Pope Pius V, left, St. Thomas Aquinas, centre, and St. Martin de Porres were all members of the Dominican order. Left photo from public domain. Centre and right photos by CNS

Dominicans celebrate their 800th birthday

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  • April 5, 2015

When you get to your 800th birthday there’s more than a cake involved. The 800th anniversary of the Dominican order will call the “Hounds of the Lord” (Domini Canes in Latin) to Toronto to study, pray and preach.

A conference from May 7 to 9 on the Second Vatican Council will be the first international event to kick off more than a year of celebrations tied to Pope Honorius III’s approval of the Order of Preachers on Dec. 22, 1216.

Dominican scholars from across Canada and around the world, along with Master of the Order Fr. Bruno Cadoré, will gather at the University of St. Michael’s College on the campus of the University of Toronto to mull over the most significant theological and cultural shift in Catholicism since the Council of Trent.

“It’s not nostalgia,” stressed Dominican Father Darren Dias of St. Michael’s College. “It really is about the themes that would be consistent with the preoccupations of the order in a post-Vatican context.”

The Order of Preachers, which has produced four popes, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Rose of Lima, St. Martin de Porres Girolamo Savonarola (burned at the stake by the Inquisition), Tomas de Torquemada (Grand Inquisitor) and the Singing Nun (Jeanine Deckers), had a lot to do with what happened at Vatican II.

Fr. Yves Congar, who is said to have had a hand in writing eight of the 16 official documents of the council, was a Dominican. Congar worked closely with Dominican Fr. Marie-Dominique Chenu on the most important document of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes.

Chenu, incidentally, taught theology to Dominican Father Gustavo Guitiérrez, the father of liberation theology.

Most Catholics probably don’t realize to what extent they have all become Congar Catholics, according to Jesuit theologian Fr. Gilles Mongeau.

“Congar’s vision of the Church is very much present in what we are living right now, though others have contributed,” Mongeau wrote in an email.

The inheritors of this broad and rich tradition, men and women, ordained and lay, are coming to Toronto for no better reason than that it happened to work out that way, said Dias.

“The idea for the conference didn’t actually come from the Dominicans,” he explained. “It came from the Vatican II Research Institute that is housed at the University of St. Michael’s.”

The Toronto conference launches a series of eight international conferences that will take place in Guatemala, Italy, Colombia, Croatia and the United States. The grand finale Jubilee Congress will be held in Rome in January of 2017, with the participation of Pope Francis.

While the Toronto conference kicks off the big, international conferences on preaching, theology, Scripture, inter-religious dialogue and ecumenism, the Dominican Sisters have been quietly celebrating their 800th since 2006.

Dias calls it a “novena of celebrations.”

Before the official establishment of the order, St. Dominic first created a community of women. The Dominican nuns and sisters (there is a difference) have a legitimate claim to being the first and the original Dominicans.
They also were Dominic’s favourites, said Dominican Sister Carla Mae Streeter.

“On his death bed, Dominic had one thing to confess,” said the emerita professor of systematic theology at St. Louis, Missouri’s Aquinas Institute. “That was that he always preferred to be with the women, rather than the men. He considered that a fault and he confessed it before he died… He always brought a bottle of wine and they had a good time when he visited them. He always was most human and warm with them.”

That first community of women wasn’t really a convent. Dominic’s initial mission in France was to fight the Cathar heresy — a kind of gnosticism that, fuelled by a popular perception of Church officials as pompous fat cats who controlled vast wealth and tracts of agricultural land, nearly took over 13th-century France. As Dominic’s preaching met success it also created problems. Young women he convinced to return to the Church were kicked out by their Cathar families.

In Medieval Europe these young women had three choices — get married, join a convent or enter a brothel. So Dominic put them together in a house, even if they weren’t necessarily called to religious life. Some of the original Cathar orphans may have eventually left to get married, but the houses evolved into the first Dominican cloistered communities of nuns.

That there are so many kinds of Dominicans — lay fraternities, apostolic sisters, nuns and friars (both ordained and not) — indicates both the democratic spirit of the order and its amazing flexibility, said Streeter. For an order that practices the principle of dispensation, under which any Dominican may decide personally to forego reciting the office with the rest of the community or following the directions of the superior if doing so would interfere with the work of preaching the Gospel, Vatican II wasn’t such a big shock.

“There’s a flexibility that puts the spirit and the proclamation of the Word above anything that would be what we would call the common law of the community. There’s a proportion there that doesn’t exist in a lot of other orders,” Streeter said.

“The order was renewed (at Vatican II) but I wouldn’t say it had to make a turn as significant as maybe some others that weren’t as democratic.”

“Inasmuch as the Second Vatican Council called us and all religious to renewal and to reflect on our founding charism, it certainly was an important moment,” said Dias.

The Toronto conference will culminate in a Mass at Sacre Coeur parish in downtown Toronto.

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