What kind of formation is offered to lay Dominicans throughout the world? Why is there no overall programme that can be shared, despite language differences and cultural varieties, by all those men and women who have a vocation to follow St Dominic in secular life? Are there identifiable problems shared by us all, organisational problems, or problems that cause suffering and create tension among us?
In order to arrive at a satisfactory answer to these questions, it would be necessary to conduct a review of all fraternities throughout the world, and the logistics of this make it a slow, though by no means impossible, task: we have a lay Dominican website, fraternitiesop.com, which publishes articles of special interest in the languages of the Order and which could perhaps launch a questionnaire and collate responses. This is not necessarily a way to sound the reactions of all lay Dominicans worldwide – some groups would be slow to respond, some would not respond at all; some would appear to have misunderstood the purpose of the questionnaire and would offer evasive or irrelevant reactions. However, some problems are sufficiently prominent to permit an answer, admittedly guarded, to the query.
First, there is the question of relationships within the fraternity and the Province: with the religious assistant, with the members of the Council, with the Provincial Promoter, with sisters and brothers in Dominic. There may be clashes of personality, differing attitudes to formation, doubts and perplexities that remain unresolved, perhaps because they are not expressed. Some Provinces may resist the broader view and cling to a kind of autonomy that runs counter to the spirit of the Order. It must be recognised, too, that many lay Dominicans are slow to express an opinion, and even slower to contest anything that is said by a friar (especially) or by another member of the fraternity. This may have a negative effect on the growth of the individual and of the group.
Secondly, formation has never been sufficiently regularised, even on a provincial basis. There are fraternities which are almost entirely devoted to the recitation of the rosary, a highly commendable activity but not the be-all and end-all of lay Dominican commitment. In other cases, a strong personality may impose discussion of concepts of personal interest but which do not form part of the fundamental concerns of the Order as expressed by the four “pillars”: prayer, study, preaching and community. Of course almost any topic can be justified under the heading of “study”! Still, we need to be careful to enrich our understanding of what it means to be a Dominican, with an eye always to the keywords of the Order as a whole (Veritas, Contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere, Laudare, benedicere, praedicare), and of the Church: above all, the signs of the times.
The use of the Internet has its dangers, but especially with younger members of the laity it is the supreme channel of communication. It would be unrealistic to ask our elderly members (with rare exceptions) to follow the Facebook page of Fraternities OP or to sign up to a WhatsApp group; but as increasing numbers of under-50s join our fraternities, they will certainly respond to communication of this kind. A proposal for an international formation programme is available online: how many of us have read it? It is the fruit of a European initiative of some five years ago.
In the period 2011-2014 the European Council of Lay Dominican Fraternities (ECLDF), of which I was then President, set up a working group to tackle the question of formation, which seemed to the Council to be a matter of some urgency. This multinational group produced a working document with suggestions that the European Assembly of 2014 considered valuable, but that appear not to have led to any significant changes in the way lay Dominicans approach formation. For example, it was suggested that there be at least two “formation weekends” per year for the formation officers of each Province or Vicariate: to the best of my belief these weekends have never materialised. The group also proposed that a European team of formation officers be created, with the intention of producing guidelines for formation beyond the recognised linguistic and cultural barriers: this too has remained a dream. Yet these are ideas that would not be prohibitively difficult to put into action. On the other hand, no one can deny the difficulties of conceiving a reading list usable by all nationalities – how many valuable texts are available in the three languages of the Order, English, French and Spanish? And more to the point, how many lay Dominicans in, say, Vietnam or Lithuania find even one of these languages easy to read and understand? At most we might suggest three or four demonstrably popular books that have been translated into many languages, and then propose that each Province or Vicariate draw up its own bibliography. This is surely worth considering.
But there are problems of other kinds to which no working group can readily find a solution. For example, with certain honourable exceptions, those friars who are not directly involved with the laity tend to regard us as a lower form of life. These are harsh words, but many lay Dominicans have heard the note of condescension in the voices of friars whom they meet within or outside the context of the Order. Of course to some degree we are ourselves responsible if the brethren tend to look down on us. Because most fraternities (like most Sunday congregations) have a disproportionately large number of female members, and because the age of these women tends to be relatively advanced (say, 65+), there is little sense of equality of the sexes, and these women often have an exaggerated respect, even reverence, for any priest. The result is that the religious assistant, who is almost invariably a Dominican friar, is treated not so much as a fellow-seeker of the Truth but as an oracle. This is not healthy, for the laity or for the assistant.
We are all aware that our formation is bound to be less taxing than the friars’; we are not expected to study theology and philosophy, certainly at an advanced level, and many of us would find these subjects beyond their capabilities. But this does not mean that we have nothing to teach our brothers in St Dominic – about family life, or solitary life; about weekly shopping; about paying the bills; about doing the laundry; about relations with neighbours, and so on. A man who has lived in one or more religious communities for most of his adult life has dealt with problems about which we, as laypersons, know little or nothing; but he has not much idea of what life is really like for those of us who have not entered a religious community of friars, nuns or apostolic sisters.
A further element that has a direct bearing on formation is the age problem. Many elderly lay Dominicans, faithful members of their fraternities and persons of undoubted holiness, entered the Order long before the question of lay formation was taken seriously; they had little or no formation themselves, so they are not able to undertake the formation of new members. Too many formation officers struggle to offer a stimulating course on prayer or study or preaching; and even those who would be perfectly capable of doing so may fail for other reasons. I am thinking, for instance, of the case of a candidate for the Dominican laity whose formation officer, discovering that she already went to daily Mass and prayed Lauds and Vespers, and that she was able to understand certain mediaeval languages, jumped at the chance to improve his own knowledge of the writings of some early Dominicans by assigning the study of these texts by way of “formation”, rather than engaging her in fruitful conversation on the Dominican laity in the 20th century. It must be stressed that the formation officer in question was a highly intelligent, cultivated individual who was perfectly capable of offering a stimulating course of study in line with the Montreal Rule:
“The purpose of Dominican formation is to produce people truly adult in faith and so able to hear, celebrate and proclaim the Word of God. It belongs to each Province to draw up a programme:
a) for the gradual formation of beginners;
b) for the ongoing formation of everyone, including those who are isolated.” …
“The principle sources for a complete Dominican formation are these:
a) the Word of God and theological reflection;
b) liturgical prayer;
c) history and tradition of the Order;
d) contemporary documents of the Church and of the Order;
e) understanding the signs of the times.”
How many of us have had serious formation along these lines, as advocated by the 2nd International Assembly of Lay Dominican Fraternities (Buenos Aires, 2007)?
It may be argued that one of the problems is implicit in these very words: international assemblies take place – inevitably, given the costs of travel, accommodation and organisation – only occasionally, anything from four to ten years apart; and they are attended – again inevitably – only by those whose health, language abilities and relatively high profile in the lay Dominican world make them viable candidates; and these are the very people who are less likely to be in urgent need of good formation material. On the other hand, they are also those who have the capability to produce this material, at least for their own culture and language. Why not share ideas that you have found fruitful, articles you have read (perhaps written) in your Province’s periodical publication, topics that have arisen during formation sessions – initial or ongoing – that proved particularly stimulating?
We need to be sensitive, too, to the burning questions of our own time. Our young people are raising their voices in defence of the environment and of the survival of the planet: this was one of the main subjects of the 2018 International Assembly of Lay Dominicans in Fatima, entitled “Justice, Peace and Care of Creation”. There are Dominican friars and sisters working in these contexts, and they can help us all to arrive at a proper understanding of the issues and to formulate plans of action – not just essays or marches, though these often raise awareness, but activities, from voluntary collection of waste materials of various kinds to the drawing up of lists of sustainable goods (food and drink, detergents, fuels and so on) for circulation among ourselves but also among a wider public. The recent explosion of the student movement “Fridays for Future” has provoked contrasting reactions: some have raised Greta Thumberg to the position of an international hero; some say that the young people marching with their placards are just happy to have a day off school (and no doubt that’s the whole story for some of them); some have hastened to point out that the young generations are happy to eat convenience foods (generally wrapped in plastic), spend hours on their mobile phones instead of engaging others in live, face-to-face conversation, drop litter in the streets and on the beaches – but unless we are completely innocent of such abuses ourselves, we can hardly take refuge behind a position of self-righteousness.
I would add, though aware that for some this may be troublesome, that our ongoing formation should include the readiness to tackle delicate, controversial questions. We should have the courage to face the uncomfortable fact that science has in some cases brought problems not contemplated previously, and to think about them together. Is our condemnation of abortion, for example, absolute or do we recognise the possibility of extreme cases that perhaps deserve special treatment? Is the survival of the foetus always, by definition, more important than that of the pregnant woman? A barely pubertal girl, victim of an act of sexual violence, may conceive a child in a body too immature to allow her to carry the pregnancy to term without the risk of her own death or of severe physical damage; and at so tender an age, she is likely to be in danger of suffering irreparable psychological damage too. Medical science has developed in ways unimaginable a generation ago, and doctors today are faced with unforeseen dilemmas. For example, a terminally ill patient may be preserved from atrocious pain by a massive dose of morphine – which will shorten the patient’s life (perhaps only by a matter of hours, but it may be by days or weeks). Is this to be condemned as a form of euthanasia? And what of the patient who is kept on life support machines for months or years without even the remotest hope of recovery?
There are no easy answers in such cases, but we must have the courage to examine the implications and not jump to conclusions. This too is, or should be, a part of study in the context of lay Dominican formation. Indeed, precisely this was envisaged in the ECLDF formation programme, under the heading “Signs of the times” – the future of mankind, including ethical and social questions, biotechnology, etc. The group responsible for the document also recommended that we understand certain keywords of Christianity including mercy and forgiveness; I need hardly add that the medical quandaries just outlined appeal precisely to our sense of mercy – though a consensus as to what is merciful will not necessarily be easily reached. The working group further proposed that we read Scripture together; that we study documents of the Order (letters of the Master, articles published on the Order’s own website www.op.org); and that we reflect about our preaching mission.
There is also clearly a significant difference between the situation in a country like Italy, where – despite the closing of many convents – most lay Dominicans have a community of friars within relatively easy reach, and one like Great Britain, where Dominican communities are few and far between, especially in the north of England and in Scotland. Lay Dominican life is much easier in, say, Rome or Florence or Milan, where formation means that a group of interested individuals meet in their nearest Dominican house with their formation officer and, often, the fraternity’s religious assistant. But when lay Dominicans are scattered over a wide area and rarely have the opportunity to meet personally, how is formation to be organised? A nationally or, preferably, internationally approved programme, with clear indications for formation officers and for those in formation, would be immensely helpful in such situations. IDYM (the International Dominican Youth Movement) is preparing just such a programme for its members, in the form of six booklets amounting to approximately 120 pages in all, which are being translated from the original Spanish into English and French, and will subsequently, it is hoped, be made available in all relevant languages. It is surely time for lay Dominicans to undertake a similar project.
A further problem, intimately related to the situation of those Provinces with few Dominican convents or none, is the isolation of individual members, whom the English Province call “Lone Lay Dominicans”. For many years in the UK these people were offered ongoing formation in the form of a newsletter to which many of them contributed, with news of their families, requests for prayer, questions and doubts (to which a Dominican friar would often respond), and stories of encounters with other Dominicans, religious and lay. The newsletter, distributed by both email and snail mail, often included material for formation and always concluded with a homily by a Dominican friar, a prayer, and something to make the reader smile; it was edited and sent out for many years by Margaret Grant, an English lay Dominican now well into her 90s. Something of the sort would be immensely valuable to those in any Province who, because of ill health, advanced age or distance, cannot attend regular meetings.
The Rule, which is universal, makes certain obligations clear: daily Mass if possible; regular recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation; and daily prayer of (at least) Lauds and Vespers. Yet at local, regional and national meetings it is clear that relatively few lay Dominicans know which is the current week in the four-week cycle, or in the liturgical year. These people are evidently not following the Rule, at least as far as the Liturgy of the Hours is concerned. In the face of what appears to be such indifference, it is hardly surprising that for many friars the laity is not to be taken seriously.
Clearly the whole question of formation demands “curiosity, desire, passion for the Word and readiness to undergo continuous conversion of heart”, as the Italian lay Dominicans Irene Larcan and Romeo Spadoni wrote in an article published in their Province’s periodical some years ago. Most of us, I suspect, would recognise in ourselves the first three of these, but might have more difficulty with the fourth. Continuous conversion of heart is hard, often painful work: it requires us to listen to the other point of view without prejudice, to recognise our own flaws, to be open to the possibility that we may have been wrong all along. This is not much fun – no one likes to be proved wrong! – but it certainly opens the door to growth of the individual and of the community.
What, then, can we ask of the worldwide Dominican laity? Together we must seek to overcome those differences that may hinder the establishment of a universal programme of formation; judging from the substantially harmonious atmosphere at the 2018 International Assembly, this may be less painful than might be expected. If we make good use of material that is already available, it should not be beyond the bounds of possibility to conceive just such a programme.
“Hope”, said Timothy Radcliffe in a recent talk, “is the conviction that despite all the forces of destruction in the world and in ourselves, by the grace of God we shall find fulfilment. God wants us to share his unimaginable joy and we shall. Despite all our failures, we shall love perfectly! Love is stronger than death.” Our formation must tend towards this conclusion, not forgetting that the forces of destruction are not only in the world around us – it is too easy to imagine that they are confined to the secularised society in which we live – but in ourselves. With hope, with faith and with mutual love, we can grow as Dominicans and become ever more credible witnesses to the Gospel message of salvation.
 See “Acts of the 9th European Assembly of Lay Dominican Fraternities”, at the link “ECLDF Formation Report”, on ecldf.net
 “The General Chapter held in Rome in 1983 commissioned the Master General of the Order to hold an international meeting of the Dominican Laity in order to renew and adapt The Rule of the Dominican Laity. This meeting, held in Montreal, Canada, June 24-29, 1985, produced the text which is now definitively approved.” – http://stmccg.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/LPC-2016-Promulugated-Directory_Forms_Final_04_2016.pdf
 Ibid., Documents, Acts of the 9th European Assembly, Formation Report
 I have confined myself here to the two countries with which I am most familiar, but the broader implications will be obvious to all readers.
 That is, the Province taking in England and also Scotland.
 Dominicus, n°5, Nov/Dec 2008; my translation.
 Turin, September 2019