Excerpts from a reflection on St Dominic Guzmán
"I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is
the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith" (Rm 1:16).
This passage from the Letter of Paul to the Romans encapsulates the core
message that Paul wished to convey to the Christian community residing
in the capital of the Roman Empire. Through it he wanted to indicate
four essential points: God offers salvation by way of the Gospel; this
salvation is received through faith; salvation through faith is offered
to everybody irrespective of race, colour, social standing or culture;
and this salvation does not run counter to what is stipulated in the Old
Covenant, but is in perfect accord with what is stated and is brought to
The Gospel has the power to save. Faith,
which is consequent to hearing the Gospel, is the centre around which
the life of the Christian gravitates. In it one finds the beginning and
the end of all things. It is through faith brought about by hearing the
Gospel that God exercises his power in all its fullness.
The Gospel is not a political ideology,
nor is it a philosophical theory. The Gospel is the story of the Cross.
Consequently, the power of God is revealed through the Gospel and
salvation becomes a reality for all those who believe. This very
salvation is granted to us by the grace of preaching Christ crucified
who, for those who are called is, "the power of God and the wisdom of
Jesus Christ entrusted the grace of
preaching to the Apostles when, in his last glorious appearance on this
earth he admonished them with the words: "Go into all the world and
preach the Gospel to the whole creation".3 For this reason
the duty of the one who is sent out to preach is that of fulfilling the
word of God that he has heard and received by proclaiming it and living
Throughout the history of salvation,
whenever God entrusts somebody with a particular mission, especially if
it is a mission to preach, he accompanies his command with the words:
"Fear not, for I am with you". Such was the experience of the People of
God and it was lived out by the Prophets in the Old Covenant.4
It was also the experience of Peter and the Apostles.5 It was
the experience that Mary went through as she listened to the Angel's
words of comfort through which she was being prepared for her mission, a
mission that was to overturn her entire life and that in the process
also transformed the whole history of humanity.6 It was also
the experience of Paul as he waited to sail to Rome in order to appear
The mission of preaching, of proclaiming
the Good News of salvation, is one that demands courage. Even this is a
grace from God because it is God who brings the purpose of preaching to
its fulfillment through the witness of a holy life. For this reason Paul
declares to the Philippians: "I can do all things in him who strengthens
But what do we mean when we refer to
"the grace of preaching"? It is both a gift and a calling that is lived
out by those in whom and through whom the Spirit of God speaks out.
Those to whom Jesus said: "It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of
your Father speaking through you".9 Thus it is not a question
of oratorical skill, but rather of preaching by the authority invested
in them by the Spirit of God.
At this point one may ask: How can I
preach to others when I am all too conscious of my own weakness and
sinfulness? This was the very question put forward by Isaiah as he stood
before God, contemplating his glory: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am
a man of unclean lips!".10 The answer is to be found in the
truth that the power of the word of the preacher lies in the very power
of God. The courage of his words comes from the fullness of the divine
presence in his life. The grace of God is the essence of his vocation.
It is no small wonder that Paul could boast to the Corinthians regarding
his vocation when he wrote: "By the grace of God I am what I am, and his
grace toward me was not in vain".11 In a similar vein, he
praises the Thessalonians for having received the Word "not as the word
of men but as what it really is, the word of God".12
The phrase "the grace of preaching" is
the most beautiful meaning one can give to the calling of Dominic as
well as to the inspiration which he received to found the Order of
Preachers and to spread it to the ends of the earth. One of the most
cherished antiphons of the Dominican tradition refers to him as
"Preacher of Grace".
Honorius in, in one of the many letters
that he wrote to Dominic and his brethren, laid out the purpose of the
Order when he stated:
He who ever makes his Church fruitful
with new offspring, wanting to make these modern times measure up to
former times, and to propagate the Catholic faith, inspired you with a
holy desire by which, having embraced poverty and made profession of
regular life, you have given yourselves to the proclamation of the word
of God, preaching the name of our Lord Jesus Christ throughout the
Hence, the Order, right from its
foundation, was established "for preaching and the salvation of souls".14
This objective began to be fulfilled on the 16th of August 1217 when
Dominic assembled his community, which at the time numbered no more than
eighteen members, and scattered them throughout the major cities of
Europe. When his brethren asked him what their mission consisted of, he
replied that they were being sent to preach, to study, and to establish
The preaching that Dominic had in mind
was not a call for penance, or to conversion, or to seek to live a more
devout life. There were already movements in place for this purpose. He
wanted preaching to be truly a proclamation of the word of God, born out
of a profound love for Scripture. He wanted to address the needs of the
Church and provide doctrinal and moral formation to both clergy and
laity. He therefore laid emphasis on study. While still in Toulouse he
sent his brethren to attend classes held by Master Alexander Stavensby
who, at that time was giving classes in theology at the Cathedral school
of the diocese. His purpose was not to give them an opportunity to show
off their newly acquired knowledge, but to communicate his own ideal of
study as the vital tool for effectively preaching the word of God and
correctly interpret it for the salvation of God's people.
In order to achieve this aim Dominic
wanted study to be supported by prayer, or rather: he envisaged study as
prayer and prayer as study. He was aware that the word of God had to be
read with humility, with an open heart and with a living faith that
sought to penetrate the heart of the mystery of God's love. Just as for
the prophet, the first question that a preacher should pose is not:
"What am I to tell the people?", but rather, "what is God saying?"; and
this is immediately followed by another: "What does God want me to
say?". Only in this manner could one preach and teach effectively.
Dominic himself used to study the text
of Scripture in this way. He showed reverence for the word of God and
sought to enter the heart of its message through prayer and meditation.
Following his example, the Dominican abides by the principle that
whoever studies well also prays well and whoever prays well studies
well. The more one studies the word of God the more one is filled with
enthusiasm in prayer, and the more zealous one becomes through prayer
the more one is filled with the desire to know God through studying his
But none of this can take place if it is
not based on a healthy community life. Our houses are, in fact, the
Sacra Praedicatio Domini Nostri
Iesu Christi (The Sacred
Preaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ). The preacher who leaves the priory
on a mission knows that his work is being sustained by a community that
preserves the kind of environment that will lead to the success of his
In the midst of the Church
Dominic always considered the grace of
preaching that he received as one that lies at the very heart of the
as contributing to its growth and expansion. He took to heart the
counsel of Paul to the Corinthians when he wrote: "Since you are eager
for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the
He recognized the needs of the Church of
his day and the zeal of the Popes for the renewal of Christian life. He
made them his. For this reason he enjoyed the trust of both Innocent III
and that of his successor, Honorius III.
It is no wonder that, in one of the
legends surrounding his life which has continued to inspire whole
generations of Dominicans, it is stated that during his stay in Rome in
1215, while praying in St Peter's Basilica for the protection of the
Order, he beheld a vision in which he saw the Apostles Peter and Paul.
Peter handed him a staff (symbolizing his journeys throughout Europe
preaching), whereas Paul handed him a book (symbolizing the Gospel).
Together they instructed him with the words: "Go and preach, because God
has chosen you for this ministry". At that very moment he saw a
multitude of his brothers spread throughout the world, walking in pairs,
preaching to God's people.16
This was at the time of the Fourth
Lateran Council, when Dominic could observe Bishops from Eastern and
Western Europe as well as from the Middle East gathering in order to
discuss the reforms that the Church needed in order to be a true witness
of the mission entrusted to her by Christ. Innocent III, who had
convened the Council, had urged Dominic to share with him what Paul
called the "anxiety for all the churches".17 When Honorius
III subsequently confirmed the Order of Friars Preachers on the 18th of
January 1217, he set out to implement this project of his.
In both leaders Dominic saw men who took
their office of pastor with the utmost gravity. They considered their
authority as primarily a service to the Church, as Peter had been quick
to point out in his first letter, "not as domineering over those in your
charge but being examples to the flock".18
Thus the position that Dominic occupied
within the Order also lay within the Church and was the expression of
the mind of the Church. He did not work alone. He was a priest who
possessed a high level of education (here we have to keep in mind that
in his days seminaries did not exist) and as we have already seen, he
did not need anybody to spur him on in order to study the word of God
and the truths of the faith that derive from it. Several times he gave
proof of the solidity of the teachings that he imparted as well as of
his power to convince his hearers. As a priest and as an ecclesiastical
person he was well aware of his responsibilities and fulfilled them with
the utmost diligence.
At the same time, again as we have
already seen, he was capable of putting to good use the grace that was
granted to him for the salvation of all. His request that the Order that
he founded be established as the Order of Preachers was in itself a
moment of grace for the entire Church.
For this reason the office of preaching
was handed down to the Order from the highest authority of the Roman
Catholic Church and under his oversight. Dominic did not want to preach
behind the backs of the leaders of the Church. He wanted the approval
and the confirmation of the Order that he founded be a clear sign of the
mission entrusted to him. He wished to demonstrate that his work went
hand in hand with the Christian tradition that goes back to the time of
On the other hand, the Church, through
the Pope, acknowledged this act of obedience on his part and entrusted
him with the ministry of preaching. From these strong ties with the
hierarchy of the Church, Dominic stood to gain from the experience of
men who were trained in the ecclesiastical sciences who saw in him a man
who truly lived up to his name. He was Dominic, a man of God and sent by
God, and the grace granted to him was integral to the framework of the
mission of the Church.
Dominic did not consider preaching as
some added element that lay outside the life of the Church. He wanted it
to be rooted in the liturgy and the sacramental life. He therefore
linked the office of preaching with the sacrament of Penance, which
frees man from sin, and with the sacrament of the Eucharist, which
unites him to Christ and to the Church. This is why our Order is a
What lessons may we who are living at
the dawn of the twenty-first century now draw from all that has been
The year dedicated to the Apostle of the
Gentiles was brought to a close in June of last year and we are now
celebrating the year dedicated to priests under the patronage of St
Jean-Marie Vianney. Last year we as Dominicans have celebrated the 750th
anniversary of the canonization of Dominic, of whom his friend and
confidante Gregory IX said: "I knew him as a man who was loyal to the
entire apostolic rule, and I am sure that, in heaven, he is joined in
glory to the apostles".20 We are also in the midst of a
decade of celebrations leading to the Jubilee of the foundation of the
Order of Preachers in 2016."
The celebration of these events should
lead us to an examination of conscience as priests, as religious, as
laypeople in the Church.
In the light of what I have stated above
it is perhaps appropriate that we should pose ourselves some questions
concerning our life and our actions and consider to what extent are
these still reflecting the sacred heritage that has been bequeathed to
We need to ask ourselves as Christians
whether we have leant too heavily on our past without realizing that the
faith which we received is, in the words of Paul, a "treasure in earthen
vessels"" which might well be taken away from us.
We have to ask ourselves whether we have
opened the door to compromises in our lives, compromises that have
brought about contradictions between the faith that we profess orally on
the one hand, and our mentality and behaviour on the other.
We need to ask ourselves whether this
mentality that we must be like everybody else in everything has made us
forget who we are.
We need to ask ourselves whether this
enthusiasm for bland and neutral language is stifling our religious
We must ask ourselves whether the
thought has even crossed our minds that our moral landscape is in grave
danger; that if we are to keep the front door of our house ajar, then we
might as well throw it wide open.
Today's society has every right to pose
uncomfortable questions to the Church. It is an essential element of
that healthy tension that should exist between them. But it is no less
true that this same society should be ready to hear some uncomfortable
answers. The Church's mission is that of proclaiming the Gospel, and the
content of the latter is not necessarily what one would wish to hear nor
is it always music to our ears. Neither is it up to society to dictate
what issues the Church should speak about and those about which it
should keep its mouth shut.
Rather, should it not be the case that
the ideal, charism, and mission of Dominic should enlighten the Church's
mission just as it did during his lifetime? We cannot afford to rest
upon our laurels. As Dominican communities we are required to witness to
the relevance of the Gospel at all times and in all places. We need to
face the challenges posed by our modern
society with faith and courage. This requires a thorough overhaul of our
formation programmes, especially as regards catechesis, study, and the
content of our preaching.
What is at stake is no less than our
relevance as Christian communities and as a Church. The Church should
maintain that healthy tension that has been a hallmark of its life and
mission since the time of Peter and Paul: the tension between structure
and movement. A Church without movement is lifeless; a Church without a
structure is spineless.
As in the time of Dominic, we must
realize that our Christian communities must be prophetic and apostolic.
In these times of crisis on all fronts, where there exists a great void
that was formerly occupied by God, we are required to bear witness to
the fact that human beings have dignity and rights and these have been
given by God who cast us all in his image and who redeemed us through
his Son. But these rights go hand in hand with responsibilities.
As Dominicans we are called to proclaim
that men and women do not have dignity in accordance to what they
produce; that the family
father, mother and children
is the natural environment in which one begins to learn the meaning of
love; that small gestures can turn out to be the most beautiful and
effective homilies for raising the hopes of those who are marginalized.
Like Dominic before us we have all been called to receive and live the
grace of preaching.
It is therefore fitting that we turn our
gaze to Dominic our father and our master and seek his prayers and
intercession through that poignant antiphon that is an integral part of
our Dominican liturgical tradition, "O Spem Miram":
O wonderful hope which you gave to those
who wept for you at the hour of your death, promising after your
departure to be helpful to your brethren: Fulfill, father, what you have
said and help us by your prayers. You who shone by so many miracles
worked on the bodies of the sick, bring us the help of Christ to heal
our sick souls. Fulfill, father, what you have said and help us by your
1 See Mt 5:17.
2 1 Cor 1:24.
3 Mk 16:15.
4 See Is 43:5. See also Is
41:10; Jer 1:7-8.
5 See Lk 5:10.
6 See Lk 1:30.
7 See Acts 23:11.
8 Phil 4:13.
9 Mt 10:20.
10 Is 6:5.
11 1 Cor 15:10.
12 1 Thes 2:13.
13 Honorius III: Letter to
Dominic and his brethren, 18 January 1221 (MOPH XXV, p.144)
14 Prologue of The Primitive
15 1 Cor 14:12-16
16 Constantine of Orvieto,
Legenda, n. 25.
17 2 Cor 11:28.
18 1 Pt 5:3.
19 Fundamental Constitution,
20 Jordan of Saxony, op.
cit., n. 125 in http://www.domcentral.org/trad/domdocs/0001.htm
22 2 Cor 4:7.