assigns to its Laity and the activity which we’re invited to take part in or which the Order has prompted us to undertake. I’d even go so far as to say that the Church today is more and more clearly suggesting for the ordinary lay man or woman the spirituality that is typical of the Lay Dominican.
We know that we are one with the other branches of the Order and indeed that the Order can’t entirely fulfil its charism, its mission, without the apostolic activity of the Laity.(Cf.Cap.Gen., quezon City of 1077 n. 65 and Walberberg of 1980, n. 92,4).
And the Order has shown that it wants to give concrete expression to the consideration and esteem for us, its Lay members, for example by organising the periodic national and international meetings like the one at Lenn in Spain in August 1998; or the International Assemblies of the Dominican Family – the most recent was Manila, in the Philippines, in October 2000. It was there that the mission of the Dominican Family was emphasised when the then Master of the Order, Timothy Radcliffe, presented his letter ‘To praise, to bless, to preach: the mission of the Dominican Family’, published in IDI in December 2000.
But above all, I’m thinking of the ‘Istambul Dominican Conversations’, which were the best expression of ‘one of the main challenges for Dominican life’ – if we interpret ‘challenge’ as the main task facing the Dominican Family – the Ordo universus – in recent years, including, obviously, the laity. These ‘conversations’ make particularly clear to us lay people what our Rule asks us to do together with the Brethren: not just to ‘make ourselves capable of preaching the Word of God’ but also to announce the Word ‘especially to those far off’ (Rule n.12).
The Istambul Conversations were the fruit of the Dominican ‘Roman Days’ and were held during the same period that I mentioned at the beginning: in August 1995. Seven years later, from 23 to 27 September 2003, there was a second Conference in Istambul, and this makes it clear that the Conversations marked the direction the Order is taking, especially in Europe, to fulfil its charism of ‘preaching to those far off’. Our Laity must follow this path and make its own special contribution.
We should notice that the “Conversations” were designed for a practical outcome. They were not formative or academic, but operative, making decisions in order to better organise our presence in neighbouring countries where there is a majority or a substantial minority of Muslims.
The idea was, especially in the Mediterranean Basin, to involve the Provincials, the Superiors General, those responsible for the Fraternities in Study Centres, with a view to advancing the dialogue between Islam and Christianity and relaunching our apostolate.
All this is in line with the special interest our Order has always had in our relationship with Islam. Think of St Thomas’ Contra Gentiles, or today of our various missions in Muslim countries such as Turkey and Pakistan, or the Centres for study of relations with Islam: IDEO in Cairo, the Catedra tres Religiones in Valencia, the Centre for Documentation in Istanbul, CESDI (the Centre for the Study of Islamic-Christian Dialogue) in Palermo, which was mentioned at the most recent General Chapter, in Bologna in 1998 (Acts n.52) and in Providence in 2001 (nn.196, 199 and p. 204).
The challenge facing the faith community, and especially us Dominicans, today is religious pluralism and the various non-religious contexts where we are called with new energy to renewed evangelisation. And at the Providence Chapter (n. 65) the brethren invited us, ‘through dialogue, to deepen our own faith and express it by means that can be understood by others’.
Again, the Brethren at the Chapter were confident that new brethren will enthusiastically undertake this demanding form of apostolate (Acts n.199). And Lay Dominicans must be willing to join in this work, whatever our age, because our presence is indispensable in the charism of preaching that we share with the brethren, the enclosed nuns and the sisters in active life.
I was amazed by something I read about the Catholic Action meeting at the ‘Domus Pacis’ from 25 to 28 April 2002: only 130 years after they were founded, they told their 400,000 members that they were ‘the oldest lay Catholic organisation’. And the title of the meeting was ‘Making our members not just apostles, but contempl-actives’.
Well, we can hardly help reacting! Are these words that we need to learn, to beg for, or can we teach them ourselves, because this has always been our identity? We certainly aren’t ‘just apostles’; there’s nothing provisional about our task, we have made our profession in an Order that is specifically contempl-active, maintaining our lay identity – and we’ve been around for a lot more than 130 years!
Catholic Action was addressed by Paul VI on 14 November 1968, and this is what he said: ‘Those who receive their status and mandate from the Bishop for the exercise of their apostolate are not just hangers-on, but participate, through their collaboration and dependence, to a higher degree and in the best of forms, in the Church’s mission of salvation.’
And John Paul II had this to say to Catholic Action: ‘The Church needs Catholic Action, because she needs lay people who are ready to devote their lives to the apostolate and to establish a link, especially with the diocesan community, which will mark their lives and their spiritual progress…, lay people who do not reduce faith to a private affair and do not hesitate to bring the leaven of the Gospel into the fabric of human relationships and institutions, in the new Areopaghi, to build a civilisation of love’.
This is all even more true of us with our Dominican vocation and membership of the Order of Preachers!
Our mandate comes not from a particular Bishop, but from the Church itself, which has approved the Order; and it’s not a provisional task, but we are called to exercise our charism and to make manifest our identity.
The European Council has to aim at creating the conditions for every Fraternity to grow in maturity until we really fulfil our charism ‘like a light set on a hilltop’. Many modern lay associations are tending in this direction, thinking that they are doing something new; but this has always been our programme and our concern, for the good of souls.
‘There is great need of the Catholic laity, but the world does not know us’: this was the conclusion, at one of the big meetings of the Italian Lay Catholic Associations, of the Tuscan Regional Commission on the laity and their involvelment in building the Church. And they made the usual sad observation that perhaps we too should make for many of our own lay members: ‘Unfortunately they are not aware of the need for study and formation’. This need derives, as they noted, from the fact that ‘Doctrinal awareness goes hand in hand with effectiveness and involvement. We’ll be known to the degree that we really are what we ought to be.
I’m talking here in terms and images that we Dominicans know well; and I believe that we must insist on the specific nature of a role which is ours to perform in the Church by virtue of our profession in the Order of Preachers and as expressed in our Rule: ‘It is part of the vocation of the Lay Dominican to promote the unity of Christians and the dialogue with non-Christians and non-believers.’
This is in number 12 of our Rule, and perhaps the first part of that number can be shared with other lay associations or with lay members of other religious Orders, but the part of what I have just read is specific to us Dominicans.
In the edification of the Church, in evangelisation, we are sent above all to those far off, the non-believers, as it says at number 98 of the Constitutions of the Order.
Our Fraternities, strong in the awareness of their special charism, have an extraordinary potential for good in the Church and in society.
Today, it is inter-religious dialogue that has priority in the Church. This is our specific role, and we need to work at it NOW! Missionary activity has always been the measure of the Order’s vitality, and the Order grows and spreads to the extent that it fulfils its task of preaching.
So announcing the Word to those far-off is the way to give our individual Fraternities vigour and make them expand. We should be working, not in general, common terms but in what is specific to us. We can be defined only by offering to others what is most truly our own.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the first National Italian Conference of Lay Dominican Fratrenities was held in Florence in 1913, and created a great impression, not least because it was widely reported in the press. The Master of the Order at the time was Blessed Giacinto Cormier – he was beatified on 24 November 1994 – and he encouraged the Fraternities to ‘work for the expansion of the Order! Study how to expand its spirit, because what counts most for our Family is quality.’ Notice that he was already talking about the Dominican Family! (“I figli di San Domenico, pages 101-102)
E. Zabatta (his book: “Per Una Via Migliore”- traces for a spiritual itinerary for Dominican Laity as suggested by their Rule – Ed.FLD, Arezzo 2002) has witten: ‘Community life, even in the least degree, lived within one’s own Fraternity (and this is one of the reasons for our meetings), a certain penitential spirit, an intense prayer life and assiduous love of study of the things of God – these are the sources and the means which Saint Dominic left us and which our Rule presents to us.’
These ‘things’ must be our strength and our success. If we make full use of them we will be as we should be; they will make it easier for us to concentrate on the specific and we will be assured of our role in the shared task of the Dominican Family: the task set before us by our marvellous charism.
Giovanna Gava Cella