Master Dominic and the Grace of Preaching
Father Joseph Ellul, OP
Priest of the Province of St Pius V, Malta, and Professor at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas
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 perfection.1
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 God".2
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 its demands.
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 before Caesar.7
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 me".8
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 world.13
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 priories.
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 Word.
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 endeavour.
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 Church's mission — 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 Church".15
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 the Apostles.
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 clerical Order.19
What lessons may we who are living at the dawn of the twenty-first century now draw from all that has been said?
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 us.
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 discourse.
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 — or postmodern — 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 prayers.
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 Constitutions.
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, VI.
20 Jordan of Saxony, op. cit., n. 125 in http://www.domcentral.org/trad/domdocs/0001.htm
21 See http://curia.op.org/jubilee/
22 2 Cor 4:7.
Weekly Edition in English
10 February 2010, page 10
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