During the recent retreat, I dipped into a history of the Religious Life, and discovered that the majority of Religious Orders and Congregations don’t last very long. Communities are established, some of them grow and flourish, then they decline and die out over the course of about 150 years. I understand more Religious Orders and Congregations have ceased to exist than currently do exist, and it’s unlikely that pattern will change any time soon. But this shouldn’t be a cause for concern. This ebb and flow of Religious Life is one of the many signs of the vitality of the Catholic Church. Times and circumstances change, and it stands to reason that it’s not good when things stay the same. Essentially there are two conditions Religious Orders need to satisfy. They need to measure up to the standards of their founder, and they need to fulfil the task their founder set for them. Get both of these right and history shows that God sustains the Order for as long as it’s needed. Get them wrong and God raises up other Orders to do the necessary work. Orders that persist beyond the 150-year mark, like the Order of Preachers, tend to have a firm grasp of both of these conditions. And we thank God that he has sustained the Order of Preachers for no less than 801 years.
Sometimes the life and times of a Religious Order gets fleshed out as an attempt to imitate the founder’s personality. But we know all too well that no personality can be perfectly imitated, even more so that of a saint, and as a result Religious end up disagreeing over whether their efforts are acceptable or not. In the end, dissatisfied with each other’s efforts, and being unable to work from the same page and move forward together as a community, they drift apart, and this is how many Religious Orders and Congregations collapse and disappear from the scene. A perfect example of this is my own community which, through disastrously poor leadership and losing its way, disintegrated and its members are now dispersed here, there and everywhere, some of them doing good work, but not as a community, and just waiting for the day when they cease to exist altogether.
This has not been the case with the Dominicans, largely, I think, because Saint Dominic wasn’t one of those personality saints. He didn’t attract people to Christ through the force of his personality or his heroic virtue. Rather his great triumph was to recognise the need for a new type of Religious Order – a mendicant Order rather than a purely monastic one – an Order that could respond to the pastoral and theological needs of its times. And having recognised that need, Saint Dominic established the necessary structures in which Dominicans could flourish: prayer, conventual life, study and preaching. So it is that the early Dominicans were freed from the need to try to imitate their founder’s personality. They could measure up to Saint Dominic’s standards by following the structures he established, and as a result the Order, to this day, 801 years later, remains focused on its original task and purpose.
And so, on Saint Dominic’s feast day, we thank God, that Saint Dominic let Dominicans be Dominicans, rather than wasting their time trying to imitate him.
Our Holy Father Dominic, pray for us.