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Father Ken Letoile, OP, provincial of the St. Joseph Province of the Dominican Order (on left), with two of the 70 men in formation.  

800 Years of Veritas

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By Joan Lamar (Feb 27, 2017)
Pope Francis celebrated the closing of the Jubilee Year for the 800th anniversary of the Dominican Order on Saturday, Jan. 21, at a Mass at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, urging the Dominicans to persevere in their good works of preaching truth, or veritas, to the world. As part of their formation, Marian seminarians study theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. I sat down with the provincial of the St. Joseph Province, the eastern province of the Dominican Order in the United States, Fr. Ken Letoile, OP (my former pastor), and asked him about their founder, St. Dominic de Guzman, and 800 years of the Order of Preachers.

Congratulations! The Dominican Order is 800 years old! What were some of the founding principles of the Order of Preachers? And how do those founding principles endure today?
Saint Dominic was a canon regular, or a diocesan priest, who lived at the Cathedral and served the bishop. The canons prayed together and lived in community. Saint Dominic was asked to accompany his bishop on a diplomatic mission to Denmark, and in the course of that journey, he recognized there was a lot of heresy and that people were drifting away from the Church. One of the reasons was that the local clergy was ineffective in reaching people with the truths of the faith. So this journey planted the seed that the Church really needed preaching. Ten years later, he began to form a community of diocesan preachers. He went to the Pope for approval, but the Pope had a bigger vision — seeing this as a worldwide mission not confined to a diocese. Dominic brought these principles from his life as canon of living in community, studying, praying together, and then going forth from that experience to preach.

Tell me about St. Dominic. And how does he still speak to the Order and to you personally?
I have a relic of St. Dominic on my desk and a prayer to him that I say every day before I begin my work. Before he died, he told his brothers that he could do more for them in Heaven than he could do on earth, and so sometimes I find myself saying, "Okay, now I need you to be true to your promise ... so help me out." One of the gifts St. Dominic has given us over these 800 years is that we haven't split into branches. There's only one Order of Preachers. And one of the reasons is that the need for preaching is as viable and important in the Church today as it was in St. Dominic's time. Since every Dominican is called to preach, every Dominican can feel connected to him. He was a quiet organizer, so there isn't that distance like there might be with a charismatic personality like Francis of Assisi or Ignatius of Loyola. Saint Dominic saw a need in the Church, he responded to that need, and he did it in a way that trusted the charisms of the people around him. So he's easy to relate to in that regard.

Eight hundred years is a very long time. What is it about the Dominican charism that is so enduring and continues to be attractive to both men and women? Who's joining the Dominican Order?
I just interviewed the 15 novices we have in Cincinnati. (The St. Joseph Province has over 70 men in formation right now.) In interviewing those young men, it was apparent that the combination of community life, study, prayer, and preaching provide an attractive combination for the young man who is interested in growing closer to God and also serving Him as a preacher. One of the guys in the novitiate is a medical doctor. Another guy has his PhD from the University of Maryland. So we attract a high caliber of men. They know that the contemporary world needs answers to difficult questions. They feel very challenged by that and want to do it, so it's the same reason why Dominic founded us that seems to inspire the hearts of these young men. The habit is also a big attraction. Studies have shown that those entering religious life today, both men and women, want to live in community, want identifiable garb, want to be part of a serious religious tradition, and want to have a common apostolate. Religious communities that have let go of these qualities are really struggling with their vocations.

How is the Holy Spirit preparing the Dominicans to serve the Church now? And where is He calling the Dominicans to serve?
We have 21 communities in the Eastern Province, including our mission in Kenya. (There are four provinces in the U.S. East, Midwest, West, and South.) Our two major institutions are our seminary, the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., and Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. We have eight campus ministries, and the rest of our communities serve parishes.

You are heading campus ministries at some major universities — Dartmouth, New York University, Brown, University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins. Why is that important? And why would the Dominicans choose to be at secular universities?
In 1217, Dominic dispersed 15 friars to the universities in Europe because universities were just forming and it's where the key questions were being asked. So Dominic thought it was important to be able to bring the Gospel to that emerging clientele. By nature, our community is more urban than rural, and it's university-centric. There were new questions emerging, and the friars had to be prepared to answer those questions. Today, each diocese usually has a campus ministry on major college campuses, so as diocesan resources shrink with the shortage of priests, they are no longer able to staff campus ministries. Then the bishops ask us if we would be able to help. So at this time, when we are growing, the dioceses have needs for campus ministry that they can't supply and we can. And our young guys are very suited to this ministry.

Who are your Dominican heroes? And why?
Saint Thomas Aquinas, who was sort of the next generation after Dominic, is right up there. One of the hot topics of the day was the way that ancient Greek philosophy was influencing contemporary thought. Rather than saying we had to quarantine ourselves away from it, St. Thomas embraced it to see what Aristotle and Greek philosophical thought had to offer in understanding the truths of the Gospel. Thomas believed that the world needed to be embraced because it was created by God and redeemed by Jesus. Much of his teaching, then, was grounded in the philosophical system of Aristotle. So his example always stands out as a challenge to every Dominican today to say, "Where do we find that presence of God today, and how can we use creation to help us to understand God in a deeper way." I think it's similar to the way Jesus used parables — the stuff of His own environment and creation — to explain what the kingdom of God is like.

Another Dominican hero is Bartolomé de Las Casas, who came to the New World in the colonial period and was a slave owner. He converted, became a Dominican, and began to speak out forcefully against the practice of enslavement of the indigenous people by Catholic landowners. He was then very effective in conveying to the Spanish Parliament what was taking place and in getting laws passed to protect the indigenous people. So the way he was able to look at his own environment, reflect on it, and then come up with ways of teaching about it actually changed structures.

A heroine, St. Catherine of Siena, who was a third-order Dominican, was a totally remarkable woman. She had the ability to blend deep holiness with care for the sick, and she worked for both political and ecclesiastical reform. She lived in a time in Italy when civil strife was very present, yet she was trusted by the rival political leaders of her day as someone who could bring them together. She had enormous influence in the Church, and I think it was because of her mystical holiness. Catherine was on the cover of this past December's National Geographic magazine — a subtle Jubilee gift.

The Marians and the Dominicans have a particular devotion and love for the Blessed Mother. How is that lived out in the life of the Dominican Order?
Mary heard God's Word spoken by the Angel, she accepted that word ("be it done to me according to your word"), and then she brought forth that Word, Jesus, into the world. That's the core of Dominican spirituality — to listen to God's Word, to let it take root in your heart, and then speak that Word to others. You can't preach effectively if you don't study, pray with, and listen to God's Word. So it's the rhythm that our Blessed Mother exemplifies that we are called to continue.

Is it providential that the 800th Jubilee of the Dominican Order coincided with the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy?
One of the titles we give St. Dominic is "Preacher of Grace." The Order has always placed a primacy on God's grace working in the human person and on God's love and His ability to transform us and redeem us. Saint Thomas' Summa is structured as God coming down to us, in Jesus, and then Jesus lifting us up to His divinity through grace. Saint Dominic saw his order as brothers and sisters who would be sent forth to the world with that message: that God is with us and that we can turn to Him and that He loves us. And if we have sinned, He's going to forgive us and continue to make us the people that we are supposed to be. To be a Dominican is to be filled with an upbeat and positive message because of the power of God's mercy. Perhaps it was St. Dominic's intercession that moved Pope Francis to make our 800th Jubilee Year also a Year of Mercy!

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