Cloistered Dominican Nuns Corpus Christi Monastery

800 Years Ago on This Day

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Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. Window in St Dominic’s priory church, Washington DC.

800 years ago on this day, Pope Honorius III did something groundbreaking: he issued a papal bull solemnly confirming a new religious order.  In fact, this was so groundbreaking, it would take additional papal bulls to define and confirm the powers and privileges of the Order, that which would become called the Order of Preachers.  This Order was to be the first of its kind.  Its religious members did not make a vow of stability – they were mendicant.  They did not rely on stable incomes and labor for their material needs – they embraced a life of poverty.  Their days were not filled with work and prayer – it was filled with prayer, study and preaching.  The Order’s founder, Saint Dominic, had taken all that was good and noble of religious and priestly life in practice at that time and adapted it for the needs of contemporary society and the salvation of souls.  It was nothing short of revolutionary.

Yet the Order of Preachers did not simply spring up 800 years ago.  Before its confirmation, Saint Dominic had spent over 10 years preaching against a pernicious heresy, with very little success (so it would seem).  He’d begun with his bishop, who subsequently died and left him to forge ahead alone.  Before his preaching, he’d lived a peaceful and content life as a canon in Osma.  He spent his days as a priest within a community of priests: praying, studying Scripture and theology, and offering people the sacraments.  To be the founder of a major religious order was certainly not in any “five-year plan.”

Yet did the Order really begin with Saint Dominic?  No.  It was not his idea, it was not his agenda.  The earliest stories from our foundation tell of the Order of Preachers being a response to the prayers of our Blessed Mother, Mary, to Jesus.  So moved with pity for lost souls, God found St. Dominic open to his Word and his will.  Through Dominic, God raised up an Order of Preachers to spread His Word, to plant the seeds of grace in the hearts of men and women.

Dominic had arrived in Rome in October of 1216, yet it took Pope Honorius until December to issue the crucial papal bull formally confirming the Order.  The usual explanation is that the Order was so innovative, the curia did not have the proper language at hand for such an organization.  Yet it seems appropriate that an Order so devoted to the Incarnate Word, and which was to be devoted to the contemplation and preaching of that Word for the salvation of souls, should have its “birthday” so close to the birthday of Jesus – a true gift from Jesus and Mary.

As we look forward to the next 800 years, it is good to remember our humble beginnings and the example of Our Holy Father Dominic.  Saint Dominic was truly an instrument in the hand of God and the Order is kept under the protection of our Blessed Mother.  It is only for the praise and glory of the Most Holy Trinity, for the preaching of the Incarnate Word and the salvation of souls that the Order has not only survived, but thrived.  It is through the vision, talents and knowledge of Our Holy Father Dominic and our earliest brethren that our Order was organized in such a way that it still remains united as one, under the Master of the Order, yet fully adaptable to continue to take and use what is good in the world around us so that the Gospel may be proclaimed and bear fruit to our contemporary society.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.  Blessed Mother, keep us always under your mantle.  Holy Father Dominic and all Dominican saints, pray for us!

P.S.  On a personal note, our community has extra cause for joy today!  Many of you know Sister Mary Bernadette – she is a native of Menlo Park (St. Raymond of Penyafort parish) and entered Corpus Christi Monastery shortly after high school.  Like St. Dominic, she was filled with joy and peace living the contemplative life within the cloister of Corpus Christi, when she was unexpectedly prompted by the Holy Spirit to answer a particular call.  The Master of the Order was asking for nuns to help begin a new foundation: Our Lady of Peace in Squamish, Canada; it is the first monastery of cloistered Dominican nuns for English-speaking Canada.  After sixteen years as a nun at Our Lady of Peace, today she returns to Corpus Christi Monastery.  Welcome back, Sister!

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