Evangelism, the Laity and the Order of Preachers

"Crucifixion avec sainte Catherine de Sienne, saint Dominique et d'autres saints" by Fra. Bartolommeo, O.P. (1472-1517)
“Crucifixion avec sainte Catherine de Sienne, saint Dominique et d’autres saints” by Fra. Bartolommeo, O.P. (1472-1517)
At the last meeting of our local chapter of Lay Dominicans, a newcomer slipped me a piece of paper that asked simply, “Why do you want to be a Lay Dominican? What do you get out of it?” As a result of writing my response, I have come to realize that the main mission of the Church is also the special charism of the Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic. This article will answer my friend’s question by discussing the layperson’s role in the Church and how that relates to the charism of the Lay Dominicans.

The Order of Preachers was founded by St. Dominic in 1216. Within a few years, the order had organized itself into three branches: the friars, the nuns, and the laity. Each branch of the Order is separately governed under the leadership of the Master of the Order. The branch of the laity are called the “Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic,” “Lay Dominicans,” or formerly the “Third Order of Preachers.” The Lay Dominicans worldwide number approximately 150,000, compared to around than 6,000 Friars.

The Church Exists to Evangelize

Pope Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi (Evangelism in the Modern World) written 10 years after the close of Vatican II, refocused the Church on its central mission: the eternal salvation of souls. So important is Evangelii Nuntiandi that Pope Francis calls it “the greatest pastoral document that has ever been written to this day.” Address of June 23, 2013, at 2.

“[The Church] exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection.” [Evangelii Nuntiandi 14]

“[T]he presentation of the Gospel message is not an optional contribution for the Church. It is the duty incumbent on her by the command of the Lord Jesus, so that people can believe and be saved.” [Evangelii Nuntiandi 5]

Salvation Requires Conversion

Salvation requires the radical and even forceful conversion of the mind and heart. “As the kernel and center of His Good News, Christ proclaims salvation, this great gift of God which is liberation from everything that oppresses man but which is above all liberation from sin and the Evil One, in the joy of knowing God and being known by Him, of seeing Him, and of being given over to Him.” [Evangelii Nuntiandi 9]

“This kingdom and this salvation, which are the key words of Jesus Christ’s evangelization, are available to every human being as grace and mercy, and yet at the same time each individual must gain them by force – they belong to the violent, says the Lord (cf. Matthew 11:12; Luke 16:16), through toil and suffering, through a life lived according to the Gospel, through abnegation and the cross, through the spirit of the beatitudes. But above all each individual gains them through a total interior renewal which the Gospel calls metanoia; it is a radical conversion, a profound change of mind and heart.” [Evangelii Nuntiandi 10]

All Christians Must Evangelize

“The whole Church is missionary, and the work of evangelization is a basic duty of the People of God.” Vatican II, Ad Gentes (Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity) 35 (1965). “On all Christians is laid the preeminent responsibility of working to make the divine message of salvation known and accepted by all men throughout the world.” Vatican II, Apostolicam Actuositatem (Decree on the Apostolate of Lay Persons) 3 (1965).

Priests often cannot succeed without the laity’s activity. “As sharers in the role of Christ as priest, prophet, and king, the laity have their work cut out for them in the life and activity of the Church. Their activity is so necessary within the Church communities that without it the apostolate of the pastors is often unable to achieve its full effectiveness.” [Apostolicam Actuositatem 10]

“For there are many persons who can hear the Gospel and recognize Christ only through the laity who live near them.” Apostolicam Actuositatem 13. “[The lay faithful’s] responsibility, in particular, is to testify how the Christian faith constitutes the only fully valid response – consciously perceived and stated by all in varying degrees – to the problems and hopes that life poses to every person and society.” John Paul II, Christifideles Laici [Apostolic Exhortation on the Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World 34](1988)

Evangelization Is Both Witness and Word

“Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses. St. Peter expressed this well when he held up the example of a reverent and chaste life that wins over even without a word those who refuse to obey the word. (cf. 1 Peter 3:1) It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus- the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity.” [Evangelii Nuntiandi 41]

Spoken word preaching is indispensable. “[Personal witness] always remains insufficient, because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified. . . . The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life.” [Evangelii Nuntiandi 22.] Thus, “an apostolate of this kind does not consist only in the witness of one’s way of life; a true apostle looks for opportunities to announce Christ by words addressed either to non-believers with a view to leading them to faith, or to the faithful with a view to instructing, strengthening, and encouraging them to a more fervent life.” [Apostolicam Actuositatem 6]

Evangelism Is More Effective In Community

“The group apostolate of Christian believers then happily corresponds to a human and Christian need and at the same time signifies the communion and unity of the Church in Christ, who said, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Matt. 18:20). For this reason the faithful should participate in the apostolate by way of united effort.” [Apostolicam Actuositatem 18]

“Take a Christian or a handful of Christians who, in the midst of their own community, show their capacity for understanding and acceptance, their sharing of life and destiny with other people, their solidarity with the efforts of all for whatever is noble and good. Let us suppose that, in addition, they radiate in an altogether simple and unaffected way their faith in values that go beyond current values, and their hope in something that is not seen and that one would not dare to imagine. Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way? What or who is it that inspires them? Why are they in our midst? Such a witness is already a silent proclamation of the Good News and a very powerful and effective one.” [Evangelii Nuntiandi 21]

The dynamism of preaching requires faithfulness to the Church. “Whether the lay apostolate is exercised by the faithful as individuals or as members of organizations, it should be incorporated into the apostolate of the whole Church according to a right system of relationships. Indeed, union with those whom the Holy Spirit has assigned to rule His Church (cf. Acts 20:28) is an essential element of the Christian apostolate. ” [Apostolicam Actuositatem 23]

God Call Each By Name

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. . . . All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” 1 Corinthians 12:4-7,11

“God calls the individual in Jesus Christ, each one personally by name. In this sense, the Lord’s words ‘You go into my vineyard too’ [Matthew 20:3-4], directed to the Church as a whole, come specially addressed to each member individually.” [Christifideles Laici 28]

My fiance and I are convinced that we are both personally called to preaching. Thus, we say, with the Apostle St. Paul, “if I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” [1 Corinthians 9:16]

Religious Orders Must Promote The Laity

“Finally, in keeping with the spirit and norms of their societies, Religious brothers and sisters should value the apostolic works of the laity and willingly devote themselves to promoting lay enterprises.” [Apostolicam Actuositatem 25]

The charism of the Order of Preachers is particularly well-suited to supporting lay evangelization. “The Order of Friars Preachers, founded by St Dominic, is known to have been established, from the beginning, for preaching and the salvation of souls, specifically.” Fundamental Constitution of the Order of Preachers, Article II (1968).

A former Master of the Order summarized the importance of preaching for Dominicans:

“We can conclude that preaching is truly necessary, for without it the glory of heaven would never be realized, hell would be filled up all too soon, and the world would remain sterile; demons would rule, hearts would have neither hope nor joy in their salvation, nations would not know the Christian faith, and God’s Church would have no foundation, growth, or stability. . . . For all these reasons, God, seeing how necessary preaching is, has not ceased since the beginning of the world, and will not cease until the end of time, to send preachers.” Humbert of Romans, O.P. Treatise on Preaching, Chapter 1, Section 1.2 (ca. 1260).

Preaching Is The Lay Dominican Charism

“Every Dominican must be prepared to preach the Word of God. It is in this preaching that Christians, baptised and strengthened by the Sacrament of Confirmation, exercise the prophetic office. In today’s world, the preaching of the Word of God must extend in a special way to defending the dignity of the human person, as well as life and the family. Promoting Christian unity and dialogue with non-Christians and non-believers is also part of the Dominican vocation.” Rule of the Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic ¶ 12 (1987)

“The true condition of salvation is to meet the divine invitation by accepting the Catholic ‘credo’ and by observing the commandments. But the Lord expects more from you [lay Dominicans], and the Church urges you to continue seeking the intimate knowledge of God and His works, to search for a more complete and valuable expression of this knowledge, a refinement of the Christian attitudes which derive from this knowledge.” Pope Pius XII, Chosen Laymen, Address to the Third Order of St. Dominic (1958).