Church-watchers say that the present head of the Dominicans, Fr Timothy Radcliffe, is tipped to be our next Cardinal of England and Wales. Antony Bond charts the spiritual progress of the remarkable Order he heads, and its continued belief in teaching from the pulpit about the basics of a dynamic faith.
IT IS RECORDED IN the earliest sources that when St Dominic walked through villages where his life was threatened by the Albigensian heretics he used to sing as loudly as he could so that everyone knew he was there. "Singing Dominicans" are a favourite theme of the present Master of the Order, Timothy Radcliffe, in his frequent exhortations from Rome to his brethren.
The Dominican friars have always possessed a popular voice within the Church in this country and one disproportionate to their numbers, names such as Vincent Macnabb, Bede Jarrett, Conrad Peppier and Gervase Matthew trip off the tongue, in a way those of members of other numerically larger religious orders rarely do. And now a new generation of the "sons of St Dominic" has sprung up, "singing" at the top of its voice.
They are certainly prominent. Dominicans presently occupy the posts of chaplain and vice chaplain at Cambridge and until recently vice chaplain at Oxford. Blackfriars, the Dominican "studium" or house of studies in Oxford, has recently been made a permanent private hall of the university.
Excluding the canons of Christchurch Cathedral, Dominicans now provide more members of the theology faculty than any other single grouping. New Blackfriars, the English Dominican Review, has, under the successive editorships of Allan White and Fergus Kerr, enjoyed a renaissance, becoming the most prominent, stimulating and entertaining of the English Catholic theological journals (only New Blackfriars would publish clever if slightly tenuous arguments on such topics aswhether whales have souls).
The more mainstream popular and scholarly works of Aidan Nichols, Brian Davies and Herbert McCabe threaten to eclipse those of their illustrious 20th century forebears such as Victor White and Gerald Vann.
The English province provides the order on an international stage with high profile personnel including the head of the Dominican Historical Institute in Rome, lecturers at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem and the Vicar General of the Dominicans in Russia and the Ukraine.
Most prominent of all is Timothy Radcliffe who in 1992 was voted the first ever English Master of the Order. He has the passion, charisma
and indeed something of the appearance of a latter-day John the Baptist. This twinned with a charm and intelligence which rather befits his aristocratic recusant lineage, makes Radcliffe the man of the moment, reputedly seen in Rome as the next Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster.
Although such rumours of ecclesial preferment are usually a sure sign the candidate will scarcely get a mention, few would disagree that the Vatican would be stupid to miss him.
It cannot be denied that the Order suffered in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, but which religious order didn't?
And numbers have recently been rising; six novices joining this year, and if the present rate were to be maintained the English province should soon re-establish itself at somewhere near its preconciliar levels.
The Dominicans have approached the modern world with a comprehensive vision of the faith and it's paying dividends. It is one that is unashamedly intellectual. Timothy Radcliffe in a recent letter to the province spoke of society's "enormous desire for teaching and doctrine", "a longing that makes the heart grow deep" and Allan White, the chaplain at Cambridge, has spoken of "a resurgence of apologetics".
Secularism is to be tackled head on by preaching and teaching from the pulpit, the lecture room and on the written page. Yet the Dominican's is not, and never has been, a triumphalist message nor do they teach a faith without ambiguity.
They are after all the order of St Thomas Aquinas, whose "openness of mind" drew him to seek out the most awkward questions of his time and through asking, as necessarily opposed to answering them, triumph.
Timothy Radcliffe in his letters quotes St Jerome to his brethren "Knowingly and prudently I put my hand in the fire".
There have been occasions, particularly in the late 1960s, when this approach very definitely flirted with the boundaries of the teaching of the Church: the younger friars at Oxford were labelled by their elder brethren, not "the white robed army of martyrs" mentioned in the Te Deum but "the white robed army of Marxists".
Yet was not St Thomas equally radical, if on different matters and are there not many within the Church ready to correct a false note, no doubt mostly friars within the transgressor's own community.
What is surely more important is that in this essentially humanist approach one is open to the arguments ranged against the faith. This was St Thomas' s view and it is one echoed by the current Master: "We use our reason not so as to dominate the others, but so as to draw near to them".
In any case problems are rare. "We are radical only from within the Church's teaching" as Malcolm MacMahon, the current Provincial, firmly put it.
It is the Pope who receives the full support of the English province, his pontificate in the words of Allan White "widely misunderstood" by his critics. The new Catechism has been given the warmest of welcomes, the provincial singling out for special praise those sections, such as the one on prayer, which allow faith to be treated as a dynamic, challenging the reader to go on and see faith as a whole, spiritually and morally within their lives.
Just as their preaching is dogmatic but not narrow minded so their attitude to intellectual pursuits is dedicated but in no way outside or in spite of a life dedicated to God.
The Dominican Savonarola held that since all truth comes from a loving God only a loving person can understand it. And it is in such a context we can place comments about St. Thomas who was said to study and to teach with 'unutterable tenderness'.
"In the face of that despair which is relativism, we celebrate that the truth may be known" as Fr Radcliffe proclaims.
Drawing on the most ancient traditions of the order and the Church, it is a full and rounded truth which is heralded.
A PARTICULAR FACET of their vision is the need for social justice. Malcolm MacMahon freely admits, as a specific apostolate, it has come upon the English Dominicans as something of a surprise, developing partly because of the order's desire to rediscover the civic identity St Dominic had originally intended for it.
Over the last 30 years the order has concentrated its resources on building up its large city parishes. Confronting inner city poverty, the friars have given over large parts of their priories in Haverstock Hill, North London and in Newcastle to sheltered housing and provision for the homeless.
The friars have also used their influence with those in positions of power by regularly organising colloquia attended by politicians, businessmen and academics to maintain a high profile for the poor and work for a more just settlement of resources.
The Church's social teachings come in for special attention in Dominican studies and the formation of a novice. Although, unlike the Franciscans, they take only a vow of obedience, the friars are bound by their state as religious to poverty and maintam a simple life.
In an age of mass education, and of intellectual and often physical degradation and insecurity, the Dominican approach is highly effective. Although their character may be very ancient it is a seemingly ageless one that carries relevance. The Dominican appears to give testament to this 'ancient modernity' in almost every aspect of his life.
For instance, since the Second Vatican Council the order's system of organisation has been reformed to reflect more closely the wishes of St Dominic, their founder. Power is devolved to independent priories who operate a system of subsidiarity with the provincialate and the Master.
A congress of Priors and one of Provincials meet every few years to debate what needs to be decided in common. Priors, Provincials and the Master are all elected for fixed terms, yet responsibility and administrative work are shared by all members of the order here, as St Thomas noted "friendship finds or creates equality".
Such a fraternal spirit is hardly an innovation yet posturing politicians talking of "local democracy" could learn a thing or two.
A Dominican priory, as Timothy Radcliffe has observed in a rather untypically lofty moment, ought to reflect the Trinity, being "without domination or manipulation".
The monastic tradition of the friars appears to be reasserting itself too and being met with great interest. The acts passed by the last congress, the provincial chapter of 1992, urged that, "regardless of what else we do", the Liturgy and the divine office should be made beautiful and as much of the office sung in choir as the restrictions of personnel allow.
This new sense is noticeable in Blackfriars in Oxford where liturgy is conducted with great dignity and solemnity, the church is attractive, the side altars dressed, the statues recently restored.
There is also some hope for the old liturgical rites. Both Malcolm MacMahon, the provincial, and Allen White, the chaplain at Cambridge mourn the abandonment, in the late 60s, of
St Dominic from Saints.
the Dominican rite of Mass and the Dominican Office, much of which written by the early Dominican saints, counted as being amongst the oldest and most beautiful liturgical texts in the Church.
Taken with "the spirit of the times" according to Allen White, the Dominicans followed the example of the other religious orders, leaving the old books so as firmly to establish the newly reformed Roman ones.
With greater distance, many Dominicans appear to realise the riches they have lost, not with a sense of nostalgia or any reactionary axe to grind but with an appreciation of beauty, their own history and sense of identity. The Second Vatican Council's previously largely ignored wish that all recognised rites should be preserved and cherished has found some sort of reception at last.
At the requests of their respective ordinaries the old Roman rites of Mass at least are now said regularly in the priories in London and Newcastle and the Dominican rite still said privately in other Dominican houses.
There is a new consciousness abroad, not rooted in conflicting ideologies and innovations but in a sure
grasp of the age old character of the Dominican.
The friars have the confidence to know that rather than alienating people, this identity in fact attracts them. It speaks of an age of purer values and greater coherence, a Christian society which ours so plainly is not. In the editorial of the November issue of
New Blackfriars the late poet, sculptor and Dominican tertiary David Jones is quoted: "If we do not like our Churches to reflect the sort of life we have let us have a different sort of life and the churches will change inevitably."
The English province of the Dominicans have taken up fully both recommendations of the Second Vatican Coun cil's Decree on the Religious Life return to the original inspiration behind your order and adjust to and understand the needs of the times and they have found these seemingly contradictory instructions to be largely one and the same thing.
Their gentle fraternal spirit and thoughtful intelligent lives make the Dominicans an immensely attractive proposition in any age. As the famous French Dominican Lacordaire knew in the last century there is essentially 'nothing more modern' than a Dominican.
When St Dominic preached to the Albigensians it is said that the crowds "never imagined that the Catholics had such strong arguments in support of their position".
A friar from London's Haverstock Hill still spends his Sunday afternoons preaching at Speakers' Comer in Hyde Park. Let us hope and pray that the sons of St Dominic may continue to follow in the footsteps of their founder.
As Cardinal Newman noted in the 19th century so it must be true for the coming 21st: "What the world, or at least England wants, as much as anything, is Dominicans".