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Dominicans of Canada

cornerVowed to Mission

Letter to the Order. Santa Sabina, Rome, 1994

fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P.


Timothy Radcliffe, OPThe young flocked to the Order in Dominic's time because, with his passion for preaching, he invited them to take part in an adventure. For what are we passionate and what are the adventures of our time? Who are the Cumans for us? We face the challenge of establishing the Order in much of Asia, where half of humanity lives, and preparing to teach in China. Are there young Dominicans ready to learn Chinese and give themselves, not knowing what it will cost them? All over the world we face the dialogue with Islam. Are we ready to give our lives to that?

Like Dominic, we too are faced with preaching the gospel in the new cities, but for us these are the sprawling mega-towns that are home to an ever increasing percentage of humanity, the urban jungle of Los Angeles, Sâo Paolo, Mexico City, Lagos, Tokyo, and London and so on. These are often urban deserts, marked by the and violence, and the dense solitude of those who are surrounded by millions of people and yet are alone. How are we to find our way into the new world of the young, increasingly a single world culture, with its religious hunger and scepticism, its respect of individuals and suspicion of institutions, its distrust of words and fascination with the technology of information, its music and songs? How the we to be in touch with all that is vital and creative in this new culture, learn from it and welcome it for the gospel?

Above all, how are we to be preachers of hope in a world which is often tempted by despair and fatalism, afflicted by an economic system that is undermining the social and economic- structures of most countries of the world? What is the gospel that we can preach in Latin America, or as the Order is established in Asia and reborn in East Europe? And then there is the endless intellectual adventure of study, of wrestling with the Word of God, the exigence of truthfulness, of questioning and being questioned, and the passion to understand. This deserves another letter.

And so, my brothers and sisters, one thing cannot be doubted, that our vocation as preachers of the gospel is as urgently needed as ever before (Avila 22). We can respond to these challenges if we are people of courage, who dare to give up old commitments, so that we can be free to take new initiatives, who dare to experiment and risk failure. We will never be able to respond unless we offer each other confidence and courage. A complex structure, like a religious Order, can either communicate pessimism and a sense of defeat, or it can be a network of hope, in which we help each other to imagine and create the new. If the Order is to be the latter, then we must face a number of questions.

Do we dare to accept into the Order young people who have the daring to face these new challenges with courage and initiative, knowing that they may well put in question much of what we have been and done? Would we happily accept into our own Province a man like Thomas Aquinas, who embraced a new and suspect philosophy and posed hard and searching questions? Would we welcome a brother like Bartolome de Las Casas, with his passion for social justice? Would we be pleased to have a Fra Angelico who experimented with new ways of preaching the gospel? Would we give profession to Catherine of Siena, with all her outspokenness? Would we welcome Martin de Porres, who might disturb the peace of the community by inviting in all sorts of poor people? Would we accept Dominic? Or might we prefer candidates who will leave us in peace? And what is the result of our initial formation? Is it to produce brothers and sisters who have grown in faith and courage, who dare to try and risk more than when they came to us at first? Or do we tame them and make them safe?

If we are to face the immense and exciting challenges of today, and renew that sense of the adventure of religious life, then we will have to look at many aspects of our life as an Order in subsequent letters. Today, in this letter, I would like to explore only one question, which I have found raised in every part of the Order during my travels. How can the vows that we have made be a source of life and dynamism, and sustain us in our preaching? The vows are not the whole of our religious life, but it is often in relation to them that the brothers and sisters pose searching questions that we must address together. It is often said that the vows are only a means. And this is true, for the Order was founded not so that we might live the vows but for the preaching of the gospel. But the vows are not merely a means in an utilitarian sense, as a car might be to get from one place to another. The vows are means towards us becoming people who truly are missionary. St. Thomas says that all the vows have as their goal caritas, 1 the love that is the very life of God. They serve their purpose only if they help us to grow in love, so that we may speak with authority of the God of love.

The vows are in fundamental contradiction with the values of much of society, particularly of the culture of consumerism which is rapidly becoming the dominant culture of our planet. The vow of Obedience goes against an understanding of being human as rooted in radical autonomy and individualism; to be poor is a sign of failure and worthlessness in our culture, and chastity seems to be an unimaginable rejection of the universal human right to sexual fulfilment. If we embrace the vows, then it is likely that at some stage we will find it hard to endure. They may seem to condemn us to frustration and sterility. If we accept them merely as a utilitarian means to an end, a necessary inconvenience of the life of the preacher, then they may seem a price that is not worth paying. But if we live them as ordered towards caritas, one way among others of sharing in the life of the God of love, then we may believe that the suffering may be fertile, and the dying that we experience may open up a way to resurrection. Then we may be able to say, like our brother Reginald of Orleans: "I do not believe that I have gained any merit in living in this Order, for here I have always found so much joy." 2

In this letter I wish to offer a few simple observations about the vows. They will be largely marked by my own limitations, and the culture which has formed me My hope is that they will contribute to a dialogue through which we will arrive at some common vision that will enable us to encourage each other, and give us the strength to be an Order which dares to take up the challenges of the next century.

Daring to Vow

In many parts of the world, especially those marked by Western culture, there has been a profound loss of confidence in the making of promises. This can be seen in the collapse of marriage, the high rate of divorce or, within our own Order, the regular requests for dispensation from the vows, the slow steady hemorrhaging of the life blood of the Order. What sense can it make to give one's word usque ad mortem?

One reason why the giving of one's word may not seem to be a serious matter may be a weakening of our sense of the importance of our words. Do words matter that much in our society? Can they make a difference? Can one offer one's life to another, to God or in marriage, by speaking a few words? We preachers of the Word of God are witnesses that words matter. We are made in the image of God who spoke a word and the heavens and the earth came to be. He spoke a Word that became flesh for our redemption. The words that human beings speak to each other offer life or death, build community or destroy it. The terrible solitude of our vast cities is surely a sign of a culture that has sometimes ceased to believe in the importance of language, to believe that it can build community through language shared. When we give our word in the vows we witness to a fundamental human vocation, to speak words which have weight and authority.

Yet we cannot know what our vows will mean and where they will lead us. How do we dare to make them? Surely only because our God has done so, and we are his children. We dare to do as our Father did first. From the beginning, the history of salvation was of the God who made promises, who promised to Noah that never again would the earth be overwhelmed by flood, who promised to Abraham descendants more numerous than the sand, and who promised to Moses to lead his people out of bondage. The culmination and astonishing fulfilment of all those promises was Jesus Christ, God's eternal 'Yes'. As God's children we dare to give our word, not knowing what it will mean. And this act is a sign of hope since for many people there is only the promise. If one is locked in despair, destroyed by poverty or unemployment or imprisoned by one's own personal failure, then maybe there is nothing in which one can put one's hope and trust other than in the God who has made vows to us, who again and again has offered a covenant to humanity and through the prophets taught us to hope for salvation (Fourth Eucharist prayer).

In this world so tempted by despair there may be no other source of hope than trust in the God who has given us his Word. And what sign is there of that vow given, other than men and women who dare to take vows, whether of marriage or in religious life. I have never understood so clearly the meaning of our vows as when I went to visit a barrio on the edges of Lisbon, inhabited by the very poorest of people, the forgotten and invisible of the city, and found the quarter alive with rejoicing, because a sister who shared their lives was to make her solemn profession. It was their feast.

Ours has been called "The Now Generation", the culture in which there is only the present moment. This can be the source of a wonderful spontaneity, a freshness and immediacy in which we should rejoice. But if the present moment is one of poverty or failure, of defeat or depression, then what hope can there be? The vows of their nature reach out to an unknown future. For St. Thomas, to make a vow was an act of radical generosity, because one gave in a single moment a life which was to be lived successively through time. 3 For many people in our culture this offer of a future which cannot be predicted may make no sense. How can I bind myself until death when I do not know who or what I shall become? Who will I be in ten or twenty years time? Whom will I have met and what will draw my heart? For us it is a sign of our dignity as the children of God and of trust in the God of providence, who offers unexpectedly the ram caught in the bushes. The taking of vows remains an act of the deepest significance, a sign of hope in the God who promises us a future, even when it is beyond our imagining, and who will keep his word.

It is true that sometimes a brother or sister may find themselves incapable of continuing in the vows they have taken. This may be because of a lack of discernment in the time of initial formation, or simply because this is a life that, in all honesty, they can no longer bear. Then there exists the wise provision of the possibility of dispensation from the vows. Let us at least give thanks for what they have given, and rejoice in what we have shared! Let us also ask whether, in our communities, we did all that we could to sustain them in their vows.


The beginning of Jesus' preaching was his proclamation of the fulfilment of Isaiah's promise, freedom for prisoners and liberty for those who are oppressed (Luke 4). The gospel which we are called to preach is of the irrepressible freedom of the children of God. "For Freedom Christ has set us free". (Gal 5:1) It is therefore paradoxical that we give our lives to the Order, to preach this gospel, by a vow of obedience, the only vow we pronounce. How can we speak of freedom who have given away our lives?

The vow of obedience is a scandal in a world which aspires to freedom as its highest value. But what is the freedom for which we hunger? This is a question that is being posed with particular intensity in the countries which have been liberated from Communism. They have entered the "free world", but is this the freedom for which they have fought? There is certainly a certain important freedom gained, in the political process, but the freedom of the market place is often a disappointment. It does not bring the liberation that it promised, and tears apart the fabric of human society even more deeply. Above all, our supposedly free world is often characterised by a deep sense of fatalism, an impotence to take our destinies into our hands, to really shape our lives, that must make us question the freedom of the consumerist culture. The vow of obedience, then, is not for us merely an administrative convenience, a utilitarian means. It must confront us with a question: What is the freedom for which we long in Christ? How might this vow express that, and help us preachers of the Kingdom to live the exultant liberty of the children of God?

When the disciples find Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman by the well, he says to them: "My food is to do the will of Him who sent me" (Jn 4.34). The obedience of Jesus to the Father is not a limitation of his freedom, a restriction of his autonomy. It is the food that gives him strength and makes him robust. It is his relationship to the Father, the gift of all that he is, his very being.

This deep freedom of Jesus, to belong to the Father, is surely the context in which we reflect upon what it means for us to be free, and to give our lives to the Order. It is not the freedom of the consumer, with unrestricted choice between alternative purchases or courses of action; it is the freedom to be, the freedom of the one who loves. Within our own Dominican tradition this belonging together in mutual obedience is marked by a tension between two characteristics: an unqualified gift of our lives to the Order, and a search for consensus based on debate and mutual attentiveness and respect. Both are necessary if we are to be preachers of the freedom of Christ, the freedom for which the world thirsts. If we fail to really give ourselves to the Order, without condition, then we become merely a group of independent individuals who occasionally co-operate; if obedience is experienced as the imposition of the will of the superior, without the search for a common mind, then our vow becomes alienating and inhuman.

1) Obedience and listening

Obedience is not, in our tradition, fundamentally the submission of the will of a brother or sister to a superior. Because it is an expression of our fraternity with each other, the shared life within the Order, it is based on dialogue and discussion. As is so often remarked, the word obedire comes from ob-audire, to listen. The beginning of true obedience is when we dare to let our brother or sister speak and we listen to them. It is the "principle of unity"(LCO.17.1) It is also when we are summoned to grow as human beings by being attentive to others. Married people have no option but to be drawn beyond themselves by the demands of the children and spouses. Our way of life, with its silence and solitude can help us to grow in attentiveness and generosity, but we also run the risk of being locked within ourselves and our own concerns. Religious life can produce people who are deeply selfless or profoundly egoistic, depending upon whether we have listened. It requires all of our attention, complete receptivity. The fertile moment of our redemption was the obedience of Mary who dared to listen to an angel.

This is a listening that demands using our intelligence. In our tradition, we use our reason not so as to dominate the other, but so as to draw near to them. As P. Rousselot said, intelligence is "the faculty of the other". It opens our ears to hear. As Herbert McCabe wrote:

"it is first an openness of the mind such as is involved in all learning. Obedience only becomes perfect when the one who commands and the one who obeys come to share one mind. The notion of blind obedience makes no more sense in our tradition than would blind learning. A totally obedient community would be one in which no one was ever compelled to do anything" 4.

It follows that the primary place in which we practice obedience, in the Dominican tradition, is the community chapter, in which we argue with each other. The function of discussion within the Chapter is to seek unity of heart and mind as we seek the common good. We argue together, as good Dominicans, not so as to win but in the hope of learning from each other. What we seek is not the victory of the majority but, if at all possible, unanimity. This search for unanimity, even if it is sometimes unattainable, does not express just a desire to live in peace with each other. More radically it is a form of government born of a belief that those with whom we disagree have something to say, and we therefore cannot attain the truth alone. Truth and community are inseparable As Malachy O'Dwyer wrote:

"Why did Dominic place so much trust and confidence in his companions? The answer is a simple one. He was profoundly a man of God, convinced that the hand of God lay upon everything and everyone ... If he was convinced that God was indeed speaking to him through voices other than his own then he had to organise his family in such a way that all within the family could be heard." 5

It follows that government within our tradition takes time. Most of us are busy and this time may seem wasted. Why should we spend time debating with each other when we could be out preaching and teaching? We do so because it is this shared life, this lived solidarity, that makes us to be preachers. We can speak of Christ only out of what we live, and the labour of seeking to be of one heart and mind trains us to speak with authority of the Christ in whom is all reconciliation.

Obedience for us is not the flight from responsibility. It structures the different ways in which we share it. Often the role of a prior is difficult because some brethren believe that having elected him to office, he alone must bear the burden. This inculcates a puerile attitude to authority. Obedience demands that we grasp the responsibility that is ours, otherwise we shall never respond to the challenges that face the Order. As I said at the meeting of European Provincials at Prague in 1993:

"Responsibility is the ability to respond. Will we? In my own experience as a Provincial I have seen 'the mystery of the disappearing responsibility.' It is as mysterious as a novel of Sherlock Holmes! A Provincial Chapter sees there is a problem and commissions the Provincial to face it and resolve it. A bold decision must be taken. He tells the Provincial Council to consider. The Council appoints a Commission to consider what is to be done. They take two or three years clarifying exactly what is the problem. And they then commit it to the next Provincial Chapter, and so the cycle of irresponsibility continues."

Sometimes what paralyses the Order and prevents us from daring to do new things is the fear of accepting responsibility, of risking failure. We must each grasp the responsibility that is ours, even if it is painful to do so and we risk making the wrong decision, otherwise we shall die of irrelevancy.

It may be argued that our system of government is not the most efficient A more centralised and authoritarian government would enable us to respond more rapidly to crises, to take wise decisions based on wide knowledge of the Order. There is often an impulse towards the centralisation of authority. But, as Bede Jarrett OP wrote seventy years ago,

"to those who live under its shadow, liberty in electing government is too blessed a thing to be put aside even at the risk of inefficiency. With all its inherent weakness, for them it mates better than autocracy, however beneficent, with the independence of human reason and the strengthening of human will. Democracy may mar results, but it makes men." 6

It may sometimes lead to inefficiency but it makes preachers. Our form of government is profoundly linked to our vocation as preachers, for we can only speak with authority of our freedom in Christ if we live it with each other. But our tradition of democracy and of decentralisation can never be an acceptable excuse for immobility and irresponsibility. It should not be a way of hiding from the challenges of our mission.

2) Obedience and self-gift

The democratic tradition of the Order, our stress on shared responsibility, and on debate and dialogue, might suggest that the demands upon us of obedience are less total than in a more autocratic and centralised system. Is not obedience, then, always a compromise between what I wish and what the Order asks? Might one not bargain for a certain limited autonomy? I do not believe this to be so. Fraternity asks of us all that we are. Because, like all the vows, it is ordered towards caritas, an expression of love, then it must be whole-hearted. There will inevitably be a tension between the process of dialogue, the search for consensus, And the moment of handing oneself into the hands of the brethren, but it is a fruitful tension rather than a negotiated compromise. Although I speak most especially out of my experience of government by the brethren, I hope that much of what follows might be helpful to our sisters.

I started by pointing out the immensity of the challenges that we face as an Order. We can face these challenges only if we are able to form new common projects, and give up apostolates that may be dear to us as individuals or Provinces. We must dare to try new experiments, risking failure. We must have the courage sometimes to give up institutions that have been important in the past and may still be significant. If we do not, we shall be prisoners of our past. We must have the courage to die if we are to live. This will demand mobility of mind and heart and body, as Provinces and as individuals. If we are to build up proper centres of formation and study in Africa and Latin America, rebuild the Order in Eastern Europe, face the challenges of China, of preaching in the world of the young, dialogue with Islam and other religions, then inevitably there are apostolates that we will have to give up. Otherwise we shall never do anything new.

For me this wholehearted gift of one's life to the brethren is more than just the necessary flexibility which a complex organisation needs to respond to new challenges. It belongs to the freedom in Christ that we preach. It belongs to the lex libertatis 7, the law of freedom of the New Covenant. On the night he was betrayed, when his life was doomed to failure, Jesus took bread, broke it, gave it to his disciples and said: "This is my body, and I give it to you". Faced with his fate, for "it was necessary that the Son of man be handed over", he made this supreme gesture of liberty, giving his life away. Our profession, when we place our lives in the hands of the provincial, is a eucharistic gesture of mad liberty. 'This is my life and I give it to you. It is thus that we give ourselves to the mission of the Order, "appointed entirely for the complete evange!isation of the Word of God". (LCO III)

When a brother gives his life into our hands this implies that we are under a corresponding obligation. We must dare to ask much of him. A Provincial must have the courage to believe that the brethren of his Province are capable of doing wonderful things, more than they may ever imagine. Our system of government must express an astonishing confidence in each other, as when Dominic scandalized his contemporaries in sending out the novices to preach, saying "Go confidently, because the Lord will be with you, and he will put into your mouth the word of preaching". 8 If a member of the Order has freely given his life then we honour that gift in freely asking of each other, even if it means leaving behind a project that he dearly loves and has flourished in. Otherwise the Order will be paralysed. We should invite each other to give our lives to new projects, to dare to grasp the challenges of the moment, rather than just to use them to keep alive institutions or communities that are no longer vital to our preaching.

There are challenges before us today where a response of the whole Order is necessary. The evangelisation of China may be one such. In such cases the Master will have to call upon the Provinces to be generous and give brothers to new areas of mission, even if this has consequences that are hard to bear. I approached one Provincial to discuss the gift of a brother for our new General Vicariate in Russia and the Ukraine. It was with great hesitation since I knew that he was a brother whom this Province could ill afford to lose. The Provincial said to me, "If God's providence has prepared this brother for this work, then we too must trust in God's providence for our needs."

Nothing new can ever be born unless we dare to give up what has been proved to have value in favour of that which may turn out to be a failure. One cannot know in advance. The pressure of our society is that one should have a career, a life that goes somewhere. To give one's life to the preaching of the gospel is to renounce that reassurance. We are people who have no career, no prospects. That is our freedom. I think of the courage of our brethren who are establishing the Order in Korea, struggling with a new language and an unknown culture, with no guarantee in advance that this gift of their lives will bear fruit. That is only a gift of the Lord, as was the resurrection after the failure of the cross. A true gift is, of its nature, a surprise.

One of the ways in which we may have to live out this generosity is in accepting election as a prior, provincial or as a member of a Conventual or Provincial Council. In many provinces it has become hard to find capable brethren who are prepared to accept office. The search for a superior becomes a matter of finding someone who is willing to let his name be proposed to chapter. We look for 'candidates'. Yet it seems to me that the only reason for accepting such a position is because one is obedient to the desires of one's brethren and not because one wishes to be a "candidate". There may be good objective reasons for refusing office, which must be taken seriously and possibly accepted, after confirmation by the higher authority. These should be grave reasons, rather than just the fact that one is not attracted by the idea of holding office.

On the Mountain of the Transfiguration, Peter is fascinated by the vision of glory that he has seen. He wishes to build tents and stay there. He resists the call of Jesus to walk on the way to Jerusalem, where he must suffer and die. He fails to see that it is in that death on the cross that the glory will be revealed. Sometimes we remain fascinated by the glory of our past, the glory of the institutions which our brethren before us built. Our gratitude to them should be expressed in searching for ways to meet today's challenges. Like Peter we may be hypnotised and paralysed, and resist the invitation to get up and walk, to share in death and resurrection. Every Province must face death in every generation, but there is the sterile death of those who remain stuck on the mountain of Transfiguration when the Lord has left, and there is the fertile death of those who have dared to take the road and travel with him to the mountain of Calvary, and which leads to resurrection.

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Our mission

Our Constitutions define our mission in the following way: "The principal reason we are gathered together is that we dwell together in harmony and have one mind and one heart in God, in other words, that we be found perfect in charity. . . Our Order is known to have been founded from the beginning expressly for preaching and the salvation of souls. ...This end we ought to pursue, preaching and teaching from the abundance and fulness of contemplation in imitation of our most holy Father Dominic, who spoke only with God or of God for the benefit of souls."