Editor’s note: This is the first post in a series on the vocation to the cooperator brotherhood on the occasion of the Order’s 800th anniversary.
It is fitting that this week of blog posts dedicated to the cooperator brother saints of the Order of Preachers (those not ordained priests) should begin on the feast of St. Mark, frequently considered the evangelist with the most workmanlike prose. As St. Mark is oft-reputed the first of the evangelists and closely connected with Peter, it is further fitting that we should begin with the tale of Bl. Oderic of Normandy, the first cooperator brother of the Order and a man chosen by St. Dominic himself. What we know of his life is brief: He probably met Dominic while on the armed crusade against the Albigensians parallel to St. Dominic’s spiritual mission. Dominic, perhaps inspired by the Cistercians who had been his preaching companions, decided to adopt their custom of sending lay brothers as prudent companions for traveling preachers. Oderic, inspired by the small band of men gathering around Dominic, but lacking the education needed for the priesthood, was chosen to be the first of these cooperators in the mission of the new Order. In the summer of 1217, when Dominic dispersed the brethren to the great university cities of Europe, Bl. Oderic was sent to Paris with Matthew and Dominic’s own brother Mannes. Together they founded the convent of St. Jacques, where St. Thomas Aquinas would later study and teach, and on account of which the Order of Preachers is today known as “Jacobins” in French (not to be confused with the revolutionary radicals of 1789, who were so named because they met in the shadow of that famous convent).
Oderic’s task was to care for the material needs of the convent so that the clerical brothers could concentrate on study. Oderic performed his task with humble faithfulness. The brothers are called cooperators because they are integral parts of the preaching which is truly the work of the whole community, and they witness to the value of that preaching with their lives of obedience. Dominic was frustrated in his plan to give all temporal cares of the Order to the lay brothers, but they nonetheless undertook most such necessities: there were many skilled tradesmen among them. Like the priests of the Order, the brothers could be dispensed from communal prayer when it was necessary to carry out these tasks. The primitive constitutions of the Order make clear that while priests and lay brothers were equally bound to prayer and penance after their own capacities and furthermore shared the vow of obedience, their distinctive gifts were to be respected: the priests were not to undertake any task that would unnecessarily remove them from preparation for preaching, while the brothers were not to engage in any activity that would distract them from the temporal tasks that made preaching concretely possible.
The care of the lay brothers was reciprocated by the clerics: St. Dominic found a loaf of bread for a famished brother in an act of miraculous mendicancy (Vitae Fratrum 2.8), and on the vigil of the first feast of St. Dominic after his beatification, a brother was healed by his intercession (VF 2.43). The cooperator brothers have thus been full beneficiaries from the beginning of Dominic’s promise to be even more useful to the brethren after his death than he was in life. Bl. Oderic himself apparently profited in full by his apprenticeship to the Preacher of Grace and shouldered his burdens virtuously—not only with the ease of a journeyman and the joy befitting a preacher of the Good News, but also with a promptness that would please St. Mark, whose Gospel uses the word “immediately” over forty times.
Image: Stained-Glass Window, Dispersal of the Brethren