Sent to Preach the Gospel International Mission Congress for the Mission of the Order Order of Preachers 800 Years
The long-awaited International Mission Congress celebrating the closing of the Jubilee of the Order of Preachers has concluded with a Papal Mass at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. For ten years, the World-wide Order of Preachers has been honoring the multiple, evolving events that constitute the ongoing Founding of our Order uniquely dedicated to the Preaching of the Gospel. The celebration began in 2006 with the commemoration of the Foundation of the Monastery of Dominican Nuns at Prouille in 1206. During the last decade, many anniversaries of particular foundations and historic mission commitments have been acknowledged in ways that have re-invigorated our Preaching Charism for the 21st Century. For instance, in 2011 we celebrated the 500th Anniversary of the Preaching of Antonio Montesinos and its legacy in the conversion, writing, and ministry of Bartolomé de Las Casas. Indeed, the Congress in Rome, entitled Sent to Preach the Gospel,powerfully evoked the memory of Montesinos and Las Casas on numerous occasions, in ways that resonated palpably with the cries for justice and needs for prophecy in our own time.
The Congress, which took place in Rome at the Angelicum from January 17th through January 21st, was attended by 609 members of the Dominican Family from all over the world. On the evening of the 17th , the Congress opening was prepared by a preliminary video presentation of Dominicans in Mission, a retrospective reflection by Carlos Azpiroz Costa, OP, former Master of the Order, and the Hymn of the Jubilee of the Order by the Choral Institute of St. Dominic. The Congress was declared officially open by Bruno Cadoré, OP, Master of the Order. In his formal address, our brother Bruno emphasized that this Congress is a Congress for Mission, for a New Sending in powerful unity for the sake of the Preaching. Among many things, Bruno emphasized the need for a renewal of the dialogue between the experience of preaching and theological reflection. He described this congress as “a few days in which we might have the audacity to identify the successes, the intuitions, and sometimes the failures of our preaching.” He expressed his desire that we be sent as preachers together in all the richness of our diversity to advance the mission of the Church in the world, to experience the nearness of the reign of God, to learn how to love the world and to give ourselves to it. Over and over again, Bruno called for a spirit of communion.
The Inaugural Conference was presented by the General Minister of the Capuchins and President of the Union of Superiors General, fr. Mauro Johri, OFM cap., who began by speaking of the close relationship between Franciscans and Dominicans. He proposed that we promote the Gospel together, that we allow people to question, and that we become men and women who make the Gospel credible in this world.
The evening was enriched by a concert, “Preaching with Music,” led by a young Dominican friar from Germany. The concert was the first of several events at the Congress demonstrating the power of art in preaching. The chorale renditions were exquisite, and only rendered more poignant fr. Robert Mehlhart’s description of how his ministry with young musical artists began, and how it constitutes his own Preaching Mission. In effect, he said that the churches in Europe, particularly in Germany, are empty. Magnificent churches and cathedrals—empty. How shall we fill them with people? Why not through the arts? Fr._Robert_meets with this group of young musical artists weekly. In the deepening of this musical encounter, relationships of community have developed and grown. Performances in church draw many who would not otherwise enter the church, thus opening up pathways for relationship and evangelization.
For the next three days, we explored the implications of the Congress title in reverse order: Gospel, Preach, Sent. On January 18th we engaged the theme “Gospel and Humanity.” From whence does the Living Word of the Gospel arise? Where do we find it? This day was devoted to contemplating the suffering human experience of so many peoples around our globe in the 21st Century. God hears the cry of the poor, and so must we if we are to begin to understand the Word of Truth most needed by our world today. That Word must be a source of healing and hope for those who suffer the misery of injustice and oppression, and it must be a searing sword of Truth challenging those who are complicit in the systems that propagate injustice, poverty, and ecological devastation. In that same vein, it must be a clarion call to conversion for us who dare to preach. The keynote speakers for this day, fr. Carlos Mendoza Álvarez, OP (Mexico) and Sr. Teresa Hieslmayr, OP (Austria)—made vivid the range of human suffering that reveals to us by contrast the Word that God is speaking, a Word that requires not only our mouths but our hearts and hands to proclaim.
On January 19th the Congress engaged “Preaching as Encounter,” with keynotes by Mary Catherine Hilkert, OP (USA) and Felicissimo Martinez, OP (Spain). Engaging both art and poetry, Cathy explored Luke’s image of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus as an icon of the kind of Encounter with the ‘Other’ that not only gives rise to, but becomes an occasion of the Holy Preaching. In particular, she raised the questions: “Which strangers are we failing to recognize? What words do we fail to hear?” Cathy concluded by inviting Sr. Luma from Iraq to read from the Christmas letter that we all received from her community, a letter that, like the sermon of Montesinos, is a preaching of her whole community: The letter challenges us to remember that Incarnation began in a stable and ended on a cross, and asks, “To what conversion does this summon us?”
Felicissimo’s presentation asked “What are the Consequences of Preaching as Encounter?” He focused in on the very particular, embodied, and sacramentally gestured relational human encounters that become occasions of the revelation and proclamation of God’s Word. In particular, he drew upon Emmanuel Levinas’ image of the “face of the ‘Other’” as an ethical summons for each of us.
On day three of the Congress our attention was focused on what it means to be “Sent in Service.” Gilles Routier (Quebec) expounded what it means to be “Sent in Service” in genuine mission. Gemma Morato, OP (Spain) spoke passionately about the centrality of love in the rendering of service as a ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Two workshops followed the keynote plenaries each morning. The first of these provided an opportunity for participants to break open the questions raised by the keynote speakers in small group conversations; the second featured a presenter who provided input on a topic related to the theme of the day, and then facilitated dialogue around it. For instance, our own Terry Rickard offered a workshop entitled “Small Christian Communities: Forming Everyday Preachers.” Depending on the theme of the day, other Dominicans offered workshops in the areas of Human Rights, Immigration, Interreligious Dialogue, Music and Justice, Art and Justice, Care of Creation, Preaching, Evangelization, Study, Prison Ministry, and many more.
After lunch each day, participants were treated to a different performance expressing Preaching through the Arts. One of these was a theatre production depicting key moments and figures from our Dominican history in a way that not only brought our history to life, but powerfully and provocatively evoked parallel themes in our contemporary Dominican life and on our global stage.
Each afternoon entailed a Plenary Panel in which several presenters engaged the theme of the day from the perspective of their grassroots ministry experience. These plenary sessions drew us into the concrete scenarios where our Dominican Sisters and Brothers minister all over the world. All of them were rich, but here I will focus on the final plenary panel on Friday, under the theme “Sent for Service.” Sr. Luma from Iraq recounted the narrative of her sisters’ ministry in exile, a narrative with which we have become so familiar, and for which we pray so fervently. Nothing, however, could compare with Luma’s own rendering of her sisters’ experience and the experience of her people, vivified with photos under the title: “Preaching Salvation in a Torn Country.” Following a tearful standing ovation for Luma, Sr. Faustina of Nigeria shared a very different but equally poignant narrative of the threatening conditions under which she and her sisters carry out their ministry. Both of these presentations incarnated what it means to preach the Gospel when it is dangerous.
The danger that Luma and Faustina and many of our brothers and sisters face is the threat of fundamental Islamist militants under many names. This reality complexified the conversation on Interreligious Dialogue that was threaded throughout the Congress, with panel presentations and workshops such as those of Jean Jacques Pérennès, OP, who has given his life to the Muslim-Christian Dialogue and who has developed deep cooperative friendships with Muslim leaders. Luma from Iraq, and brothers and sisters from Nigeria cautioned about the danger on the ground, an element of concern and threat that kept emerging in both plenaries and workshops.
On each evening of the Congress we made a pilgrimage to a different place of prayer. On Wednesday we journeyed to celebrate Eucharist at Santa Sabina, the head quarters of the Order and the church in which St. Dominic famously prayed and wept through the night for the fate of ‘poor sinners’.
In honor of the theme of Interreligious Dialogue woven throughout the Congress, on Thursday evening we gathered at a Synagogue in the Travestere section of Rome. In structure and sacred majesty, the synagogue mirrored in many ways the magnificent churches throughout Rome. Its beauty lies in its architecture and sculptured columns, walls, and ceilings gilded with stars in the night sky, all of which are also familiar in Rome’s Catholic churches and basilicas. However, the statues and paintings of saints that are ever present in our churches are absent in the Synagogue, reflecting the Jewish people’s observance of the command forbidding graven images. Central to the Synagogue is the enthronement of the Word in a veiled tabernacle and an altar over which a lit candle hangs. The presence of God in the Word is central, and the imperative to study the Torah is the backbone of Jewish faith and worship. In this, we Dominicans share a strong bond with our Jewish brothers and sisters. This Synagogue, however, also bears witness to a history of suffering and persecution. Built in the 16th Century, the Synagogue was at the center of what became an enclosed Jewish ghetto for the next 300 years, and many of its present members come from families marked by the tragic horror of the Holocaust.
On Friday, we processed through the streets to Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, the church which enshrines the body of Catherine of Siena beneath the altar, and also houses the tomb of Fra Angelico. Vespers that evening celebrated the Preaching of Women in multiple languages interspersed with music throughout our prayer. (Later, sixteen of us U.S. Dominicans had dinner together, virtually taking over a tiny restaurant and beginning and ending our meal with the singing of Jim Marchionda, bringing back PARABLE memories for all of us. Joining us was Sr. Beatrice from Montebello, who had accompanied Terry and Kathleen at numerous points, and updated us on the Montebello Sisters who have shared life with us in Blauvelt!)
Saturday provided the opportunity for contemplative reflection in small groups before gathering together for a closing process and ritual. This final plenary included the sharing of representative members of each branch of the OP Family on a Synthesis Panel: Duncan MacLaren from Scotland (Dominican Laity), Sr. Mary Ann Bradshaw from Trinidad (Contemplative Nuns), fr. Grégoire of Cameroon (Friars), and Sr. Rosa Aya of the Philippines (Sisters). The panelists responded to the same questions all the participants had engaged in small groups: