800 years ago today, on 22nd December 1216, Pope Honorius III gave Our Holy Father Dominic his approval to establish the Order of Preachers. The anniversary is impeded liturgically because of the primacy of these days before Christmas. We remember in our prayers the Order and all who are associated with it. May God grant us all his grace and his peace on this the 800th birthday of the Order of Preachers.
It was eight hundred years ago today, on 22nd December 1216, that Pope Honorius III gave the Church’s official approval to Saint Dominic’s great project: to establish an Order of brothers who would be poor, itinerant, scholarly, and energetic, both in preaching God’s Word and in reconciling sinners to Him. Alongside the Friars Preachers, were the Sisters of the Order, who were central to the preaching project from the very beginning, a project in which you share, 800 years later.
So how should we celebrate this 800th anniversary? Well, why don’t we imagine a married couple celebrating their golden wedding anniversary? Naturally, they think of the years that have passed, they reminisce. Maybe they look at their children and grandchildren with satisfaction, reflecting on all their achievements over the years and give thanks to God for all his blessings, both in the good times and in the not so good times.
After 800 years, there’s plenty of scope for this kind of commemoration. Through eight centuries, the little shoot of preaching planted by Saint Dominic and his first followers has blossomed into an extraordinary variety of forms: Dominicans have been teachers and artists, parish priests, bishops, popes and mystics, missionaries at home and abroad, writers, scholars, activists, philosophers and theologians.
The Order of Preachers has an extraordinary heritage to celebrate, but is this all there is to an anniversary? Is it perhaps time to give yourselves a pat on the back and say, ‘Job well done’? Should you take it easy for a bit and start to wind down? 800 years is a very long time, after all.
Well, after hearing today’s Gospel warn against complacency, I’m fairly sure that’s not the best approach. Like any religious order, the Order of Preachers is fundamentally a mission, not a museum. If we focus only on the achievements of the past, then we run the risk of being greeted by Saint Dominic, and by Our Lord himself, with the words from today’s Gospel, ‘I do not know where you come from’.
An anniversary can be so much more than just a trip down memory lane. Think again of the couple celebrating their golden wedding anniversary. They’re surrounded by their children and grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren, but during a quiet moment the husband might simply look into his wife’s eyes and see there the young woman he fell in love with so many years ago, and fall in love all over again with the passion of a young man. The two are made young again in love, they have returned to the source of their relationship, and drunk again from those clear waters.
This is the kind of rejuvenation to which Dominicans are invited as this great year of jubilee draws to a close: to return to Saint Dominic and his founding plan of preaching for the salvation of souls, to see behind his plan God’s eternal project of Mercy, and to commit ourselves with new energy to this ancient project in our own time.
Being human, we experience setbacks, suffering and weakness, but as the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, this is all part of our training, and it is time now for us to ‘hold up our limp arms and steady our trembling knees’ and ready ourselves for the mission that still lies ahead of us.
What shape will your mission take as you step into the ninth century of the Order? Who knows? Saint Dominic couldn’t have imagined all the forms that his Order would take over the course of 800 years. I’m sure as he received the document of approbation from Pope Honorius, Saint Dominic had little idea where that journey would take him and his fledgling Order. The project was much bigger than him and his imagination. After all, it was ultimately not his work, but God’s work through him.
This jubilee year has been an opportunity for Dominicans, and for all of us associated with the Order, to regain a spirit of youthfulness. Just as the Second Vatican Council asked all religious foundations to return to their roots and the charism of their founding fathers, so we ask ourselves today, where does our mission go from here? What new adventures lie before us? Like Saint Dominic, 800 years ago today, we simply don’t know, we can’t possibly imagine. But if we look steadily into the eyes of our merciful Saviour and fall in love again with the One who began this great work, your ninth century of preaching will bear, I am sure, unimaginable fruit.
May God, who has begun this good work in you, bring it to completion.