Faith Matters

Dominicans celebrate 800th anniversary of their foundation

This year Dominicans, the Order of Preachers (OP), are celebrating the 800th anniversary of their foundation. Lay Dominicans are marking the Jubilee with a special event on May 1 to showcase the Dominican charism or gift. Martin O'Brien, president of the Immaculate Heart of Mary & St Malachy's Chapter of the Lay Dominicans in Belfast explains why the celebration means so much

Celebration of the Jubilee 800 in Newbridge College, Co Kildare

There is so much to celebrate.

The Dominican contribution to the life of the Church and the transmission of the Good News of Jesus Christ has been incalculable since St Dominic founded the Order of Preachers under the approval of Pope Honorius III in 1216.

Within eight years the Order had come to Ireland and had established communities in Dublin and Drogheda.

The contribution in Ireland has been perhaps most marked in the field of education exemplified in the dedicated service of generations of Dominican Sisters in places such as Belfast, Portstewart, Dublin and Galway until the decline of vocations led to the development of all lay staff schools which still embrace and cherish the Dominican charism.

One of those sisters is Dr Geraldine Smyth, OP from Belfast who was educated at St Dominic's High School Belfast, where future President Mary McAleese was a few years behind her. Dr Smyth taught in Dominican Grammar School, Portstewart and rose to become Prioress General of the worldwide Irish Dominican Sisters.

Many such sisters have been inspired not just by St Dominic but by that other Dominican giant, St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), a Doctor of the Church and one of the patron saints of Italy and of Europe.

St Catherine received the stigmata and is believed to have performed many miracles and to have had numerous visions and mystical experiences.

The greatest philosopher/theologian in the Church's history, St Thomas Aquinas, (1225-1274), Doctor of the Church, was a Dominican friar whose works, notably The Summa Theologica synthesize faith and reason.

In our own time, Yves Congar OP (1904-1995), created a Cardinal by Pope St John Paul II, is regarded as one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century and was appointed by Pope St John XXIII to be a key adviser to the Second Vatican Council although in the early Fifties his perceived progressive ideas led to his censure by Pope Pius XII.

The Order's founder, Dominic de Guzman was born in Calaruega, northern Spain in 1170 and ordained a priest in 1195.

On a visit to southern France he encountered the Albigensian heretics, a branch of the Cathari movement, who regarded material things as evil and denied that Jesus became a human being.

It is thought that his experiences there prompted St Dominic, who renounced the prospect of a comfortable life to become a mendicant friar, to think about founding a religious order that would, as one writer has put it, "combat error and preach the Gospel to those still waiting to believe".

The motto of the Order is Veritas (Truth), and its purpose is to praise God; to bless Our Lord in prayer, adoration, meditation and contemplation; and to preach His Truth (Laudere, Benedicere, Praedicare: to praise, to bless, to preach.)

A year after Papal approval Dominic had dispersed his friars to set up communities or priories in Paris, Bologna (where the saint is buried), Rome, and Madrid and over the centuries they spread to towns and cities around the world.

Echoing the words of Jesus in Matthew (10:19-20) Dominic told his brethren: "Go without anxiety, because the Lord will give you the word you are to preach, and He will be with you so that you so that you will lack nothing."

The Dominican Third Order or Tertiaries, as they were widely known until relatively recently, was founded 1285 and is an integral part of the Order of Preachers.

Today the Third Order are known as Lay Dominicans and there are an estimated 200,000 of us around the world. We are men and women from all walks of life who seek to live out our baptismal call to holiness in the spirit of St Dominic.

The life of a Lay Dominican strives to reflect the Four Pillars to the Dominican life: prayer, study, community and preaching.

Prayer: Dominic's mission was to contemplate and to bring the fruits of that contemplation to others, so prayer is at the heart of Dominican life. Lay Dominicans strive to attend daily Mass, pray the Prayer of the Church, have devotion to Our Lady through the Rosary and undertake prayerful reading of the scriptures.

Study: Study of sacred scripture and of documents setting out Church teaching such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Papal constitutions, encyclicals and exhortations is very important.

Community: The community aspect is also crucial. We meet monthly in groups or branches called Chapters in which we pray, study and share together in a mutually supportive community. Meetings, retreats and celebrations with other chapters build a sense of Dominican identity.

Preaching: Lay Dominicans preach primarily by our lives and example so as to communicate the love of Jesus Christ as best we can.

Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, former Master General of the Order says: "We preach in different ways, but each Lay Dominican receives the grace of preaching and exercises that grace in the way they live."

There are 30 Lay Dominican Chapters in Ireland, four in Belfast: St Dominic's based at the Dominican Convent on the Falls Road, president Mrs Mary McGuigan OP; Sedes Sapientiae (Our Lady Seat of Wisdom) Chapter, based in Christ the Redeemer Parish, Lagmore, president, Dr Gaven Kerr OP; Mater Ecclesiae & Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati Chapter, president Mr Francis McCaughan OP, based at Dominican Convent, Fortwilliam, and my own Immaculate Heart of Mary & St Malachy's Chapter based in St Brigid's Parish, Derryvolgie.

My Chapter includes Mr JJ Tohill OP, the most senior active Lay Dominican in Ireland having been a member for more than 60 years during which time he has inspired numerous people to join, including this writer.

In the last few years there has been significant growth in the Lay Dominicans in Belfast due mainly to the leadership of Dr Kerr, the Thomist scholar and lecturer based at Queen's University, who inspired the birth of a Chapter at the Queen's Catholic Chaplaincy that has now moved to Fortwilliam and the birth of the Chapter at Lagmore.

Dr Kerr is the Northern representative on the Lay Dominicans Ireland Provincial Council and the author of an important book on Aquinas, Aquinas's Way to God, published by Oxford University Press in 2015.

Dr Kerr says: "Being a Dominican entails spending oneself in preaching the truth about Christ, and not being afraid to do so, in season or out of season. Being a Lay Dominican then means realising this ideal in the lay life, in not being afraid to bring Christ into the public square as the apostles did, as the martyrs did, and as Dominic did."

:: The Lay Dominican Celebrating 800 Years event will commence with a Jubilee Mass at which Bishop Noel Treanor will preside, on Sunday May 1 at 2.30pm in Dominican College, Fortwilliam Park, Antrim Road, Belfast. Further details about Lay Dominicans can be found at and

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