The Witness of Conversation – Pastor’s Reflection (August 7, 2016)
Tomorrow, Monday, August 8, brings the Solemnity of St. Dominic. This year the Feast will bring the conclusion of a “General Chapter” of our Order, held at Bologna in Italy, in the very church where St. Dominic is buried. General Chapters take place every three years, and these representative assemblies provide the essential organ of our governance. I humbly bring to your attention something that seems obscure and suggest that it merits a moment of your time.
General Chapters bring together Friars from all over the world for a period of three weeks to a month, so that by any estimate they are an expensive and inefficient way to conduct business. But take a second look. The very breadth and length of these gatherings puts a countercultural premium on conversation. In the end the worldwide Order of Preachers governs itself through conversation. Everything has to be talked out by the group. Only then do we accord a proposal the force of law. For example, a change in our Constitutions (the major legislation of the Order) becomes effective only after three successive chapters have reflected upon it. over a period of nine years. (There is of course a more immediate method of making a measure effective on an interim basis.)
After three weeks of deliberation the Chapter will address the whole Order conversationally. They will issue its “Acts.” These will include laws, but also recommendations, exhortations, and praises. The delegates will place their legislation in context. The rules will follow from a reflection upon the nature of our times as seen by Christians called to follow the Lord as Dominicans. All of us Friars will then have the work of obeying, that is listening (obedire) to what the delegates have written, not only the rules they specify, but the reflections which give them coherence.
This lumbering medieval mechanism has kept the Order essentially faithful to itself for eight centuries. The chapter structure acts like a wetland, blunting the storm surge of various religious movements, so that the Order has a chance to ponder each new enthusiasm and its lasting relevance.
We Friars cherish the perhaps “urban legend” that Thomas Jefferson had read our Constitutions when he addressed himself to the system of checks and balances that marks government of these United States. Even if this is only a great story, it makes a strong point. If we examine the branches and levels of our government, can we not perceive its essentially conversational structure? Even campaigns with all of their sound and fury are meant to have a role in the dialog of the present moment, and in the dialog, between successive eras. A question we can ask ourselves is: how vital and real is our public conversation at this time? I do not think the answer to this question is obvious, because a conversation may be emotionally fraught and contentious and still be very real. What seems important to me is realizing the essential value.
In their ways, Jesus and Dominic both present themselves as men who listen. Their example challenges to take a longer and quieter way to discovering truth and finding ways to live in it.
At St. Catherine’s it has been customary for parishioners to greet those arriving for Mass and to hand them the material they need for worship. Now that we use the same worship booklets at St. Vincent’s, we are looking for people who worship regularly at SVF who might be willing to come a bit early and carry out this service of greeting. If you are interested, please contact Rachel.
At St. Vincent’s, members of the Social Concerns Committee have collected donations at Mass once a month to benefit the New York Common Pantry, which feeds homeless and low-income people. We would like to extend this custom to St. Catherine’s. Again, if you would be interested in this generous service, please call Rachel at the main desk.