“So, what ARE you, anyway?” This is a question Dominicans get asked frequently. People don’t expect to see a bunch of young and joyful men wearing 13th-century garb—who are not play actors.
I typically give the answer that we are friars, sort of like St. Francis, but in the particular fashion of St. Dominic. We live in a priory, which is kind of like a monastery, except that, instead of staying within its walls forever, balancing prayer and manual labor (as monks do), we rely on the daily prayer routine to strengthen and stabilize us for our work outside the walls: the work of preaching and teaching for the salvation of souls. In a sense, we’re mobile monks.
But, more fundamentally, every person (monk, nun, friar, etc.) who belongs to a religious order is a follower of Jesus Christ in a very particular way: namely, we take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to imitate more tangibly the manner of life which Christ lived and which He taught to His Apostles.
“Hmmm,” they’ll say, “so do you get any free time?” This is when I like to say that the life of a Dominican friar, particularly one who is studying for the priesthood, is like a graduate student’s life superimposed on a monastic routine. We congregate four or five times a day for prayer, mostly chanting the psalms of the Divine Office, and in between those times we have a full load of classes and we study. We also have meals in common and, often, outside apostolic work (like teaching or working with the poor). All this doesn’t leave much free time; but, assuming we’re getting all this done, we’re not precluded from, say, visiting friends in the area or hanging out with our brothers.
“Okay, so you’re studying. But it can’t take that long to become a priest, right?”
Well, for a Dominican, it takes about seven years: first we have a year of “spiritual boot camp” called novitiate. Then we spend two years studying philosophy as a preparation for four years studying sacred theology. But, more generally, the process of priestly formation is so long because its purpose is to mold a man into the image of Christ—and that takes a while.
“Gotcha. So, what do you do once you’re ordained? Will you be able to come back home and be assigned to one of the parishes around here?”
Here’s where this gets tricky, because the answer to where a priest can be assigned is “that depends.” Typically, a Dominican’s first assignment is to a parish or college chaplaincy for several years to get his feet wet doing priestly things: saying Mass, hearing confessions, etc. He could also be assigned to pursue further studies if he has a knack for academics, or he could be sent to teach in a high school or to work in a hospital. There’s really no limit.
Often, though, a Dominican is not going to be assigned somewhere near his home (unless, by chance, his home is near some place where Dominicans minister). In fact, we know going into this life that we may be leaving our hometown forever—apart from occasional visits. This may seem sad at first, but it is a further dimension of our particular way of imitating Christ.
We take rather literally Our Lord’s command to detach ourselves from family, possessions, and everything in the world to follow Him. And part of this is the necessity of being moved around frequently, often to places we ourselves wouldn’t have chosen to live.
But we take great joy in this. Our Lord says, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Instead, He traveled around preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
Because that’s most of all what we are: followers of Jesus Christ.
Image: Christmas caroling in Washington, DC. Copyright © 2012 Province of Saint Joseph.