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Santa Sabina is the 5th century basilica on the Aventine hill, just south and across the Tiber from the Vatican, that has served as the home of the General Curia (read, worldwide headquarters) for the Order of Preachers since not long after they were founded by St. Dominic in the early 13th century. In the midst of finals, one of my Dominican classmates, Benedict, offered to lead a small group of us through the basilica and adjacent buildings.
A half dozen of us gathered in the very rooms of the founder for mass, both of which were thankfully de-baroquified some years ago. This was another of those inspiring, unscripted days offered by life in Rome, when you can walk in the footsteps of saints and get a taste of the diachronic communion of the Church.
We wandered the hall where Thomas Aquinas slept, studied, and eventually composed at least part of the Summa and other works. The dining room remains the same one that fed the Great Ox. An incredible view of the city and St. Peter’s awaits on the north side. The basilica itself features some unique mosaics and even a stone that pious legend holds was thrown by Satan himself to distract Dominic from prayer. (Another, slightly more recent legend holds that if you touch the stone and it feels cold, you are in a state of mortal sin and must be confessed by a Dominican immediately. Conveniently, the stone is as black as obsidian and kept indoors year round.) Pius V was another resident of the convent, and is often the pope credited for “creating” the tradition of white as the papal color, by refusing to shed his Dominican habit for the then-normal scarlet after election. Whether accurate or not, it is true that Pius V should be well known for publishing the Roman Missal that was the norm for the celebration of the Eucharist throughout the Western church for four centuries – now known most commonly as the Tridentine Rite.
In the neighborhood we also stopped by the basilica of Sant’Alessio and the most famous keyhole in the world, at the headquarters of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. There, standing in Italian soil, you can gaze through a garden belonging to the SMOM and see a perfectly framed view of the dome of St. Peter’s – three countries in one keyhole. Across the piazza sits the Anselmo, the Benedictine pontifical university that is the traditional center of liturgical education in the Church (outside of Notre Dame, of course!).
One of my favorite professors from Notre Dame, an owlish Dominican ecclesiolgist named Tom O’Meara, published an autobiography a few years ago. I had noticed a copy for sale at the Angelicum bookstore the last couple weeks, but have not been inclined to buy too many extra books while here in Rome. Today, however, I discovered an entire table full of clearance priced texts as they get ready to wind down the academic year, including this paperback at about 85% off the previous price.
Randomly flipping through the book as I logged it into my library inventory, I came across this page describing his first days in Europe in the late summer of 1963:
“I spent my first days in Europe at the Angelicum, the Dominican graduate theological school and seminary. It was named after Thomas Aquinas but called the Angelicum because Aquinas’s theological acumen had resembled that of an angel. With a few eccentric scholars, some inedible meals, primitive toilets, officious porters and sacristans, the “Ange” lived up to what I had heard of it from my teachers who had studied there. A year or two before it had been an almost obligatory school to which Dominicans came from all over the world to gain expeditiously a doctorate. The study of dogmatic theology rarely ranged far from collecting passages from Aquinas on some major or minor topic and ignored other theologians from Origen to Maurice Blondel. Historical contexts and contemporary problems were neglected, for this was a citadel of a strict neo-Thomism where the salvation of Jesuit Suarezians was in only a little less doubt than that of Protestant Hussites. On the eve of the Council, one of the Dominican professors at a meeting of advisors to the Vatican had bemoaned the variety and looseness of theological opinions tolerated by the church, views held even in Rome, views such as those of the Redemptorists in moral theology or the Jesuits in the psychology of grace. He devoutly hoped that the Council would proclaim lists of clear positions on canon law and doctrine so that those vagaries opposed to the Dominican school of Thomism would end. Most of my teachers in the Midwest had received their doctorates from the Angelicum in philosophy, theology, and canon law. What soon amazed me was that American Dominicans had lived in Rome without becoming interested in history or art. Their graduate studies had been repetitive, boring, more memorized scholasticism, and the two years were physically and psychologically difficult, the life of prisoners whose goal was survival. Sadly, poverty, isolation, and rigidity of daily schedule – even in a cloister arranged around a fountain and palm trees and perched above the Roman forum- had for most blocked out the history and beauty around them.”
Thomas F. O’Meara, OP, A Theologian’s Journey, 70.
“The problem is, in our culture, we tend to equate doctrine with doctrinaire and morals with moralism.”
The former Master of the Dominican Order, the British Friar Timothy Radcliffe addressed a packed Salonne Vincenzo Palotti in the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas tonight – about 120 people in all, including more women religious than I have seen at any event in Rome outside of a papal liturgy!
Balancing genuine evangelization and witness, with dialogue and charity, seems to be the greatest challenge facing Christians today. We have to counter a broad-culture message of relativism, but do so without falling into fundamentalism. How to show a better way, without arrogance? This seems like the simplest message of the Gospel, but any honest listener will hear thousands of stories of would-be or former Christians who lost their faith – not in God – but in the poor example of the Christians they encountered.
On one hand, you hear casual dismissal of dogma and doctrine as if such concepts are passé, and not worth discussion. On the other, you hear defenders of the faith doing more damage than any secular press ever could. So, how do be true to the Gospel while in a positive engagement of culture? That was the part of Fr. Timothy’s address that I was able to hear.
He is a gifted preacher – no surprise, given his years at the helm of the Order of Preachers – and a humble man of apparent spirituality. If you ever have the chance to hear him, I suggest you do so. I look forward to an opportunity when I am not taking my turn as porter, so I can get the full message!
It is said that the Dominicans have the best sense of humor, and this is because humor is a necessary part of Dominican spirituality. Without question the funniest guest we have had yet at the Lay Centre is the Rector Magnificus (read: President) of the Angelicum, Father Charles Morerod.
After celebrating the Eucharist with us, the topic of Father Charles’ discussion was on what it means to be a Dominican. A Swiss Dominican serving as rector of the Angelcium, Secretary of the International Theological Commission, and one of three Catholic representatives on the ongoing dialogue with the schismatic sect of Marcel Lefebvre, there was plenty beyond the Order of Preachers to ask about. (as if that resume is not enough, Fr. Morerod is actually on Facebook! Yes, you can find him on my friend list!)
St Dominic was a Cathedral canon with the Bishop of Osma, Spain on a journey to make arrangements for a royal wedding which never happened. Passing through regions of France dominated by the Albigensians/Cathars, Dominic was taken by the lack of good preaching in the region, which lead the poorly catechized residents to gravitate toward the dualist heresies. Further, he was disturbed by the fact that many of the preachers that were available to the people of the region were failry weatlthy monastics or papal legates. So, instead of returning home, he stayed to preach and eventually a following grew.
He was an efficient organizer, and conscientious that the community not become “his” community (reminds me of Father Scott!) – In fact, his humility was so complete that when he died, his order buried him and promptly forgot which grave was his. When, 13 years later, Pope Gregory IX wanted to formally canonize Dominic, the Order was not entirely sure where to find him. Making their best guess, they opened a sarcophagus and discovered “the smell was quite pleasant, so, it must be the saint!”