Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: 800 years of the Dominican way and preaching with one’s life

Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia celebrate after a thanksgiving Mass on 8 August. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia celebrate after a thanksgiving Mass on 8 August. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Today we celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary – a feast and devotion for which we have the Dominicans to thank above all. Of course it all began long before the Dominicans were invented, when the Archangel Gabriel knelt before the Virgin of Nazareth and declared, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” and John the Baptist, still in the womb, also knelt before her as his mother declared, “Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (Lk ch 1). As the Ave evolved so did a simplified version of the Divine Office, with a ‘Marian Psalter’ of 150 Aves replacing the 150 Psalms, and some Paters and Glorias taking the place of the other prayers in the Breviary of the clergy and religious.

The Dominican Pope St Pius V settled the mysteries and it has grown over the years in popularity and versions. For many of us, it is as much a part of our daily life as brushing our teeth. For others, it is a prayer for those most difficult times, when threatened by war, grief, the hour of death, or simply when they do not know what to pray. It is very much a prayer for peace, for families, and for the sick: at its heart it is a prayer of hope.

The Rosary has long been associated with the Dominicans and indeed you might describe the Order as the sixth Joyful Mystery. Following St Dominic, St Catherine of Siena, Blessed Alain de la Roche and St Pius V, the Order promoted the devotion all over the world.

It became, amongst other things, part of the polemic against dualism, as it emphasised the goodness of creation, including of the human flesh and its place in the Incarnation and Redemption. The members of the order, in turn, were to preach and teach these Joyful Mysteries, and above all give testimony to the Incarnation in their religious lives.

And Joyful they truly were. Blessed Reginald of Orleans was first to be clothed in the habit by St Dominic. When asked once, “Do you ever regret donning the Dominican habit?” he replied, “I very much doubt there’s been any merit in it for me at all, because I’ve always been so happy in the Order!” So, too, we recall stories of St Dominic “the joyful friar” waking up the nuns not only so they could hear a long conference but converse and drink with him through the night. So many stories are told of the sheer joy of Dominican men and women, that one recent book about Dominican spirituality is subtitled A Drink Called Happiness.

The Sorrowful Mystery of the Dominican Order

In a speech to young people at the recent World Youth Day in Kraków, Pope Francis warned against the paralysis that results from mistaking happiness for comfort – the life of spiritual couch potatoes. “Jesus is not the Lord of comfort, security and ease,” he observed. “Following Jesus demands a good dose of courage, a readiness to trade–in the sofa for a pair of walking shoes and to set out on new and uncharted paths; to blaze trails that open up new horizons for spreading joy, the joy born of God’s love and welling up in your hearts with every act of mercy.” And so, right beside the Joyful Mysteries in the chain of life, come the Sorrowful ones; along with those joyful friars Dominic and Thomas and the equally joyful nuns of San Sisto, there are Catherine of Siena, Rose of Lima, Martin de Porres and others with more pained lives.

The radical spirit of the Christ Pope Francis calls “the Lord of risk” – the spirit that makes its own “the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties, of the people of [each] age, especially the poor and afflicted” – allowed Dominic and his followers to embrace the ‘craziness’ of the evangelical life. The Albigensians attracted people away from Christianity because they seemed better-versed in Scripture than many Christians and more willing to live a Gospel asceticism.

Dominic saw immediately that if the Church was to be authentic, and be seen to be authentic, its clergy and religious must be more like the Apostles, truly poor and trusting as the poor must in Providence, truly studious but trusting in the Holy Spirit to provide the right words, truly monastic but ready to leave the cloister to bring the Gospel to all humanity.

And if that meant there would be hardships – sorrowful mysteries – they should not be surprised: for Dominican saints are not exempted from the trials of ordinary humanity but must conform their lives to that of the Dominus who lent his name to Dominic and the Dominicans.

The Glorious Mystery of the Dominican Order

It was Thomas Babington Macaulay, the evangelical, historian and politician, who once observed that there was no other human institution as successful as the Catholic Church. “No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards [Ed. – giraffes] and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable.

“The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains… full of life and youthful vigour. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustin, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila. The number of her children is greater than in any former age…”.

This was quite a tribute coming as it did from the WASP and Whig establishment of 1840 Britain. And without boasting we might say some similar things about the Order of Preachers, now eight centuries old. No other great religious order has survived so long without splitting into two or more orders and very few institutions in our world have maintained 800 years of continuity. In that time the Dominicans have spread throughout the world, conducted preaching and teaching ministry in many cultures and situations, contributed umpteen saints and given the testimony of their lives as faithful religious – a truly glorious mystery and a gift to the Church.

Addressing the General Chapter of the Order earlier this year, Pope Francis called upon the Dominicans to renew themselves by gospel preaching, witness and charity. By the words of the preaching and teaching, by the example of their individual and community lives, and by the wordless homily of their works incarnating the Good News, Dominicans can truly preach all the time, and not just in the liturgy or the classroom. They can be preachers in their every breath and step. The witness of their lives “adds the joy of the Gospel to the truth” they receive from God and His Church. But this is no facile joy that laughs while people suffer: no, says the Holy Father, “the living and suffering body of Christ cries out to the preacher and does not leave him in peace. The cry of the poor and discarded wakes us up and demands of us that compassion [that active charity] Jesus had for all peoples.”

In one of his many painted homilies on the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries of our faith, Blessed Fra Angelico depicts several Dominican friars and sisters – and even a few non-Dominicans – dancing in a circle in the garden of heaven. As we contemplate the Rising and Ascension of Christ and the Assumption and Coronation of His Blessed Mother in the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, we recognise that their trajectory is our roadmap: where Christ and the Virgin have gone, we are called to follow. And to do so we join them at the heart of the Church, where Mary and the apostles await the Spirit of Pentecost. In meditating in their company upon divine and human Veritas, in passing on the fruits of that contemplation to others, we hope to join the Dominican saints in glory and bring many others with us to bless, to praise and to preach.

Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for the Dominican Order!
Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us!

This is the edited text of the homily by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Mass for the octo-centenary of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), on the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary at St Mary’s Cathedral on 7 October 2016.

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