Just a few days ago, a temporarily professed American lay Dominican, Adam Cook, responded at some length to an article I published here last October. Many of the points he made will resonate with some of you; and his comments deserve attention, whether we agree or not. Here are five quotations from Adam’s text, with my own reaction.
- “My fraternity barely speaks to each other, we never meet on big feast days, we have no apostolate together and when we get together they can barely keep up on the liturgy of the hours.”
This is a familiar problem: fraternities that are anything but fraternal. The problem with praying the Liturgy of the Hours is one I had raised in the original article, and comes up periodically at Provincial, national and international gatherings. Why are so many lay Dominicans unfamiliar with this form of prayer? In our Rule we are solicited to pray Lauds and Vespers daily, yet many are at a total loss when a breviary is put in their hands. What are we doing wrong?
Well, to some degree, at least in North Italy where I live, it’s simply a matter of the history of so many groups affiliated to the Dominicans. Often these groups met (and still meet) to say the Rosary, and perhaps went on modest pilgrimages to Rosary shrines; then, when the groups were modified and given the name of “fraternities”, all too often the members maintained their devotion to the Rosary without becoming, in the full sense, lay Dominicans – except in name. With newer members, formation should insist on liturgical prayer (among much else) and encourage the whole fraternity to observe the Rule.
As to the very first observation, that “my fraternity barely speaks to each other”: I know of a fraternity that went some way to solving this problem simply by deciding to meet all day, one Sunday per month, and bring something to eat at lunchtime – a packed lunch, picnic style. Just sitting together informally (without the presence of the religious assistant) led to conversation between members who had barely known one another, and the atmosphere was transformed. I’m told that one 90-year-old member was thrilled – she had never had a picnic before!
- “I joined the Dominican Laity because I expected it to be my opportunity to preach the Gospel, yet basically we’re told to be contemplatives, cloistered, with no means of actually witnessing to the consecrated life that we took vows to live.”
Here I find myself in profound disagreement with our brother. Let’s start with his wish for an opportunity to preach the Gospel: what exactly does that mean? I have the impression – perhaps mistaken – that he is thinking of preaching as what the priest does in church, commenting on the readings of the day. And we certainly can’t do that – which may be frustrating, especially when the celebrant is not particularly inspiring: I suppose many of us have found ourselves thinking: “Good grief, I could do better than that”. I would love to be allowed to deliver a homily one Sunday, but it’s not going to happen. You have to be ordained. The contemplative nuns, the apostolic sisters, the co-operator brothers and the laity are not ordained, which means that they have not had the theological, scriptural training expected of a priest (and especially a Dominican priest). This seems reasonable to me, much as I don’t expect to be asked to treat patients with neurological disorders because I am not qualified in that field, although I have read a great deal about neurology and find it fascinating. And by the same token, I wouldn’t let anyone teach my university classes without my own specific training as a philologist; and I wouldn’t let anyone but a qualified, experienced plumber mess about with my pipes.
So we can’t preach in the common sense of the word: giving the sermon in church.
But that’s not the only way of preaching. What was Dominic doing when he stayed up all night with the innkeeper in Toulouse, talking and listening to him? Isn’t that preaching? And there’s more. Whenever we talk to our families or friends or acquaintances about our faith, we’re preaching. When you say that you won’t be going to this or that social occasion because you have a commitment in the parish or the Order, you’re preaching. When you choose not to follow certain political figures, you’re preaching. Moreover, precisely because we are lay, we can be inventive about preaching. Some preach by painting or sculpting; some by singing or playing a musical instrument; some by acting; some by writing. Or perhaps by arranging the flowers in church, or offering to drop in on someone who can’t come to church because of age or disability, or… go on, make your own list.
- “Yet we’re supposed to be of equal rank with the Brothers, nuns, and sisters??? Uh… clearly not. I joined the Dominican Laity because I expected it to be my opportunity to preach the Gospel, yet basically we’re told to be contemplatives, cloistered, with no means of actually witnessing to the consecrated life that we took vows to live.”
It’s not really a question of rank, is it? However, there are other points raised here which demand clarification. When did anyone ever tell Lay Dominicans that they were to be “contemplatives, cloistered”? Yes, we are invited to be contemplatives insofar as one of the basic principles of the Order is that wonderful line from Thomas Aquinas: contemplari et contemplata aliis tradere. The second part, contemplata aliis tradere, is crucial: we are asked to pass on to others the fruits of our contemplation. “Cloistered”? I have never met a cloistered lay Dominican. We go to visit friends and family; we have a meal in a restaurant; we go to the theatre, the cinema, a concert, a sports event; we work out in the gym; we volunteer in various organisations, secular or Christian, at local, national or international level. We are not and never have been enclosed. We witness to our faith. We have not taken vows – only professed religious take vows; we make promises. This is the crucial phrase from the text (which may have minor variations from one country to another – even between countries that have the same native language):
“I, (name), before you (name), the President of this Fraternity, and you (name), the religious assistant, representing the Master of the Order of Preachers, promise to live according to the Rule of the Dominican Laity for three years/my whole life”. This is not religious profession; and we are not consecrated. Although there is one small group in the Province where I live of “consecrated lay Dominicans”, who make the classic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and there may be other such groups elsewhere, they are the exception.
- “We aren’t allowed to take the habit until we die …You need something visible and out there to show people that you are not of this world. When my priest walks out people know what he’s a part of, when the brothers and sisters are around, people know they are Dominicans and they are religious.”
The question of the habit is raised periodically at international meetings – most recently at the International Assembly in October 2018, where the participants overwhelmingly voted against the habit for lay Dominicans. For a start, it would give a mistaken impression: people would call us Father or Sister, and would be misled into thinking that we have a role which is not ours. It’s rather like wedding rings: I don’t wear one because I am unmarried, and in much the same way I don’t wear a habit because I am not a religious. God didn’t give me a vocation to the religious life; he gave me a vocation to the Dominican laity, and that’s fine with me.
Certainly it would be good to have a universally adopted sign of our being Dominican, something we could wear all the time or alternatively at religious ceremonies of all kinds. The Dutch laity, when they go to Mass, wear a scarf with the Dominican shield on it (when I asked if it could be worn by other nationalities they said “no”). The Vietnamese wear a white tunic at Mass and at their meetings. Perhaps we could launch an appeal for proposed “signs” of this sort, and adopt one in all Provinces and Vicariates throughout the world, so that we recognise each other immediately wherever we go. But not the full habit, which would give entirely the wrong impression.
Ironically, many Sisters (especially, I think, in the USA) have abandoned the habit and most friars wear it only in church. And furthermore, members of other lay branches of religious orders – Franciscan tertiaries, Benedictine oblates – wear secular clothes. The reasoning is clear: all of us are lay, and we don’t pretend to be anything else.
- “Maybe the problem is with the Master and Curia, they just don’t know what to do with us.”
I know that our brother Adam is not alone in feeling that the top ranks, so to speak, are completely out of touch with the laity. As I wrote in the original essay, we have all met friars – not necessarily in the Curia – who regard us as inferior, and this is sad. On the other hand, it was a Master of the Order, Timothy Radcliffe, who decided that the laity should have their own Promoter General, and subsequent Masters have confirmed this; the present incumbent is the fourth Promoter General. They have differing styles and approaches; inevitably, some of us will prefer one and some another; we are human, and so are they. In addition, since the Curia is based in Rome, it is much easier for those of us who live, if not in the Eternal City itself, at least in Italy, to meet the members of the Curia and talk to them. But we can always try writing a letter or an email. Anyway, they are there and they do care about us (some more than others) – ten of them were present and participated actively at the 2018 International Assembly.
Adam Cook’s response to the original essay has opened up the debate, and we have already had some reactions. I warmly recommend Br Bob Eccles’s comment on our Facebook page, which I copy here:
“I’m familiar with lay Dominicans from all over the world and have been a religious assistant and a provincial promoter through a period of renewal. I’ve lived and worked in three countries and belonged to 8 Dominican houses. The first thing I would say is that each Priory has its own tradition and history and special mission, and the Fraternities/Chapters are very different too. They are to govern themselves in our typical democratic way, think, discuss, vote! Their foundation documents give them all this independence and autonomy. The elements of the life – prayer, study, apostolate and community – are in a different balance every time. I have seen some very good courses of formation prepared for our Fraternities by gifted people for the Province, but they did not have the same success everywhere. Nobody’s fault! In another way the Lays are not like the Friars. The first responsibility of the Lays is to their couple, their family, and their work rather than to the Fraternity and that’s right. For the friars, our Constitutions say that each brother is responsible for his own formation (with the support of his teachers) and that’s even more true of Lay Dominicans. Just as each Priory has to work on its role in the locality so must the Fraternity. By the way, the friar who accompanies a Fraternity has NO VOTE in its decisions!!”
We will look forward eagerly to further comments from you all.