Allan White, O.P.
Allan White, O.P.
The word ‘leadership’ in the context of religious life is very much in vogue at the moment. This is probably because religious are trying to get away from notions of the rigid application of authority, which ensures that initiative and direction in a congregation come only from above. In England certainly the language of superiority is fast disappearing, as is the role of the superior in many religious communities where there is no superior but everything is decided communally under a chairperson who is often called a Moderator. There is no evidence that this works any better than previous arrangements and the danger is that it allows bullies in the community more scope. As we all know, there is always a ‘superior’ in the community even if they do not have the title. In the Anglophone world we have the expression ‘congregational leader’ and not superior general or provincial, and we have ‘leadership’ teams instead of provincial councils. All of this suggests a general distrust of authority and a lack of certainty as to how the ministry of authority can and should be lived by modern religious. It seems odd to me, given the history of the twentieth century, that religious should have chosen the term ‘leader’ since it is quite clear what leaders such as the Fuhrer and Il Duce were responsible for in the past.
In our system our ‘superiors’ are understood as executives who are given a wide margin of discretion and freedom to interpret their role. If there is a leadership role it is not to be exercised purely by the ‘superior’ but is expressed at two levels. The identity and purpose of the Order is interpreted by the General Chapters, it is made available to us in the legislation of Chapters which form a deposit of law. The Master of the Order is to execute the programme of the Order as it is presented in this body of Law and custom, just as priors provincial are to do the same with the legislation of provincial chapters. There is nothing in the LCO which cannot be changed. All is open to review in the light of experience and the challenges presented to us by the world in which we live and minister. We are obedient to a person, a ‘superior’ in the shape of the Master of the Order but according to the Rule and Constitutions.
It is not necessarily the case that our superiors will be very charismatic people. Some are dull, plodding, unimaginative and unadventurous, which is probably the reason why they were elected. As you know, elections are very strange things communities often go into paroxysms of doubt and anxiety thinking they are not going to be able to find anyone to elect, but in the end they always manage to find somebody. Some friars are elected for their flair, their evangelical enthusiasm and sense of adventure, but these are a minority. Most communities, in my experience, want ‘technicians’ and good ‘managers’ as priors. In some elections an individual is chosen not so much because of their qualities but in order to stop somebody else being elected. Dominicans, it seems to me, are suspicious of the notion of charismatic leadership. One of the worst criticisms of a Dominican superior is that he behaves like an ‘abbot’. We are not monks and we have only had one abbot in the Order, Matthew of France, who, as Blessed Jordan tells us, was the first and last abbot in the Order.
Our superior general, to use a modern and inappropriate term, is called ‘Master’ which is to be understood in terms of Teacher, and our local superiors are called ‘Prior’ which means first among equals. Priors are ‘first’ in the fraternity. All offices are held for a time only and may only be extended or continued in certain circumstances. We are not meant to have an officer class or a kind of aristocracy within the Order, the keynote is fraternity in a school of disciples whose one teacher is Christ. We live according to the LCO but there is another code to which we must conform ourselves and in which our LCO are rooted and that is the Gospel.
Unlike in the monastic tradition the superiors in our Order do not take the place of Christ, as with the Abbot in monasteries. Some might think that our superiors act like God and think they are God but they are certainly not to be confused with Christ. St Dominic was never presented as an alter Christus in the way that St Francis was for example. Similarly, the authority exercised by Dominic over his Order had a different expression to that of St Francis. Dominic developed a tight legal structure for his Order by 1220, until then he exercised strong personal control, but once the system was defined he attempted to resign from the Mastership. He insisted that the brethren as a whole had full legislative authority. The friars would not let him resign on that occasion and he obediently accepted their will, but it was clear that they were free to disagree with him, as they did on the question of the co-operator brothers having financial and administrative control of the Order so that the clerics could be free for study and preaching.
This tells us that neither Dominic’s will nor the first institutions of the brethren are normative in any binding sense. The founding brothers set us an example but in principle they are no more influential than the brethren who made Solemn Vows yesterday. With Solemn Vows comes active voice: the right to participate in shaping the mission and identity of the Order in response to the challenges presented to us by providence.
We can contrast this with the early Franciscan experience. There were constant and bitter quarrels amongst the Franciscans over the true vision of St Francis and his continuing influence on the Order. In his own lifetime Francis ordered the friars not to make any changes in the Rule and cursed those who were tempted to do so. In his view the Rule as he devised it must remain permanent and inviolable. Against this background it became important to seize control of Francis’ identity. St Bonaventure drew up his official biography and in the General Chapter of 1266 ordered all other lives to be destroyed. The Giotto fresco cycle in Assisi was based on Bonaventure’s life of Francis and is an apology for it. In 1277 the Franciscan General Chapter ordered the construction of ‘many strong prisons’ in friaries to accommodate the dissidents. There was widespread disgreement about how faithful the Order was to its founder’s vision. At the same time, Francis came to be presented as alter Christus especially amongst the Spiritual Franciscans. Some of their writers and apologists make this explicit by assimilating the life of Francis to that of Christ. So we read for example that Francis had the stigmata and 12 disciples, as with Jesus and the college of the twelve apostles. Interestingly, in the Dominican tradition it is Catherine of Siena who has the stigmata and resembles Christ together with her band of followers.
The Dominican Order appeared when many religious Orders were being created or reformed. Two had influence on us in particular: the Premonstratensians in terms of legislation and the Cistercians in terms of architecture and style. Cistercianism is really the invention of Benedictinism since their intention was to follow the Rule to the letter. New Cistercian foundations were to be made with an Abbot and 12 monks, again mirroring Jesus with his twelve disciples. The Abbot is seen as alter Christus. Interestingly the Primitive Dominican Constitutions state that when a new foundation is made twelve friars are to make it. In monasticism the presence of Christ is made visible in the person of the Abbot and in his relations with the monks. For us Dominicans the invisible presence of Christ is made visible in the community of ‘evangelical men’. These evangelical men follow Christ as their supreme teacher and guide and continue to exercise his mission. The whole life and ministry of our community is meant to be a commentary on the Gospel. Nobody took the place of Christ; nobody was strictly the ‘leader’ because Christ is our leader.
An illustration of this is seen in the fresco cycle of Fra Angelico in San Marco in Florence. St Thomas, in his treatise on the Incarnation in the Summa, presents the mysteries of Christ’s life in four sections. Firstly, how he came into the world, that is the mystery of the Incarnation; secondly the mysteries of his earthly life, his teaching and miracles; thirdly his departure from the world in his crucifixion and death and fourthly his exaltation in the ascension and resurrection. Looking at the San Marco fresco cycle you can see that three of these four are presented by Fra Angelico but one is missing. The cycle of the mysteries of Christ’s life, that is his earthly apostolate, is not there. Why is that? It is because it is being enacted, continued by the friars in their mission of reconciliation through preaching and teaching. The mission of Jesus is being made visible and incarnate in their life. The fundamental focus of the Order is not on the Rule and Constitutions but on the mission which these are meant to serve. In our tradition the state of perfection does not come about from following a Rule but from following a person. The focus is always upon Jesus. For St Dominic and for St Thomas Aquinas, who articulates in a coherent theological structure the fundamental insights of Dominican life, Jesus is the teacher in our school of discipleship. The fundamental rule is the following of Jesus. Apostolic obedience as Dominic lived it and Thomas defined it is of far more account than any precept or Rule, principle or system, all of which must give way to the following of Christ in our thinking, in our action and the interpretation of our experience. Obedience to Christ is the highest form of perfection (Supp. Matt. 19:21, n 1598) The fulfillment of the call of Jesus Christ does not consist ‘per se’ in exterior perfections such as poverty, virginity and such like unless these things are instrumental to charity’ (Supp. Matt.4:20 n 373). This accounts for St Dominic’s insistence that the Rule and LCO do not bind under sin. St Dominic did not wish his brethren to take their eyes from Christ to focus on a Rule as a substitute for Christ and the Scriptures. The Rule and the LCO are meant to enable the mission. We can see St Thomas giving a theological articulation of this in his Commentary on John. There Thomas argues against John Chrysostom’s interpretation of John 10:1-3 which uses the metaphor or door or gate through which the sheep must enter. Chrysostom says Scripture is the gate but Thomas says Christ is the gate, one enters the gate towards truth, Scripture is a witness to that truth and it is on that account true, but is not that truth in itself (Comm. In Jn. 10:2 n 1370-71).
The validity and justification of our way of life, according to St Thomas, is that it most closely resembles the life and ministry of Christ. In Chapter 11 of St Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says to his disciples: learn of me for I am gentle and lowly of heart. You could also translate this; join my school, become my students. The Dominican Order is meant to be a gospel school in which Christ is the teacher. When St Thomas Aquinas talks about the life-style of Jesus he shows Jesus as the supreme preacher and how the ideals of preaching are fulfilled in his life. He gives three reasons why Jesus led a public life: it was for the preaching of the truth; for compassionate solidarity with sinners; and for making himself accessible to people. He says that preachers must abound in contemplation, they must be enthusiastic, expansive contemplatives who do not cling to retirement but who make the truth accessible in the world through their standing four-square beside sinners showing how God is present in to fractured human experience. He goes on to give a description of the way of the preacher, which bears a striking resemblance to the Dominican way, and says at that end this is why Jesus chose this way of life. He comes close to saying that Jesus was the first Dominican!
What should the life of a friar look like? He should be poor, because Jesus sent out poor people to preach, being encumbered by possessions inhibits our usefulness. Possessions root us to place and preachers must always be ready to move. Preachers should be compassionate, the point of their preaching is not to improve the intelligence of their congregations but to deepen their conversion so that they may be reconciled to Christ the true shepherd of our souls. They should be companionable and draw close to people so that they may see through the preacher to the mystery he preaches. The vocation of the preacher is to be transparent; people should see through him and they should see only Jesus.
How do we come to be able to preach that Word? In order for people to arrive at the perfect vision of heavenly happiness they must first of all believe God, as a disciple believes the master who is teaching him. (ST IIaIIae.3) They must be docile/teachable, prepared to listen and to learn. His preaching, especially Sermon on the Mount, contains all that is necessary for the Chistian life (ST IaIIae 108.3) His most concentrated and normative form of teaching occurs on the cross. There God’s wisdom is lifted up for all to see, the laws and precepts of the OT reach their fulfilment, and all the virtues of the Christian life are displayed to perfection (ST IIIa46.3) There the Son displays his loving obedience to Father.
The primary recipients of Jesus’ teaching were the disciples. He chose small group to continue his preaching and teaching. Jesus taught them ‘face to face’ in the most accessible and concrete way. He spoke in his human nature. The apostolate is like an army assembled by a king to make war against devil. In order to expel the devil from kingdom the weapon is preaching (Super Matt 4:23 n 383). Jesus made sure that the army was well trained by sending it off to preach when he was still with them.
Preaching is always preaching on the Christian Scriptures for these were written by the apostles as part of their obedient witness to Christ. If you look at many the frescoes of Fra Angelico you will see Jesus or Saint Dominic holding open the Book of the Scriptures. In this way the friars preachers are showing their obedience to the Word, this is the subject of their preaching. Also, they are following in the Lord’s footsteps as he opened the Scriptures to the two disciples who were on the way at Emmaus. The friar preacher’s responsibility is to open the Scriptures to those who are on the way so that they may recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread and so that their hearts may burn within them. We must by taught by Jesus through the Scriptures. Therefore to follow Christ obediently our obedience must be apostolic in form.
In our profession formula there is list of those to whom we promise obedience beginning with God and progressing through Blessed Mary and St Dominic before we arrive at a living person. In other words our profession is made in the context of the general obedience we owe to God and against the background of our tradition. Each friar is bound by a vow of personal obedience to the Master of the Order. It is probable however, that the Master will never if hardly ever actually ask for an obedient service from many friars. I think it was true to say that when I was Provincial in England the Master and his Curia did not feature much on our provincial landscape. Occasionally there were visitations and the brethren were always glad to receive the visitators and welcome them. We found that their visit brought an opportunity for us to get together and meet each other, but if you were to ask many of the brothers what the visitation was for not many of them would be able to tell you. One of the revelations to me as Provincial was that the friars actually liked it when the Provincial visitated their communities. For roughly the same reason. I think that most of the time in our Province and certainly when I was Provincial we had very little occasion to ask Santa Sabina for anything. It is the same with some other provinces. There are entities which need more help and support the difficulty for us is trying to provide it given our limited resources, but perhaps more about that later.
The Master of the Order is a significant figure and every friar is bound by a vow of personal obedience to him but that obedience is very rarely directly demanded. In fact, what I have found is that the Master, sometimes like Provincials, has to negotiate and even implore support from the Provinces for projects which are under his jurisdiction or which report to him directly. Sometimes it is extremely difficult for him to find brothers or to find Provincials who are willing to release some of their brothers for service in the wider Order. In theory the Master’s powers are wide but in practice they depend on the co-operation of the brothers to be effective, just like a provincial’s powers. In theory provincials can assign any brother anywhere within the territory of the province but in practice it is not always so easy, other factors intervene. The odd fact at the centre of our legislation is the respect that is accorded to the Master of the Order, or should be! I am sorry to say that I have sometimes been shocked to see the way the Master has been treated by some brothers and edified by his humility in accepting it, so at the centre of our system is the Master but his powers are not unlimited even in terms of the Constitutions.
The supreme legislative body for us is the General Chapter.
The General Chapter can depose a Master and has full authority to remove provincials and any other officers and to intervene directly in the affairs of any province. In the earliest days of the Order Chapters were held annually but there were no fixed terms for office bearers. It was not until 1502 and the pontificate of Julius II that fixed terms were introduced for religious superiors. The Master continued to be elected for life until the nineteenth century. He could only cease to be Master through being ‘absolved’ by the Chapter or by being deposed by the Pope or through ill health or incompetence. The emphasis was that this office too was accepted in obedience and could not be lightly surrendered. Priors and Provincials remained in office in the same way until they were ‘absolved’. We should not then think that elections were always frequent or regular. They occurred when it was thought necessary. Our present system is very much conditioned by the regular terms of the office bearers and often for the last six months or more of your term of office you will have the feeling that people are looking over your shoulder thinking of a possible successor.
One of the principle forms of asceticism in our way of life is having to submit one’s administrative and personal record or the conduct of one’s provincialate to the scrutiny of the brethren. A long established custom in our Order is the tractatus. We do not put ourselves forward for office but our names are suggested. We are then invited to leave the room whilst we are discussed and our merits considered and our failings examined. I wish this always occurred charitably but I am afraid it does not. If you are a provincial in office and your first term has ended then it is quite possible you will be considered for a second term. This process of the ‘tractatus’ will happen to you. There is nothing new about this, it was present in our system from the earliest days.
The more primitive form of appointment or election to office was in some ways more brutal than ours. In the past, before fixed terms were established before somebody like a provincial or a master could be absolved from office, there had to be a sufficient body of opinion against him to allow for his effective deposition. This was a much more harsh system than ours. Now all we need is a discussion and a vote. Politics does unfortunately intrude but in a more discrete way. At every Chapter in the past it was theoretically possible for the Master to be deposed. At every General Chapter his record was subject to scrutiny and a decision taken about his continuance in office. In the primitive constitutions the procedure for the examination and correction of the Master is laid down. After the Diffinitors have accused themselves of their faults the Master, in a place apart, is to accuse himself of his and anybody who has any accusations against him is to make them. When the accusations have been heard he is to leave the room so that the Diffinitors can discuss and decide how to correct him in his absence. If they decide that he is damaging the Order in a serious way they are to ask him to resign, if he refuses then they have unrestricted power to depose him.
It is always difficult to have one’s record examined and discussed by the brethren. We are all conscious of making mistakes and sometimes we make errors of judgment with regard to people or in our dealings with institutions. Unfortunately, it is clear that mistakes and errors, the things we do badly, seem to last longer in the minds of the brothers than the things we do well. We may sometimes be tempted to try and justify our actions, but this is always a mistake unless we are specifically asked why we did something. Often we cannot justify or explain what we did in certain circumstances because we are bound by confidentiality or loyalty to a brother, or are bound to defend his reputation so we cannot say everything we know. It is never easy to be the victim of misjudgment but I think it is not unusual for provincials and even the Master to be victims in this way. Sometimes, when I was provincial people would be puzzled by a decision I took, especially with regard to a brother, they would leap to the wrong conclusion. I always used to say that sometimes ‘the brothers think they know more than I do about particular cases, but nobody knows as much as I do and even I do not know all there is to know.’
A system like ours has many dangers political and spiritual. The early legislation of the Order is clear about the dangers. What they stress must be avoided is division and factionalism. In the case of the deposition of the Master of the Order the strictest injunctions are given that the brethren must observe confidentiality and secrecy. They must not tell others why the Master has ceased to hold Office. Anyone who engages in this kind of behaviour is to be considered as suffering from the gravest fault. When the grave faults are listed the last very grave fault is if the brethren form conspiracies or plots against their superiors. If any of them do form a faction and try to bring down lawfully constituted and elected superiors they are to be severely punished and for the rest of their lives to take the lowest place in rank, have no right to speak in Chapters except to accuse themselves nor are they allowed to hold any office in the Order from henceforth.
The danger in a system which allows change through election is that it becomes excessively political and subject to faction. We often boast of the democratic character of our Order but it is precisely in modern democracies that the system of party and faction flourishes, in a sense democracy could not continue without party. Yet, this is not our kind of democracy. Fr Vincent de Couesnongle points out in his collection of letters Courage for the Future:
‘The fundamental law of democracy is majority rule, but it is not the same with us, in spite of our frequent voting. Our law is unanimous rule…the prior should not look for a quick vote, but should try to have the question thrashed out so that everyone has his say; and a common debate will lead to an agreement which is as near unanimous as possible.’
In the middle Ages at elections of priors and provincials a final vote was often held once a candidate was elected, this was to give those who had voted against him the chance to vote in his favour. In this way the election would be unanimous or be the result of consensus so that the person elected would be the superior of all and not just of a faction. Our system to function properly requires great maturity. Decisions are not to be made and people elected by the cobbling together of coalitions or agreements amongst factions; they are to be an expression of the common search for the will of God. They are not merely political exercises but spiritual exercises. Once a person is elected it is the duty of all to support and sustain him in office for the good of the whole community. As I say, this requires a considerable degree of maturity in the religious life. Sometimes we have to be prepared to vote for people who are not our friends or whom we might not like very much in order to serve the mission of the convent or the province. It is occasionally difficult for those who are young in the Order or those who are voting for the first time to realize this. It is very important that friars be educated in our pattern of democracy.
An anxiety expressed at the Providence General Chapter in 2001 was that the granting of active voice with Solemn Profession was seriously unbalancing life in the formation communities. It was quite possible, and even not unknown, for the student brothers to outnumber the fathers and for the juniors to outnumber the seniors in the Chapter. When elections or confirmations of officers occurred the younger brothers, sometimes manipulated by the senior brothers who should have known better and have shown better example, were treating the election as a purely political exercise and voting for people who they thought would serve their interests better or else voting others out as a punishment. In our system votes are not merely counted they need to be weighed. We need to understand what a particular vote says.
Where the ‘weighing’ of votes affects provincials most is in votes for profession in formation houses. Some candidates are very divisive and manage to split chapters in formation houses. They may achieve a positive vote narrowly and the provincial will then be within his rights to accept them for profession. This, in my view, is sometimes a mistake. Votes for candidates should be as near unanimous as possible, if the formation community itself is mature. If the formation process has been conducted properly then there should not be contentious votes. Sometimes, as provincials we have to be careful in using our power. It is within our power to accept candidates but it is not always prudent to use that power. It is the same with cassation of priors.
It is within the power of the provincial to cassate any election. He must have a good reason to override the vote of a community. In general, unless the good of the province as a whole was going to suffer I always confirmed elections. I only cassated two elections in my eight years as provincial. In my view the decision of the brethren had to be taken seriously and they also had to be allowed to live with the consequences of their own decision. Sometimes I wondered about the wisdom of their choices and would not have voted for the person elected myself, but that was not what I was being asked to do. As I said, I only ever cassated two elections, one because the person elected was on sabbatical and it was well-deserved and I knew he could not bear the burden of another priorship just yet. The other occasion was when a priory elected, perfectly sensibly, a good pastor but who was fully engaged in the same work in another house and who could not be free at that particular time without grave damage to his house of assignation.
A provincial is supposed to ask the advice of the ‘grave fathers’, as we always put it in our province, before confirming or cassating an election. I did not always ask the members of the provincial council, or only them, but sometimes asked those outside the council their opinion. In my second term as provincial I had a number of young friars on my council. Some younger friars who were elected to priorships were of the same generation of some of these young councilors. When I asked the opinion of the young counselors as to whether their contemporaries could function well as priors the answer was interesting. They often urged me to cassate the elections because the friar in question would find the burden of office to great to carry. I soon saw that, in the ‘popular mind’, the priorship was being presented as an enormous challenge which only certain people were strong enough to carry. The office was being built up too much. I, of course, ignored the advice and the young friars made excellent priors. So, we should remember that while we may be bound to ask advice we are not obliged to take it.
In our system there is a strong legislative and juridical structure, there are no office holders for life and we are all to a certain extent accountable. Yet our Constitutions also give considerable powers of dispensation and discretion to our superiors. The novelty of Dominic’s introduction of the principle of dispensation into the life of the Order is often pointed out in our histories. Previously religious might be dispensed from certain aspects of the observance for reasons of ill-health or personal weakness. Dominic introduced dispensation in favour of the mission. Religious could be dispense by a legitimate superior from observances which might impede the mission. The legitimate superior is not supposed to give permission in the same way as the principle of a school might give permission to a pupil to have a half-day holiday from school. It is not a bureaucratic exercise. The superior is meant to be attuned to the apostolic life and mission of the house, he is meant to be intimately familiar with it and from his knowledge and through the exercise of his prudential judgment, he discerns how the mission might be best served in a particular case. He is, if you like, in giving dispensations, exercising apostolic stewardship. He is the steward of the mission. Needless, to say in my experience as a superior or as provincial some of the friars, especially one or two of the younger ones appealed to the principle of dispensation to account for their unjustified absence from community duties, but I had to point out that the principle was not of ‘self-dispensation.’ We do not dispense ourselves, we are not judges in our own cases, we do not determine the parameters of our own mission but accept that they are part of the wider conventual mission.
The aspect of the ‘attunement’ of the superior to the mission of the house is also applied to the Provincial and Master of the Order at their level of jurisdiction and responsibility. Even though the behaviour of the early Masters was closely scrutinized, much more so than it is now, it was accepted that the Master could dispense from legislation if it proved to impede the mission of the Order in some way. Similarly, while provincials cannot change the legislation of provincial chapters they may give an interpretation of it. It is important for us to know the Constitutions, firstly because every friar should know them and secondly so that we can see both the limitations on our authority and what the law actually allows us to do so that we may use it positively in favour of the mission. Finally, it is important to know them because somebody in the province will always know them well. It is probably that this ‘helpful’ brother will not hesitate to point out to us our failures in interpretation of the Constitutions or worse still the fact that we have got them wrong in a particular case! If you have a legal expert in your province only ask him a question when you already know the answer! His opinion is useful as a check on your won reading of the LCO.
So, our Superiors are important, without them our communities could not function. From the earliest times the Masters were treated with great respect but it was also pointed out to them that they were stewards of the mission and not its proprietors. The Order did not belong to them but they belonged in it. They were to live in the same way as the brethren, to eat the same food and to sleep in the same dormitory etc. When we turn to the Order’s Constitutions and the section on Government we see that after the general norms on government, we begin not with the Master of the Order but with the priory which is the fundamental unit of government within the Order. We do not start at the top and work down; we start at the bottom and work up!
The traditional word for a Dominican house, conventus, means a gathering. Those who form it have been convoked, called together, called for a purpose. We did not call ourselves. You cannot call yourself for the service of God, you have to be summoned, convoked. Convocation, vocation, does not automatically create an instrument of evangelical purpose and religious witness. The word conventus has another nuance, it can also mean a legislative assembly. The framework of the house is not the timber, stone and plaster of which it is built. What regulates our life together, what helps to make us into the house of St Dominic is the deliberative and ordered style of our government. The regular life will be formed by a devout and courteous listening; there has to be attentiveness before there can be proclamation. An Order of Preachers is concerned with the Word, but good preachers must begin and remain as good listeners. The fundamental strain running throughout all of our legislation is the importance of attentiveness and engagement in dialogue. A convent is not just a unit of strategic planning, a residence for clergymen, or an enterprise which is governed by the principles of management. A convent is not an aggregate of individuals who subscribe to a particular set of rules which is arbitrated by authority with the aim of lessening conflict and securing a degree of harmony so that the brothers can live together without killing each other. It is a communion of brothers engaged in a common mission. This common mission is the work of the Gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ. It is for this reason that our Constitutions refer to our convents as ‘Holy Preachings’; a title which is disputed by the Historical Commission of the Order incidentally. In other words it is a spiritual enterprise. This is confirmed in LCO in the description of the duties of a prior who is amongst us as one who serves, who promotes regular and apostolic fraternal life and should be concerned that the brothers fulfill their personal obligations. He should also regularly preach the Word of God to them. In other words the prior’s task is not essentially managerial but spiritual.
If the province is to function properly the priories much function properly. In order for them to function properly they need good and effective office bearers who will carry the mission forward. In assessing the apostolic and evangelical challenges it faces the convent should elect someone who can satisfy these expectations. It is of vital importance that the prior should be supported by and work with a syndic who is competent and energetic. What problems do provincials face in ensuring the vitality of priory life?
The first problem is that it is often difficult for communities to find priors. Aging provinces, or provinces in which there is a small middle age generation, a smaller and inexperienced younger generation, or a large number of priories, sometimes make if difficult to find suitable people. Those who we would like to become priors are either priors already or else engaged in valuable work from which it is difficult to detach them. Some who are suited to the service of prior are reluctant to take it up because it takes them away from work they enjoy or which they find fruitful and confines their freedom and apostolic energy. Some are afraid of responsibility or of being confined to the house. In some places, due to aging communities, the prior finds he has to assume a heavy burden in the support of the brothers. He must supervise their medical care, drive them to hospital and doctors’ appointments. In a community which has a large number of external works, say with brothers working outside the house, teaching or in chaplaincy ministries, he may find that he is left at home and is heavily burdened with the domestic management of the convent. He is the one who has to ensure the house is locked up at night. He has to be at home when tradesmen or workers call. He has to ensure the trash cans are put out. He has to be perpetually available to ensure that when brothers forget to say Mass, or neglect to fulfill their obligations he can step in and take them on. Rather than being an apostolic, spiritual, evangelical figure, he comes a combination of nurse, handyman, tradesman, liturgist and janitor. In other words he becomes a managerial figure.
The legislation of General Chapters and the letters of the Masters have emphasized the importance for us of itinerancy, finding new apostolates and not being confined to traditional ministries. Stress has been placed on the importance of a community project. Convents are to meet at regular intervals to assess their life and ministry and to examine their response to the evangelical challenges which the world in which they live faces them. Yet, if you read the reports of provincials, visitation letters and the self-reflection of provinces, you will find that it is precisely the idea of the Common Project that is most difficult to implant in our system. In the Constitutions and the legislation of the General Chapters the dangers of individualism are always being pointed out the development of the idea of the Common Project is proposed as part of the remedy for this. The momentum of our system seems to draw us away from this and often the Provincial finds himself caught between demands by some of the brethren, by the Masters of the Order and the General Chapters for a greater sense of evangelical adventure and the needs of the convents and houses that make up the province.
Convents have histories of engagement in a local Church. They have inherited ministries. Some have grown up as a result of individual choices by certain brethren at a point in time. Others were important and valuable at one time and are less so now. The demands coming from the houses are always for more friars. ‘We must have friars to assume responsibility for our ministries.’ Often in local communities there is not always a proper assessment as to whether these ministries are still necessary or valuable, neither is there an examination as to whether they should be continued in the same way. Where a house of diocesan priests in a pastoral setting might have two priests assuming responsibility particular ministries a Dominican convent might have five or six friars for the same number of engagements.
Convents then come to see the provincial as a personnel manager. He is there to ensure a regular supply of friars to ensure that a convent can continue in the same way indefinitely. Convents can thus become inherently conservative institutions. They expect personnel from the provincial and in some cases they elect a prior who will exercise a certain personal and pastoral care for them, who will maintain stability in the house and who will be a good manager. Brothers who can display these skills are likely to be elected in different houses in succession. What then develops is a body of priors who go from one house to another, exercising the same skills, doing valuable work but not always developing or advancing the apostolic enterprise of the convents. It becomes more difficult to shift the province in the direction of change because roughly the same people are elected to provincial chapters and serve on the provincial council, the dominant tone can then become managerial and bureaucratic dominated by a concern with personnel.
Those who are inclined to feel the burden of this are the younger friars. We do not always recognize the different character and concerns of the different generations. I will have something to say about younger friars later on if we have time. However, what is clear is that it is not always possible to simply feed younger friars into established ministries after the studies. Enough has been written about the importance of the firstr assignation and enough concern expressed about the requests for dispensation from the priesthood by the newly ordained for me not to speak about it here. These do point to real difficulties. The priories want personnel to help them in the mission in which they are engaged, they sometimes see the anxieties and hesitations of the young in assuming responsibilities for the traditional or historic ministries of a province as self-indulgence and lack of commitment. The young feel that their own personal gifts and limitations are not recognized and that they are simply being fed into some ‘machine’ which is not fired by evangelical enthusiasm. They have higher expectations of the quality of community life and liturgy fostered by their formation. They find it difficult and frightening to assume responsibility for a ministry for which they have not always been adequately prepared and in which they are not always properly supported and supervised; anxious about the isolation and the responsibility which might fall to them in ‘the mission field’ they then begin to feel that the moment of engagement should be postponed for as long as possible. They begin to think of further study, which can be open-ended in duration. Life in the study or formation house becomes attractive. The prospect of a fuller conventual life can be realized in the study house, teaching offers a definite job and status and automatic involvement in a common project so assignation to the study house and further study is a popular request. This would seem to be an experience common to many provinces.
If you have a centre of institutional studies in the province the Regent or the Moderator, like priors and non-academic communities, will always be asking the provincial to provide more lectors and professors. A similar process develops as in the ‘pastoral’ communities. Vacancies need to be filled and there needs to be planning to ensure that brothers are properly qualified to teach and to be engaged in the ministry of formation. A house of formation and studies is a big investment for a province demanding a lot in terms of personnel and money. The investment can be worth it for a number of reasons.
A centre of studies, depending on how open it is, gives a province contact with a wider intellectual world. It can be an intellectual and resource centre for the local Church of a region or nation. It is a centre of research and of intellectual and cultural dialogue. If it is confident in its identity and ministry and represents well the ethos and character of a province it is a good environment in which younger members of a province can acquire that character and identity. It is there that they will learn the habits of fraternity and co-operation that they will need in later life. In the studies they will feel themselves part of a group. The members of this group will all spring from the same ‘cradle’ and they will come to know those people with whom they will be working and living during the remainder of their lives. Centres of study are a good if costly investment.
What are the difficulties with a study house? As I was saying, the Regent or the Moderator always needs more lectors and professors. It is rarely realistic to think that all of these will come from the province itself. Many provinces are now looking to the international Order to help with the staffing of their intellectual institutions. There is a growing interchange of professors and students amongst them. This is extremely positive in developing the international consciousness of the Order, but what about the formation of new professors? Often the Regent or Moderator is looking for likely candidates for higher studies when students are still quite new to study. If the discipline is specialized then the student will have to be formed in a particular way and acquire certain skills before he can begin. Proper preparation and identification of talented students is good and necessary. However, the provincial has to be careful to ensure that a student is not forced or perhaps guided too early into a speciality so that other aspects of his character or of his Dominican life are neglected or are not allowed to be expressed. It is also important that there is no hint of ‘patronage’ in the system so that some students feel that they are favoured and others are not. Once a professor is formed and returns to the centre of studies to teach the investment has to be realized and he must teach and research. A professor must be allowed to teach for some time, certain stability is necessary in his life. A provincial cannot move a professor without good cause since that would be to devalue the investment the province has made in him and also to undermine his own ministry and sense of self-worth. A relative stability of personnel in the study house must not lead to a two-tier structure in the province between professors and others, academics and pastors, students soon notice such a distinction and from an early stage in their formation begin to situate themselves in terms of one identity or another. The more sensitive can see themselves as accepted or rejected, favoured or neglected, depending on which side of the divide they fall. So, how can some of these difficulties be faced and if not entirely eradicated or solved at least be ameliorated or made less threatening?
Dominican legislation pre-supposes responsibility and human maturity. It is built around chapters, councils and elections. A sign of final commitment is the grant of what is called in English ‘active voice’ followed later by ‘passive voice.’ In our system the casting of a vote is or should be the last stage in a process of discussion, dialogue and discernment. When we make our vocal contribution to a discussion we are assuming responsibility for the entire enterprise. Even if on this particular occasion we might not be the ones to carry out the policy, we assume responsibility for it. This responsibility may be expressed at the level of the convent or the level of the province or at that of a General Chapter. The genius of the Order, its mission and character, is obvious at every level, the process is the same. I do not have my individual mission I have my part in our common mission. It is important to find ways to ensure that common sense of responsibility is made clear and expressed. How does that work?
With regard to the brethren of the province first of all: the provincial needs to be able to inform them as much as he can of what he does and of the policies and ventures of the provincial council. If the brothers are informed they are less likely to imagine things which are not the case. It is often a good idea to compose an account of the meetings of the provincial council reporting the substance of the business that is not reserved or confidential. The provincial can also give an account of what he has been doing and what his concerns are. News of individual brothers, assignations, distinctions and achievements can also be given. When the provincial is on visitation of the houses he may also have a general informal meeting with the brothers in which they can ask him any questions about the province or his individual ministry thus provoking a general discussion about the province and the Order. If the brothers are informed it is much more difficult for them to disclaim responsibility for the mission of the province because being informed they have an opportunity to make their views known either directly to the provincial or during a visitation.
A visitation is a good chance to come to know and understand the brothers better. Many of us might not have known all of the brothers in our province before we were elected, or if we did know them we did not know them well. I found that the brothers liked when the provincial visited them. It made them feel more involved in the life of the province and the Order and it gave them a sense that their common life and individual ministry were valued. On one occasion after a visitation I was late in sending the visitation letter and an anxious plea came from the prior of the convent saying the brothers were wondering where it was. They like to be given a reflection by an interested outsider on their life and their concerns. I always found it important in the visitation letters to begin with praising and appreciating what was good before going on to propose changes or outline areas of the conventual life and ministry which needed examination or consideration. Generally, these were welcomed and acted upon.
In the formation houses the visitation process was more formal. At the end of the visitation we would meet in the Chapter Room there would be prayers and I would choose a passage of the Gospel and preach a little homily to the brothers before giving my visitation charge. Some brothers did not like this thinking it was too formal and that I was too ‘abbatial.’ They would have preferred a more informal meeting in the community room in which I reflected with them on the state of the house. I always resisted this because I thought it was too much of surrender to the managerial model and once more saw the provincial as a personel manager or a management consultant. The idea of a visitation was not to make a house more efficient but to see if the brethren are persevering in peace, assiduous in study, fervent in preaching, and faithful in regular observance (LCO 341, 2). It was also an opportunity to invite the brothers to reflect on the role of the study house in the life of the province. The formality was partly strategic. In formation houses some of the aspects of our life have to be made more explicit so that those who are in formation may see their significance. A formal conclusion to the visitation, which might not have been appropriate in other smaller houses, was desirable in the study house in my view to communicate that a visitation was not simply about management and efficiency, but about religious conversion and prompting the brothers in a house to situate themselves in terms of the mission of the entire province and Order.
The last phrase is an important one; the provincial has to ensure that the relationship between the province and the houses functions well. It is true that priors guard the interests of their house and Regents and Moderators do the same for the study house, but it is important that they also assume responsibility for the good government of the entire province. Their general responsibilities in this sphere are made clear in the Constitutions. The conventual priors have voice and vote in provincial chapters. They are there to legislate not just for their own houses but for the entire province seeing their convent in the context of the provincial mission. Sometimes the good of the provincial mission must come before the individual good of the individual convent. Similarly, the Regent is an ex officio member of the Provincial Council. He, the former provincial and the socius of the provincial are the only ex officio members. The ex-provincial is to provide something of the historical memory of what went before and to give the benefit of his previous experience prudently and discretely. The Regent’s presence is a sign of the Order’s commitment to the intellectual apostolate. To be honest there is plenty of scope for conflict between the Regent and Provincial. It is disastrous for the good of the province if this develops into open conflict or disagreement. Study in the Order is not an end in itself but is at the service of the Mission, the ultimate responsibility for coordinating and service of the mission of the province belongs to the provincial. The Regent and the Priors, at the level of provincial chapter and provincial council respectively, have to be encouraged to accept responsibility in their own spheres of activity and authority for the mission of the province. Sometimes a provincial can feel extremely, isolated as the burden of ‘filling gaps’, providing the ‘narrative continuity’ of the province and holding it together in some sense. This is a dangerous position to find oneself in since, if we begin to feel as if we are the only ones to care about the province and that the whole burden of its government falls on us, then it soon will do since others will leave us to get on with our self-appointed task.
What are the remedies for a sense of isolation? The Constitutions in their wisdom give a very good aid to the provincial in the office of the socius. The socius is not necessarily the provincial’s deputy but is meant to be his confidante and advisor. It is important to have the support of such a brother, to share experiences, to consider difficulties and sometimes just to let off steam in the sure knowledge that anything you say will be kept confidential. The Constitutions give an important place to this role. The socius is to live in the same house as the provincial, if possible, and not to occupy the office of prior or any other important position which would compromise his responsibility to aid the provincial. I have to say that in my time as provincial I had three socii. The first, the former provincial, became a bishop, the second became procurator general and the third was elected prior and moved to a convent six hundred miles away. In many ways the office did not work for me. I think this was a big lack. It is always possible to ask advice on the telephone or by e mail but that is not the same as being able to go into the next room or to an office along the corridor when something comes up. My socii were a help to me but there was not that ease of contact which is envisaged by the constitutions.
I have not given a complete view of the function of the provincial’s office and much of what I have said has been marked by my own experience. There remain many other areas which I have not explored but I hope that what I have proposed for your consideration has been of some use.