Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Grace of Preaching

Today (August 8) the Church's calendar commemorates Saint Dominic (c.1170-1221), the Spanish canon who adopted an apostolic evangelical way of life to combat the heresies of his time and founded the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans). Like many of my contemporaries, I was taught by Dominican Sisters in elementary school (specifically grades 2, 5, 6, 7, and 8). Based on the initials "O.P." after their names, students sometimes jokingly referred to the Sisters as "Our Problem." To elementary school students, perhaps all teachers sometimes seem so, but in fact the Sisters they were for the most part good teachers and dedicated religious.
What at that time most fascinated me about the Dominicans, however, was that they were the only religious order that I had any personal experience of which had its own liturgical rite. Every year or so, a Dominican priest would come to preach a novena or it would be the turn for a Dominican mission band to preach the annual parish mission. As an altar boy, I would get the rare experience of watching up close as Mass was celebrated in a different rite - not radically different, of course, but different enough to require us altar boys to learn some different moves. As my interest in all things liturgical matured, I continued to be interested in how the Dominican Rite came to be and where it fit into the larger story of the development of Latin liturgy.
As the Dominican Rite's website  says, the ancient Dominican Rite "represents a rather ancient branch of the Roman Rite.  In other important respects, however, it captures and expresses the spirit of the early generations of the Order" (
Having begun as canons, the Dominicans naturally took their liturgy very seriously, but the animating principle of the order has always been preaching and the study required to preach effectively. In his "Treatise on the Formation of Preachers,"  Dominican Master General Humber of Romans (1200-1277) wrote: "Of all the spiritual exercises commonly practiced by spiritual men, those who have the grace for it ought to prefer the practice of preaching." 
Living practically next door to the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, during my seminary years, I was duly impressed by the Dominicans' intellectual commitment and how it continues today to enrich the Church's life. This too was part of Dominic's original evangelizing impulse, which combined a commitment to proclaiming authentic Catholic doctrine in a communicable way with an apostolic life of evangelical simplicity.
As a seminarian I was surprised to learn that the Dominicans were the first Religious to separate obedience to the Religious Rule from obligation under pain of sin. Both in the evangelizing impulse which animated their founding and in the spiritual freedom at the heart of their common life, I came to see something similar to what motivated Servant of God Isaac Hecker in how he shaped his Paulist community in the different (but not incomparably unique) setting and circumstances of mid-19th-century American society.
Among his confreres, Hecker himself was not a particularly outstanding preacher, which ought to be of some consolation to those among us who are less entertaining but who nonetheless share his - and Dominic's - vocation to live out the grace of preaching in the totality of life and ministry.

(The photo above is of the Basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill in Rome, famous for being the Stational Church for Ash Wednesday but also as the Dominican convent where Saint Dominic himself lived, as later did such Domincan luminaries as Saint Thomas Aquinas and the future Pope Saint Pius V).

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