Topic: Reform Renewal Contemplation

Br. Thomas Aquinas Pickett, O.P.'s picture

Contemplative Shock Troops: Dominican Renewal after Vatican II

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Anniversaries are unique phenomena where the past takes priority over the present time, illumining it with a light of meaning that permits a clearer vision of our self-identity, of our goals for the future, and of what truly ought to matter in life. For example, wedding anniversaries remind couples of love and commitment and the gift of their lives to one another. The particular day, be it December 21st or April 27th, is not significant of itself, but because of what happened in the past, i.e., marriage, a couple recalls who they are to one another, where they hope to be in the future, and why they came together as man and wife. Anniversaries, then, if we are attentive and mindful, can be moments of profound change as we are awakened to something greater than the routine now of everyday life.

It is for this reason that Catholics, especially vowed religious, should hold very dear the date of October 28 as the anniversary of Perfectæ Caritatis, the Second Vatican Council Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, proclaimed by Pope Paul VI on this date in 1965. Of particular significance in this document is the call for religious orders and institutes to look back to their founders and bring their inspiration to life in the contemporary world: "The adaptation and renewal of the religious life includes both the constant return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original spirit of the institutes and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time." (#2)

This "constant return" to the "original spirit" of each order or institute is significant since, while all sharing a common "pursuit of perfect charity through the evangelical counsels" (#1), these communities individually offer to the People of God and to the whole world a unique expression of Christ's love manifested through their distinctive charism. "So it is that in accordance with the Divine Plan a wonderful variety of religious communities has grown up, which has made it easier for the Church not only to be equipped for every good work (cf. 2 Tim 3:17) and ready for the work of the ministry--the building up of the Body of Christ (cf. Eph 4:12--but also to appear adorned with the various gifts of her children like a spouse adorned for her husband (cf. Apoc. 21:2) and for the manifold Wisdom of God to be revealed through her (cf. Eph 3:10)." As a body has many members, each of which performs a unique task for the benefit of the whole, so in the Body of Christ, each religious order and institute has been gifted by God with a unique charism, a unique task and role to play.

It is thus by strict and faithful observance to their respective rules, in a loving embrace of these unique charisms, that religious orders may experience a spiritual renewal and rejuvenation in pursuit of perfect charity. Perfectæ Caritatis is quite explicit on the point: "everyone should keep in mind that the hope of renewal lies more in the faithful observance of the rule and constitutions than in multiplying laws." (#4) Pope Paul VI, invoking the spirit of Vatican II, re-echoes this point in his Message to the General Chapters of Religious Orders and Congregations, given on May 23rd, 1964: "With respect to undertaking new projects or activities, you should refrain from taking on those which do not entirely correspond to the principal work of your Institute or to the mind of your Founder. For Religious Institutes will flourish and prosper so long as the integral spirit of their Founder continues to inspire their rule of life and apostolic works, as well as the actions and lives of their members." When religious orders and institutes begin to undertake ministries that are not in accord with the vision of their founder, they then declare such a vision to be irrelevant to the contemporary world.

For Dominicans, though, the commitment to the vision of St. Dominic will never be irrelevant so long as there are men and women who have not heard the Gospel, and so long as those who have already heard the Gospel are not moved to live it with the fire of the Holy Spirit. St. Dominic's radical vision was of an order of contemplative apostles: of religious who, from the silent base of a monastic and canonical environment, are sent out (apostoloi) preaching as contemplative shock-troops of God's love and truth. As itinerant preachers and as advanced teachers of doctrine, Dominican preaching, as articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas, comes from an abundance of contemplation, "abundantiam contemplationis." (III.40.1 ad 2) This is also articulated in the Fundamental Constitution of the Order: "It [the Dominican vocation] is an apostolic life in the full sense of the word, from which preaching and teaching ought to issue from an abundance of contemplation." (1 §IV) The famous Dominican motto contemplata tradere aliis presupposes that what has been handed on in preaching, has first been contemplated (quid traditaest , contemplata est). For Dominicans to engage in non-contemplative preaching and ministry is to, effectively, ignore the vision of St. Dominic.

Thus it is that any authentic renewal of Dominican life must begin with an intensification and rediscovery of the value of the contemplative life within the monastic and canonical settings of our priories. This is argued for by Paul Hinnebusch, O.P., in his book Renewal in the Spirit of St. Dominic: "Dominican renewal must begin with an all-out attempt to recreate esteem for the contemplative spirit. Any renewal that does not enrich the contemplative element in the Dominican way of life must be rejected." (55) It is also clearly and forcefully explicated by Valentine Walgrave, O.P., in his book Dominican Self-Appraisal in the Light of the Council, " the future of the Preachers depends on a renewal of the contemplative spirit." (73)

As a unique order of contemplative apostles, Dominicans should not do what is proper to Carmelites, Franciscans, Jesuits, Benedictines, or diocesan clergy, nor should any of these, likewise, do what pertains to the Dominican charism; this would be to trivialize the unique gifts belonging to each member of the Body of Christ. Rather, Dominicans must hold fast to the contemplative life and its observances, and to the itinerant preaching and doctrinal teaching that flows from it. Dominicans as contemplative preachers do not set out to find Christ in the world, but they set out to bring Christ into the world; a world which hungers for the contemplative encounter of God. All men and women are born to have contemplative knowledge of God, and it is up to the Dominicans to awaken, stir, and enable this loving knowing.

As we hold dear the anniversary of Perfectæ Caritatis, let us also hold dear to the original vision of St. Dominic, and our unique Dominican charism. Let us always strive towards the ideal, correct what hinders progress, and guard zealously the charism to which we have vowed ourselves.

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