The General Chapter of the Order of Preachers: Structure of Communion and Mission
In Commemoration of the 8th Centenary of the First General Chapters of the Order (1220, 1221)
Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord
Rome, 13 May 2021
Prot 50/21/183 Letters to the Order
We have decided, the Holy Spirit and us…(Acts 15:28). This is a remarkable, moment in the history of the Church. Faced with division, the Church takes a decision in an unprecedented way. James, leader of the Jerusalem community, pronounced this bold judgment, the first outcome of an arduous communal discernment of a nascent church, together with the apostles Peter and Paul, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Prior to this pivotal moment, the apostles, under the leadership of Peter, cast lots to determine who will take the place of Judas Iscariot. They had clear criteria who to choose: “it is necessary that one who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day on which he was taken up from us, become with us a witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22). They prayed for guidance but when the time came to choose between Joseph and Matthias, they resorted to lots. Thus, the decision taken was not a result of an internal process of communal discernment but an impersonal and external act of divination of God’s will that is similar to the one used in the Old Testament: “and [Aaron] will cast lots to see which of the two must be of the Lord and which of Azazel” (Lev. 16:8). God remains transcendent and invisible, whose will is made known through an inanimate object, insulated, as it were, from the possibility of human manipulation and error in judgment.
How I wish to be spared from making difficult decisions; if only our constitution allows for “drawing of lots” as a legitimate way for making decisions! But the choice of Matthias is the last drawing of lots that we see in the New Testament. After Pentecost, decision-making radically changed due to the immanent presence of the Holy Spirit who takes an “active role” in the life of church. For this reason, the Acts of the Apostles is called by many biblical scholars as “Acts of the Holy Spirit”. In the so-called Council of Jerusalem, James, head of the Jerusalem community, pronounced his judgment: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials” (Acts 15:28). An important decision is no longer made by an external divination of God’s will but by a communal process of intense dialogue and patient discernment under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to determine what is truly good for the community. For the “Spirit of truth who guides into all truth” (John 16:13) now “dwells in them” (1 Cor. 3:16). After Pentecost, the “apostolic manner” for making decisions, “in the presence of the Lord”, is communal discernment. Communicating the decision to the communities through a letter, then choosing and sending delegates to accompany the letter’s reception by the communities are integral to the entire process of making and implementing a communal decision (Acts 15:22-32).
St. Dominic celebrated the first General Chapters in 1220 and 1221 on the solemnity of Pentecost. If the brothers were to embrace the apostolic way of life, then they too must adapt the apostolic way for making decisions for the entire Order. The communitarian form of government (LCO VI) which Dominic gave to the Order is also a gift to the Church, for the mission of the Order is to help build the Church, the body of Christ.
Chapters – general, provincial, conventual – are instruments for building communion. They provide space for confronting challenges the brothers face, for seeking consensus on divisive matters, for discerning the best possible ways to serve the mission of the Order at a particular moment and place, and more importantly, for mutual listening and learning, as brothers.
Ignatius of Antioch, in his letter to the community in Ephesus, says that members of the Church are σύνοδοι, “companions on the way”, by virtue of the dignity of baptism and their friendship with Christ. We, Dominicans, are also synodoi, “itinerant companions”, brothers and sisters in-mission-together to preach the Word-incarnate. As we celebrate the culmination of the 800th anniversary of the first general chapters of the Order (1220, 2021) I have requested Brother Timothy, Fray Carlos and Frère Bruno to share their thoughts and reflections on their concrete experiences of the General Chapters in the Order, how General Chapters have become instruments of unity and communion, for the sake of the preaching mission of Order. As Masters of the Order, they have been, and continue to be “synodoi”, companions in the journey of the Order, in its “communal itinerancy”. As we read their reflections, we will find common fundamental insights, but the context and content of their experiences would be different, hence, the same, yet different.
Br. Gerard Timoner, OP
Br. Timothy Radcliffe, OP
Our form of government embodies the gospel that we are sent to preach. It is an expression of our brotherhood, and before there were brothers, there were sisters. ‘Brother’ and ‘Sister’ are the oldest and most fundamental titles in Christianity. They speak of our membership of Christ’s family. One of the earliest biographies of St. Dominic is to be found in the Vitae Fratrum, ‘The lives of the brethren’. It is utterly fitting that the Order of preachers should be founded by someone who claimed to be no more than one of the brethren. This embodiment of brotherhood was vastly appealing to the cities to which we were first sent which in Dominic’s time were in turmoil. The old vertical relationships of feudalism were weakening. The culture of deference was on the wane. Merchants were travelling all over Europe and beyond. A mini-globalisation in progress. It was said of the friars that ‘the world was their cell and the ocean their cloister.’ Their identity as brethren was in itself a preaching of the Gospel in this new world.
Marie-Dominique Chenu OP argued that every time there is a revival of the faith, the word ‘brother’ resurfaces. ‘The typical word of the first Christian communities finds again its full meaning: people are called brother (or sister) in confrontation with social inequalities, and with all the utopic charge of the words. The head of the Dominican team arriving in Paris was still called, in accordance with custom, “Abbot”. Within three months, this title was dropped and he was called, “brother prior’.And so it was right that a recent General Chapter of the Order ordained that the proper title for all the friars of the Order is ‘brother’, as you, our Brother Gerard, gently remind us.
This is especially important at this moment. Our society, as in the time of Dominic, is in a state of turmoil. Old social hierarchies are crumbling. Never before has there been such vast migrations of people searching for peace and security. Every time we leave our homes, we encounter strangers. Zygmunt Bauman has described our society as one of ‘liquid modernity’.Democracy is in retreat. In such an uncertain world, a spirituality of brotherhood offers a way of belonging to people of diverse origins and convictions. Pope Francis constantly summons ordained priests beyond ‘clericalism’. What would an unclericalist Church look like? Dominicans priests should model this in a brotherly ministry.
Why does our brotherhood find expression in General Chapters? I am one of six siblings and we never hold formal meetings at which we propose resolutions and vote. Indeed many of our brethren consider General Chapters to be a waste of time, producing Acts that no one reads! When an English Dominican expressed this objection to Brother Damian Byrne, he replied that holding General Chapters are the breathing of the Order. We would quickly notice the consequence if they were to stop!
Chapters nurture the unity of the Order, which is an expression of our unity in Christ. We listen to each other for days and weeks, because the Holy Spirit is poured on every brother. We seek a consensus which is more than a compromise, but a spacious truth, large enough to win the consent of as many brethren as possible. We take the time so that everyone is heard. God is infinitely patient with us so we should be patient with each other.
I have attended every General Chapter bar one since Oakland in 1989. There have been moments of tension and sharp disagreement, but we have resisted the forces of fragmentation which afflict the Church and society. At Biên Hòa in 2019, we arrived at a deeper peace than before, in which we could even see our differences as invitations to progress further in our understanding of the Gospel.
It is impossible to underestimate the importance of this witness in a Church which is so often torn by divisions between so-called ‘traditionalists’ and ‘progressives’, an opposition which should be alien to the spacious truth of Catholicism. Gathering in chapter is itself a preaching of the Gospel to a world fractured by a growing mutual miscomprehension, fueled by the oversimplified communications of the social media, and a shriveled concern for the truth. General Chapters necessitate years of preparation and weeks of debate and of endless voting. Yet this is the patient organic labour of sustaining a fraternity which is a union of heart and mind.
More boldly, and in the tradition of the English Dominican Province, I believe that one can take a further step and claim that such fraternity open us to friendship with each other. Aquinas taught that we are baptised into friendship with God. I quote Fergus Kerr OP, ‘In c