“The people called forth the preaching charism in me,” Sister Charlotte Rebbe said, “They expected me to be a preacher.” That, in a nutshell, is how one Springfield Dominican sister came to understand a life she’s committed herself to decades earlier.
Sister Charlotte served as parish director in a rural Wisconsin diocese when she experienced this development in her understanding about what it means to be a member of the Order of Preachers. Similar experiences are being played out among countless non-ordained Dominicans around the world – sisters and brothers, nuns, and laity.
For Dominicans, preaching is a way of life. When St. Dominic founded his order in the 13th century, he called it the Order of Preachers. It was an audacious move. Dominic asked the pope that his friars be allowed to assume a task that had up to that moment belonged only to bishops. His request was granted. Before, he has a community of brothers around him, he established a monastery for women who were attracted to his mission, making the Dominican nuns the oldest branch of the Order of Preachers. (See story on page 1.
Then, forty years ago the Second Vatican Council called religious communities of women and men to renew their commitment to fulfilling the vision of their founders. As a result, Dominican women around the world have begun to identify themselves more completely with the preaching mission that is their heritage.
Recently, conversation within the order has turned to exploring how all of its members, men and women, lay, religious, and ordained, are called to serve the church as preachers. In 1999, Father Timothy Radcliffe, who was then the Master of the Order, established the Commission on the Preaching of the Non-Ordained. This international team of theologians drafted a document that has become the foundation for a new conversation about the state of preaching in the order. One outcome of the commission’s work was a call for theological reflection on preaching from every quarter of the Dominican world. The due date for those reflections was Dec. 31, 2005. “The response from the U.S. has been overwhelming,” said Father Chrys McVey from Santa Sabina, the fifth-century convent in Rome where the Dominicans’ international offices are housed. “That there is a passionate concern for the preaching is obvious. And I know that is true of places in Europe and Latin America too, where there is training of women preachers going on.” Father Chrys represents the Master of the Order, overseeing matters involving the apostolic life of the order and encouraging relationships among all the branches of the order.
But what does it mean for non-ordained women and men to reclaim the charism of their founder as members of the Order of Preachers?
This is indeed one of the goals of the theological commission. “The preaching charism is grounded in baptism and confirmation,” the commission wrote in its report. “The charism for preaching is at the heart of the mission of the Order of Preachers. All members are called to participate in the mission of the order according to their diverse abilities, gifts, training, and call. This call arises from the very purpose for which the order was founded. Therefore those who are professed for the order’s mission receive some title from their profession to partake of that mission according to their role, gifts, and circumstances.
Oxford, Mich., Dominican Sister Connie Schoen is the promoter of preaching for her congregation. In that role she is part of a national effort to encourage the preaching charism in the order and promote the sound theological preparation of preachers. “We need to be attentive to the formal proclamation of the Gospel and be sure that we are ready, that we have studied and prayed,” she said. “We need to be in the pulpit because there is special attention given to preaching the Word in that setting.” Sister Connie also said that preaching the Gospel is as much about witness of the preachers’ lives as it is about what might be said in the course of a homily.
Sister Charlotte understands this. now serving as parish visitor in Springfield, Ill., she finds she has less frequent opportunities to preach from the pulpit. That has not diminished her understanding of her membership in the Order of Preachers, however. “I continue, with intent, to preach through the Word and through my presence, to those I serve.” she said
Sister Karen Freund is a member of the Springfield Dominican’s leadership team and the preaching committee. She is hopeful that by claiming the preaching charism of the order, Dominicans might be able to help raise the level of preaching in parishes. She calls for a “dramatic improvement” in preaching in the church, adding “people are often going away from Sunday celebrations still hungering for the Word to be broken open for them.”
For every Dominican sister, being faithful to her identity as a preacher may include, but is not limited to, responding to the call for formal preaching. For Sister Thoma Swanson, a Dominican from Columbus, Ohio, it has meant a lifetime of struggle to claim her artistic gifts and to see her connection to the mission of the order, what St. Dominic called “the Holy Preaching.” Sister Thoma said she has learned that, “The true work of the Christian artist is to reinterpret the message of Christianity in the artistic language of the time.” She feels that she is at her artistic best when her art flows from her contemplation. “Scripture is the basis for most of my work,” she said. “I don’t set out to preach directly but simply to present the truth with passion.”
For other Dominican women, preaching takes its creative shape in action for justice. Within hours of returning from El Salvador last December, where she met with other Dominicans from the Americas, Sister Alicia Alvarado said she understands more clearly than ever that she must preach a gospel that brings justice to the poor. “The poor are the greatest majority of humanity. Our preaching must clamor to the heavens against injustices to the ‘crucified people’ of our world, and in our hemisphere,” the Akron, Ohio, Dominican said. “Preaching must be about an active living out of the words and life of Jesus in our own lives.
This first appeared in JUST Words Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter 2006, and was written as part of a collaborative project of Dominican Alliance congregations for use in all of their communities' publications. One of the sisters featured here, Sister Charlotte Rebbe, died in 2010.