Today's commentary from Dr Andrew Kania is not a long way removed from many of the present discussions on Catholica discussing alternative ways of reclaiming our spirituality. The authentic Christian is not driven by some deep need to prove how much better, or more holy, they are than anyone else. They are driven by a desire to befriend those who might think differently — a desire to understand their perspectives on life even if they themselves do not accept the alternative perspectives. Andrew suggests Jesus is the model but so are saints like Dominic, Francis and Ignatius.
Dining with an Albigenisian...
It is a long-standing custom that on the Feast of St. Dominic (August the 8th) and on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (October the 4th) the homily delivered during the Liturgy is given by a friar of the other Order, that is, a Franciscan preaches on the life of St. Dominic and a Dominican preaches on the life of St. Francis. The two Orders of mendicant friars, established as contemporaries, have oftentimes fallen out with one another, most noticeably over the condemnation over Meister Eckhart, as well as the squabbling over the Chair of Theology in Paris (in the Middle Ages), and thus the cross-fertilization of homiletics has an added dimension contained within its speaking publicly about the strengths of one another's particular charism.
It was on one of these occasions that a Franciscan friar with a penchant for sardonic humour was selected by his Prior (whose intention was to induce in this shining wit, a sense of 'time and place') to deliver the homily on St. Dominic, at the local Dominican priory.
Specifically instructed by his Prior to use the homily to poignantly reflect with originality on the legacy of St. Dominic, the Franciscan went furtively to work composing his piece, for the purpose of the edification of his brother mendicants, and the local congregation. When the Feast of St. Dominic arrived, the Franciscan friar leaving with the prayers and good wishes of his fellow Franciscans marched off to the Dominican priory. At the cloister gate he was welcomed by the Dominican student priests, who warmly, and dutifully, thanked him for the forthcoming homily of praise. After the Gospel was read by the Dominican Prior — the Franciscan was invited to the lectern. He spoke as follows:
"After so many centuries, and after so many tributes delivered by Franciscan friars far more learned than I, it is a difficult task to deliver a piece today without running the risk of saying something that has not already been better said. Nonetheless, I shall indeed endeavour to do my best to make an original and valid point. I would ask you all to consider if you would, what are the similarities and differences between the great Order of Preachers that St. Dominic founded and another great Order of priests, the Society of Jesus. Due to constraints in time — let me answer. The Orders are similar in that they were both founded by Spaniards; in the case of the Order of Preachers, Domingo Félix de Guzmán, in the case of the Jesuits, Ignacio de Loyola. Another similarity is that they both were established to repel a prevailing heresy in their era, in the case of the Dominicans, it was to combat the Albigensian heresy, and in the case of the Jesuits, to combat Protestantism. As for the differences between the two Orders — well, my dear friends, when was the last time you were able to sit down and have a convivial dinner with an Albigensian?"
At this point the Franciscan friar sat down suppressing a wry smile — while the balding Dominican Prior gazing in silence, almost hypnotically at the crucifix hanging over the entrance to the chapel, and aware of the muffled mirth in his congregation — steadily grew pale. Eventually, the hirsute Prior stood from his chair — and glancing at the Franciscan, with a look of thinly veiled significance, spoke out, with deliberate enunciation: "Now let us pray".
A religious order born in a pub...
It is one of the great pitfalls of piety, that often the pious, in the hope of painting pictures of Saintliness as perfection — lose the sense of the reality of the spiritual life, and the marvellous holiness and passion of general daily living. The Order of Preachers, one of the most famous in the Universal Church, it can be said, was born in a pub. As profane as it may sound, were it not for a cold and wet evening and a warm hearth offered by a publican in Toulouse, the Order may have taken a different direction. But in that rustic pub in the south of France, owned by an Albigensian, and inhabited by all walks of humanity, St. Dominic, a young missionary decided to test his skills as an evangelist. As Augusta Theodosia Drane writes about this moment and its effect on Dominic:
"The time was short, but the dispute was prolonged during the whole night; and in the morning the eloquence and fervor of his unknown guest had conquered the obduracy of the heretic. Before they left the house he made his submission, and was received back into the bosom of the Church. The effect of this first conquest on Dominic's mind was a feeling of unspeakable gratitude and a determination, so soon as he should be free to act, to found an order for the express purpose of preaching the Faith". (Drane, 1988 p. 8)
In being in the midst of sinners, St. Dominic was emulating His Lord, a teacher who did not hide, for propriety sake, among the righteous — but who ate and drank with the 'lost'. So much of Christ's earthly ministry was taken up with those that the religious elite looked down upon — that even Christ — the Son of God, was eventually classified by the Pharisees as being one of 'them' — yet even worse, a reprobate disguised as a rabbi; a man merely feigning holiness. (cf. Luke 19: 1-47)
St. Francis of Assisi is accredited with once having instructed his followers that every moment, is a moment to preach the message of the Gospels — and these moments should be used well, and if we have to in these moments, we should even use words to preach. What St. Francis was saying is that the most effective means of preaching — is by force of one's lived example. If people see in a Christian — a person alive and enthused — invariably they will want to know more about such a person. The greatest Saints have always been great 'people persons', they have been authentic — and through this authenticity they have set other hearts on fire.
Christianity — a religion unafraid of confronting the world?
It is one of the ironical quirks of Christianity, that Saints such as: Francis, Dominic, and Catherine of Siena, all associated with the so deemed lowest rungs of society — and that these Saints are lauded not too infrequently, by those who today criticize others for mixing with the 'wrong types'. It is almost as if the 'Peter Principle' is at work, that piety too often promotes the pious to their highest level of hypocrisy; or that now being an 'established' religion — Christianity must act as all established institutions — carefully aware of the brand. Christianity should be a religion that is unafraid of confronting the world — it should be unafraid of an opposing point of view — for the God of Christianity is large enough to speak with the fallen, to speak with those who are yearning and searching for meaning — to converse even with those who are adverse and aggressive to the Gospels. The great Truth of Christianity is that heresy is ephemeral, but the Gospels are perennial, growing and blossoming throughout the Ages — applying themselves continually, like a deciduous plant, according to season and context.
Dominic was led by Providence into a pub in the south of France — but where are the great meeting places of today? The pub that St. Dominic walked into hundreds of years ago — still exists; it exists, for example on the internet as a primary mode of discourse — for countless millions; it also exists each day whenever there is a person who wants to know what we believe — and like Dominic, it is our capacity to listen and to respond with charity, that determines whether we belong to the Church of Pentecost or a sect of self-aggrandizement. For an individual who recoils from opposition, or who rejects another's opinion outright without first hearing their part in full — is a person insecure, and fearful of being wrong. Confidence in, and an understanding of the Truth that we profess — should in fact find us, like Dominic before us, as catholic minds and catholic hearts and catholic spirits, talking to the common man — or even better still — as Christ standing beside a well, speaking to a woman where he finds her, about water — about her life, and about the Way.
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2010Dr Andrew Thomas Kania