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Letter Of The Master Of The Order: 8th Centenary Of The First General Chapters

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[1](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).[2] 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.[3] 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.’[4] 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’.[5]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’.[6]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 charity we are friends with God. There can be no friendship, in the fullest sense, except between equals – but God has made us his equals’.[7] So to the confusing, turbulent world of the city, the first brethren brought the startling offer of equal friendship. Our model of government embodies the friendship of the Order, which is an expression of the friendship which is the life of God.

These early friars and sisters had easy friendships with each other. Dominic delighted in the company of woman and when he was dying Dominic confessed that he preferred talking to young women to being talked at by old women! His immediate successor, Blessed Jordan of Saxony exchanged the most loving letters with a Dominican nun, Blessed Diana d’Andalo. Meister Eckhart had close friendships with the Rhineland nuns. St Catherine of Siena, a fourteenth century Dominican lay woman, had her community of friends, friars and lay people, called the caterinati, who gave each other crazy nicknames and cracked jokes. And there was of course her friendship with Raymond of Capua.

Today relationships between men and women have become fraught with anxiety, with forces of domination and manipulation, of accusation and denial. In some countries young men are becoming nervous of forming relationships with real women, taking refuge in the virtual world where there is no touch. A spirituality of friendship offers a liberating encouragement to dare to relate.


Br. Carlos Azpiroz Costa, OP

General Chapters in the Order’s form of government

I am happy to know that in the midst of so many celebrations, the 800th anniversary of the first two General Chapters, presided over by Saint Dominic, will be remembered. In both of them the unity of the Order was guaranteed under the authority of the Master, and the spread of the Order through the Provinces – diversity – to guarantee the spread and inculturation of the Gospel message, trusting in the Holy Spirit, in the maturity of the brothers, in the system of government that supported them. All this ensures a truly apostolic life.

Saint Dominic did not “invent” his Constitutions. He is not one of those saints who surprise people, an “enlightened” saint. His own vocation is not sudden, we do not find in him a “stormy or tempestuous conversion”. His very broad ecclesial experience from a very early age gave him a profound knowledge of the most important and varied manifestations of the “regular” tradition (monastic and canonical) and of the diocesan life of his time, in his own area (Palencia and Osma), later in the French Midi (Fanjeaux, Toulouse, etc.) and in what is now Italy. This experience helped him to give juridical form to his foundation, incorporating both the most ancient canonical norms and the most recent legislation of the Church, the fruit of the Fourth Lateran Council on preaching, the teaching of theology and the need to celebrate Provincial and General Chapters for the existing monastic Orders and canons regular. Added to this was his “first-hand” experience of the great vitality of associations of professors and students in university circles, of associations of artisans and of the beginnings of “municipal” (communal) structures based on moderate and participatory government. Finally, before his eyes was the challenge of the poor, itinerant Cathar preachers. They led him to discover, like St Francis, the need to do something similar and new, but within the Church itself!

An “apparent” obstacle, such as that of the famous Canon XIII of the Fourth Lateran Council, which forbade foundations of new “Orders”, ended up being providentially a propelling force for the novelty of the Preachers. Together, gathered in chapter, Saint Dominic and his first group of friars chose the Rule of Saint Augustine, one of the oldest in the Church. They adopted the customs of the Premonstratensian Order and inserted the novelty of mendicant poverty and itinerancy, study and preaching. In this way the friars were incorporated in the most ancient religious tradition of the Church and at the same time guaranteed the absolute novelty of the project. Three sources of energy drawn from the Church of the 13th century or from the whole history of the Church are combined in the Order. An official mission: preaching. A regular form: the canonical tradition. A foundational idea (idea–strength): apostolic life or imitation of the Apostles.

The Chapter of 1220 forged the constitutional model still in force today, which guarantees the unity of the Order. The Chapter of 1221 outlined the first model for the distribution of the Order into Provinces. It thus promoted a democratic, centralised and highly organised body, an Order, not a mere collection of houses or Provinces! This legislation, drawn up in stages and following the lessons of experience, very early determined and revealed, in a set of texts, the rules of community and obedience which would one day allow the founder to disappear without any risk to the Order. In fact, Saint Dominic died on 6 August 1221 and the Order had already been endowed with a minimum, solid structure to live its mission in the Church. Saint Dominic left no writings, only the Order and a well-delineated form of government. Many experts claim that much of the text of the Primitive Constitutions was incorporated in his own handwriting.

Let me outline some “key lines” of this style of government based on freedom and responsibility. First of all, it is necessary to underline that medieval canonical principle – perhaps somewhat forgotten – which expresses our style of government: “Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus tractari et approbari debet. Blessed Humbert of Romans, the fourth successor of Saint Dominic, would comment on this rule of law, writing with great common sense: “the good, in fact, which is accepted by all, is promoted quickly and easily“.

The General Chapters succeeded one another with varying frequency. In 1228, the novel legislative process that the Order has retained to this day was already established: a disposition becomes a constitution only when three consecutive General Chapters take part in its approval with the following technical expressions: initiation, approval and confirmation. Let us recall that these three assemblies are of different compositions: a) Elective General Chapter (which elects the Master of the Order; the participants are Priors Provincial and Diffinitors or delegates elected by the Provinces gathered in Provincial Chapter); b) General Chapter of Diffinitors; c) General Chapter of Provincials, and so on. This is what has come to be called the famous “Dominican bicameral system“. It is bicameral in several senses: 1) in the first place, for a law to become a constitution it must be dealt with, defined and voted by three different consecutive constituent legislative assemblies (General Chapters); 2) secondly, these assemblies are made up of different friars: those who do not hold authority in the Province (the diffinitors); the Provincials and friars on the same level as them; thirdly, a capitular assembly) composed of both “types” of friars.

The General Chapters alternate, and each of them has the same powers. Briefly: various colleges, made up of various friars, with various functions, at various times, vote on the various laws governing the life of the Order itself. This fraternal communion of the capitular system is also manifested in the organic and proportionate participation of all the parts (convents, provinces) to achieve the end proper to the Order. This is why we say that our government is communitarian in its own way, for the superiors ordinarily obtain their office by election by the brethren, confirmed by a higher superior. Moreover, in resolving matters of major importance, the communities take part in many ways in their own government, through the Chapter or Council (at local, Provincial and general levels). The Order is “synodal” because from the very beginning, the brothers have lived, praised, governed, preached as brothers.

As a presupposition, we are faced with a theological tradition of the vow of obedience which is perhaps “different” from what we are used to in imagination or from – just as an example – a Benedictine or Jesuit perspective. Indeed, obœdire (to obey) is intimately linked in our tradition with ob-audire (to listen), which is why the vow of obedience is the only vow expressed in the Dominican formula of profession! That is the function of all authority in the Order: to listen to God, listening to him and making him heard through the voice of the brothers, the friars. We are convinced that in listening to the brothers we listen to the voice of God. That is why there is also an intimate connection between the vow we profess (vow of obedience) and the raised hands expressing a yes or no, or the ballots with names as an expression of the vote of each friar when decisions are taken, issues are defined, matters are dealt with or brothers are elected to certain offices or charges. The “fratres, votemus” which is so often heard from the lips of the president or secretary of the General Chapter, from the very origin of the Order, expresses vividly the sense of the vow of obedience which unites us personally to the Master of the Order. We also commit ourselves to obey those laws which we vote and those brothers whom we also elect by our vote.

Throughout time, we always try to ensure the means for livelihood and the means for community… but what will happen to these means for livelihood, we cannot know or say; indeed, there are things or dimensions of life (such as culture itself) that are “unplannable”. All that can be done is to create spaces that will respect and facilitate the life forces that are not in our hands, that are not plannable! The unity and diversity of the Order are manifested in a complex organisation that requires continuous attention, evaluation and adaptation. It is not a “simple” system, but it is the sign of true “democracy”, of true freedom.[8] This “ecosystem” that Saint Dominic bequeathed to his Family is fragile in texture, requires great patience and perseverance to cultivate and develop, and needs the involvement of all in a shared, common quest. “Pluralism” is not seen in the Order as a transitory illness to be “tolerated”, but as a blessing that enriches our common heritage. We are pilgrims, itinerant, without fixed abode, and for us the creation of a community is always an “exploration”, a community of those who – together – seek the truth, wherever it is to be found! Perhaps this is why, in a polemical text, Saint Albert the Great defined his ideal of Dominican life: In dulcedine societatis, quaerere veritatem(in the gentle harmony of fraternal life, seek the truth).


Br. Bruno Cadoré, OP

At the last General Chapter, without really knowing why and perhaps inadvertently, I asked the Secretary General to do the roll call of the capitulars not before the opening prayer which inaugurates the election process (as is customary) but after it. Afterwards, I was very happy about this because it made me much more aware than ever of the mystery of communion that presides over our Chapters. It is the Spirit who brings us together and makes our diversity a sign of communion, and it is in this sense that we can say that we “celebrate” our chapters. At that moment in Biên Hoà, there was neither a great noise nor a mighty gust of wind, and yet it was indeed a moment of Pentecost, bringing together friars from the ends of the earth, constituting them as a body, animating them towards the common search for the way in which they were going to propose to the friars of the Order that they continue their journey together by proclaiming the imminence of the Kingdom. In answering Ad Sum, each friar claims his place in the long tradition of the Order, and as they hear this reply, everyone becomes aware of the state of the Order and of its new faces and places; who the friars are and where they are, those to whom Dominic today has said go, study, preach and establish convents! It is an opportunity to give thanks for the work of the Spirit who drives and accompanies the Order in its itinerancy to meet its contemporaries throughout the world!

Dominic was right to assemble the first General Chapters on the feast of Pentecost. Basically, I think that the main task of General Chapters, as well as provincial, vicariate and conventual chapters, is to echo the call to follow the way opened by the Acts of the Apostles, because it is along this way that the Church becomes what it is called to be: a community of brothers and sisters whose unity is built up by inviting others to welcome the good news of Jesus Christ and live by it. Is this not what Pope Francis constantly reminds us when he invites us to “walk together” and calls us to “fraternity”? The mystery of communion promoted by the Spirit at the heart of human history!

But, like a sacrament, Chapters are signs of this mystery because they expose to the Word of grace and truth a very concrete human reality. That is to say, Chapters show that communion – and we might say fraternity as well – is a slow, patient, sometimes difficult work. Like the “work” of generating something new, of which the Apostle Paul spoke so well when he wrote of the creation groaning in the pains of childbirth. Chapters assemble brothers who do not know each other and yet recognise each other, meet and talk of ideas that might be mutually exclusive, yet in doing so they want to set aside any exclusive claim to truth in order really to “seek with others new paths towards the truth”; they bring together cultures so distant from one another, nonetheless convinced that each is irreplaceable and that none is sufficient alone to discover the richness of evangelisation. When we see all this, how can we fail to see in it the slow work of bringing about that great gathering prophesied by Isaiah (Is. 60)? Sometimes, perhaps even too often, we can be tempted to think of Chapters as an almost theoretical “exercise”, not very effective, too wordy, far removed from concrete reality. And, then, we reduce Chapters to the text of the Acts, which sometimes we hardly read, or which, at othe