St. Dominic’s mission in life was revealed to him during the 12th century as he accompanied Spanish Bishop Diego de Acebo on a diplomatic trip to France for Alfonso IX, king of Castile.
Passing through southern France, Dominic met an innkeeper who embraced the Albigensian heresy which denied the Incarnation and believed that the physical world was evil and created by an evil god. Dominic, the story goes, spent the entire night conversing with the man. By morning he had helped the man to see the truth. Thus began Dominic’s lifelong goal of preaching the truth and the good news of Jesus Christ for the salvation of souls.
During its rich 800-year history, the order that he founded — the Order of Preachers — has thrived, continuing to bring Christ to a culture that desperately needs him. Its mission has remained the same.
For the past year, starting on Nov. 7, 2015, the Dominican order has been remembering its 800th anniversary with a jubilee year that concludes on Jan. 21, 2017. This celebration marks the bulls that Pope Honorius III promulgated in 1216 and 1217 approving the order.
Born in Caleruega, Spain, St. Dominic (1170–1221) became a priest and a member of the Canons of St. Augustine at the Cathedral of Osma at the age of 25. Through his travels in France, he witnessed firsthand the effects of poor teaching and understood the need for good teaching and preaching. Dominic began the order with 17 men.
“While Dominic encountered the Albigensians near Toulouse, he didn’t want the order to be just for Toulouse,” said Father Andrew Hofer, OP, master of students at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. “He had a sense that we were meant for the world, and so he sent brothers out.”
Send them out, he did. They now encompass the globe. According to Father Hofer, the order has about 6,000 friars with another 1,000 in initial formation. The order also includes some 2,700 nuns and many sisters in ministry around the globe.
In the United States, the Dominican order was first established by Father Edward Fenwick, an American who joined the order in 1788. He returned to the United States and evangelized the regions of Kentucky and Ohio. Father Fenwick was consecrated as the first bishop of the new Diocese of Cincinnati in 1822. As a result of his work, the Dominicans continue to have a strong presence in the U.S., with four provinces: Central, Southern, Western, and Eastern. The Dominicans are commonly active in serving parishes, serving at all levels of education, and serving in campus ministry and health care.
What draws them?
Many who are called to a Dominican vocation point to the order’s four pillars: prayer, study, community, and service.
Prior to his May 2015 ordination, Father Boniface Endorf, OP, attended New York University and worked as an attorney. He returned to Cincinnati to care for his ailing mother.
While helping at a Theology on Tap event, Father Endorf found himself attracted to the Dominican fraternity.
“A Dominican priest presented and brought along his fellow Dominicans,” Father Endorf said. “Seeing that fraternity … how they all got along and cared for each other, made me think, ‘I want to be a part of that group.’”
Father Endorf felt called to the priesthood, so he inquired among the Dominicans. He currently serves as associate pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Columbus, Ohio.
“Our work at the parish is to catechize parishioners,” Father Endorf said. “They’re on the front lines. If they know their faith well and present it in a persuasive way, they can do so at their workplaces and all those places where they are that I would never be at. I see my job as equipping them to fulfill their mission to transform the world.”
“There seems to be a renewal in the Dominicans,” Father Endorf explained. “We have lots of vocations, and the quality of men coming in is very good.”
On May 21, 2016, the Province of St. Joseph (Eastern Province) ordained its largest class in 45 years, with 11 new priests, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
Asked about the renewal, Father Endorf credited the Holy Spirit.
“There is a real need for the New Evangelization and preaching the Word of God to a culture that desperately needs it,” he said.
“For 800 years the Dominicans have been confronting heresy, proposing the truth, and rooting out error,” added Father Hofer.
“Dominic saw the heresies of his day, heresies that denied who Jesus Christ is. He worried that souls would be lost,” Father Endorf said. “The challenges that all Christians face in today’s culture are that the basic principles of what people believe cut against the faith — the purpose of human life, true happiness, etc. … We teach people how to be fully human again. That leads to happiness and joy rather than repeating the things that only lead to misery. We’re like the middlemen who help them to know and become friends with Jesus Christ so that they can come to know and love him in their lives.”
The Most Holy Name of Jesus Province (Western Province) has also experienced growth.
“We’re seeing growth each year and have had a steady number of new novices for the past three or four years,” said Brother Michael James Rivera, OP, webmaster for the Western Province. “Last year there were four, plus two from the Vietnamese Vicariate. The year before that there were six. This coming year (2016) six novices are entering.”
Female Dominican congregations are increasing in size as well. One of the largest is the Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, Tennessee. Currently, the community has 300 members, including 50 novices who are in initial formation. The congregation began witnessing larger entrance classes in the mid-1990s, and that has remained steady, with between 15 to 25 postulants entering each year.
Sister Anne Catherine Burleigh, OP, principal of St. Cecilia’s Academy, entered the community 20 years ago with 17 other young women. She was attracted by what she described as “the Dominican balance.”
“There is a great balance between contemplative and active life,” Sister Anne Catherine said. “We’re living a life of deep faith and vibrant community life with many monastic elements, but there’s also an active apostolate of teaching.”
She compared the influx to having “new babies in a family.”
“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” she said, “but you want to form them well.”
Beyond the U.S.
The Dominicans can be found around the world, carrying out missionary work, preaching, and teaching. However, they are never sent out alone. Community life is integral to the Dominican way of life. Whatever apostolic activity they are engaged in — whether it be teaching, campus ministry, missionary work, or health care, Dominicans live together in community with their fellow religious.
“We very much take our life with us,” Sister Anne Catherine explained. “For our congregation, our common life is absolutely essential for who we are.”
For example, prior to the 2008 World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, three Nashville Dominican sisters were invited by the bishop to help prepare for the event. Afterward the sisters were invited to remain. They have continued to live in community, working in chaplaincy at the University of Sydney and bringing the Gospel to those on campus.
“One of the graces from that World Youth Day is that we’ve received 14 vocations from Australia,” Sister Anne Catherine said. “Some are still in formation; others have gone back to serve in Australia.”
Nashville Dominicans can also be found in Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, and Scotland.
This fall, the Nashville Dominicans began a new mission in Limerick, Ireland. Four sisters took up residence at the Dominican priory there at the invitation of the bishop. Prior to their arrival, Dominican friars had been there for hundreds of years. Just last year, the friars decided to leave.
“We feel very pleased to be a part of keeping that presence in Ireland,” Sister Anne Catherine said. “That’s the beauty of it being a worldwide family. The Lord still allows their presence in the world. It is a charism for our time.”
Another geographic area that has witnessed tremendous growth is Vietnam.
The order there has more than 150 friars and receives approximately 200 nuns and sisters annually. The Dominican Province of Vietnam has approximately 100 men in formation, but the communist government strictly controls how many men can be ordained each year. Many pursue their studies in the U.S. The Vietnamese Vicariate of St. Vincent Liem, OP, was established in 1981 for those who had fled communism. Headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, it ministers to various Vietnamese communities in the United States.
“St. Dominic’s mission is as relevant today as [it ever] was,” Sister Anne Catherine said. “People continue to search for truth and happiness. The order preaches and teaches Christ. We want to bring him to the world.”
TO LEARN MORE: