As a Dominican Friar, Lent is a special time. I’ve looked forward to it more every year as a Dominican; here are a few reasons why.
#1. Opportunity in Prayer
When I think about common Lenten resolution for many Catholics, attending mass more frequently or building in more time for prayer, I realize how blessed we friars are to have so much prayer built into our schedule, and to have a chapel with the Blessed Sacrament in our house.
There’s no magic pill that Dominicans take to make us more inclined to prayer: it takes intention and effort for us, just like it would with anyone else. That said, the structure of our life does make more intense Lenten prayer more doable.
#2. Clear Spiritual Purpose
First things first: Lent is for everyone. Every Christian who observes Lent is called to prayer, fasting and almsgiving for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Let’s make sure we grasp that essential truth.
Having said that, the life of a friar is geared in a special way to preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the integral parts of Lent – especially prayer and penitential practice – are also integral parts of the Dominican life (See more hereand here).
All parts of a Dominican friar’s life are supposed to facilitate one’s becoming a more effective preacher. So when there’s a season specially dedicated to integral parts of our life, it makes sense that a friar’s mission during this season is clear: find ways to grow in virtuous prayer and in penitential practice. We Dominicans know what we are about during Lent.
#3. Intentional Growth Culture
One last neat thing about Lent in a Dominican community is that brothers’ penances tend to be more geared toward sustainable lifestyle changes than temporary sacrifices.
I’ve personally noticed that each year’s Lenten season tends to build on the previous year: that gives a sense of direction. I’ve heard Bishop Robert Barron compare Lent to baseball’s spring training; I like that analogy.
I’d also compare it to any intense offseason conditioning program: Lent is the time to build up the spiritual life for the year ahead, and it’s easier to sustain that in a supportive community.
From the founding of the Dominican Order in 1216, skilled, professional, and holy men have been called to put their training and gifts to use for the mission of preaching. Why are cooperator brothers essential to the Dominican charism?
#1. Cooperator brothers emphasize a fraternal versus a paternal presence.
Dominicans are called to serve one another as brothers in charity as practiced and modeled by Jesus and the apostles. The Gospel of Luke reminds us that “the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest,” (9: 47-48). In the Dominican Constitution, friars are reminded that all brothers are directly linked first by profession.
The cooperator brothers remind us all of what we share in our vows as consecrated religious.
#2. Brothers help maintain a sense of balance for the Order.
The brothers have been models throughout Dominican history of service, prayer, and charity. They have been models of prayer and stability in the contemplative structure which St. Dominic radically instituted.
Brothers help us to remember that what we do is not as important and impactful as who we are. As important as sacramental ministry is to those chosen to be ordained and as vital as that ministry is to the Church, profession of vows and life in the community are first.
#3. Cooperator brothers increase the diversity of our Holy Preaching to the world.
As St Paul states so clearly in 1 Corinthians 12, we need many diverse parts to make up the body of Christ. From a ‘non-clerical’ view of the world, brothers have been able to reach people often found on the fringes. Brothers are particularly itinerant in their preaching as they seek out the marginalized and go directly to the need. Further, we must focus on the very identity if who we are as Dominicans – Preachers.
Preaching is the mission of the Order. It is why Dominicans exist. How we view the impact, effect, and influence of the cooperator brothers in the preaching mission is the heart of the issue. We preach as a community, not as individuals. Dominican preaching begins with a communal rather than an individual focus. It begins with an internal sense of who we are as brothers rather than highlighting individual external ministry.
For Dominicans, who we are as community and how we live as community is primary to what we do. What kind of brother I am speaks louder than any individual homily pronounced, book written, or class taught. Dominican preaching grows within our communal prayer and contemplation. The preaching is then brought to and enlivened by the prayers of our contemplative nuns.
When Dominican friars preach, people hear first the sense of love in community life and the integrity of our communal prayer before they hear our words. If Dominican preaching is not affected by the presence of the brothers, then maybe the Holy Spirit is saying it is time for the brothers to fade into history. If, however, the Dominican preaching is influenced by the presence of our brothers, then this changes how all Dominicans see the decline in brother vocations. The “cooperator vocation problem” is a problem for every Dominican.
Joyfully recall that St Dominic instituted the role of non-ordained brothers among the friars by summoning Oderic of Normandy as one of the original sixteen. Joyfully recall that Holy Mother Church has blessed the brother vocation and declared 4 cooperator brothers as saints and over 70 as martyrs. Joyfully pray that the Order be renewed in the founding spirit of Dominic and as the Dominican constitution demands.
In 1216, St Dominic founded the Order of Preachers to preach for the salvation of souls. To carry out the mission, Dominic created an Order composed of various components. He first organized the contemplative nuns, next the friars. Shortly thereafter, lay people began to embrace the charism and mission of the Order.
Groups of women also contributed as consecrated religious to the holy preaching in a wide variety of apostolic ways. From the beginning, St Dominic founded a non-ordained presence among the friars. For centuries they were called lay brothers or conversi. Since 1958, the non-ordained friars have been called cooperator brothers.
Much has been discussed about the decline in vocations to the religious life. In the West – the United States, Canada, and Western Europe – the problem is even more acute.
Right before our eyes, religious life is disappearing. The amount of men responding to the call of religious life or priesthood is in steep decline and among the non-ordained men, often called brothers, the decline is even more severe. These trends are consistent with what is happening within the Dominican Order. Even more decline will occur in the next few years. Why are so few men responding to God’s call to live their lives as consecrated religious brothers?
#1. Modern secular society does not value appropriately life in community and family.
People are searching for meaning and ways to be brought together in authentic relationships. Yet, for the most part, modern secular society has no clue what this means.
People are searching for sanctification, yet community and family values are foreign to many today. The notion of joining a religious community for prayer, friendship, common values, support, common ministry, appropriate intimacy, and ultimately sanctification is outside the mindset of most people in today’s world.
#2. People both inside and outside the Church are confused about the meaning of the ordained priesthood.
Lack of clarity exists about Jesus’ institution of the priesthood and the guiding authority of the Holy Spirit in the Church. When some hold that the fact that only certain men are called to be priest is an equality issue, they are missing the meaning of ordination. This directly affects people’s views about the brothers.
We are not all called to the same vocation.
We have all been given different gifts and charisms in order to carry out our unique vocation. For those who are called to be non-ordained religious, “going all the way” means that their vows before God, Church, and their religious community is the fulfillment of that call.
#3. Many in religious life have forgotten the zeal and observances necessary to live fully the life to which we are called.
It’s easy to forget the Cross and the life of sacrifice we are called to make. A watered-down approach to religious life does not attract young people. It speaks little of radically living our lives in complete discipleship of Jesus.
#4. There is confusion about, ‘who we are,’ versus ‘what we do.’
In today’s society, we often focus exclusively on what we do. In conversations we often first ask, “what do you do?” We define ourselves by our function, by our career, by our status. The gospel says no to this way of thinking. Who we are, as followers of Christ and children of God, is primary. Even within religious life, I see people define themselves over and over by their ministry – by what they do.
What we do is important, but it is not primary.
Being a person of prayer, living out the evangelical counsels, working to become a saint, living out our charisms and gifts from God — these go first. These should be how we define ourselves. If we take care of who we are first, our ministry and what we do will be blessed by the Holy Spirit and will bear much fruit.
On the third weekend of February, we Dominican Friars at St. Dominic Priory hosted more than 30 men discerning religious life for a vocations weekend. The weekend gave me some reminders about our life; here are a few thoughts.
#1. Men Discerning Religious Life Love our Prayer and Common Life
At the end of the weekend, men overwhelmingly cited common prayer and our community recreation as a positive impact. We try and make clear that community life is sometimes hard, but people notice that we love to have fun together, and love to pray together. Much of the Come & See schedule is different from our normal priory schedule, but our prayer, recreational and meal times remain largely the same; in those areas, it’s business as usual. It’s always edifying when the things people love about you are the things that make you most yourself!
#2. Men Discerning Religious Life Notice our Variety
In some places there is a saying, ‘If you’ve met one *fill-in-the-blank* you’ve met them all.’ During my time in the Order, I’ve heard an inverse phrase that applies to the Friars Preachers: ‘If you’ve met one Dominican, you’ve met one Dominican.’ Obviously there are unifying principles to our life (Read about those here), but there is a lot of diversity: different races, different economic backgrounds, different parts of the country (even different countries), all interested in preaching the Gospel of Christ as Dominican Friars.
According to our feedback, our Saturday Night Panel – in which four student brothers give an account of Dominican Life from four unique perspectives – as well as the Sunday talk on the value of the Cooperator Brother in the Order communicated that preaching the Gospel as a Dominican takes a wide range of applicants.
#3. Dominican Nuns Make Us Unique
We were blessed to be joined by three representatives – two professed nuns and one postulant – from the Cloistered Dominican Nuns of Springfield/Girard (being cloistered, the trip was a big deal)!
Sr. Emmanuella gave a stirring talk on the Nuns, founded more than a decade before the friars, as Dominic’s ‘Firstborn.’ Afterwards, the nuns took questions, ate lunch with those discerning and took their prayer requests. A number of men spoke about how humbled and grateful they were to have such holy women devoted to praying especially for their intentions, and said they had a feeling for how lucky we friars are.
Dominican Friars of St. Louis, MO
The Dominican Friars living at St. Dominic Priory in St. Louis, MO are members of both the Central U.S. Province and the Southern U.S. Province. Our student friars go through their formation together at the St. Louis Studium, otherwise known as the House of Studies.