Seven months later, Fenwick’s president reflects on his trip last summer to Southeast Asia.
From the outside looking in, it would seem that religious orders are very much alike: they share many of the same practices, profess the same vows, serve in very similar ministries. What, then, distinguishes the various religious communities from each other? Apart from the most obvious — the style of religious garb, for example — it is the emphasis placed on the component parts of the life of the community. One order might focus on communal prayer more than another; another may be differentiated, say, by its ministry to the sick.
Not surprisingly, the Order of Preachers is unique among the other orders in the Church in its focus on the ministry of preaching. The uniquely democratic government of the Dominican Order might not be as well known: indeed, it is recognized as being among the most democratic in the Catholic Church.
The Order’s Book of Constitutions (n. 252) explains that: “The Order of Friars Preachers, which is ruled by the general chapter and the Master of the Order, is made up of provinces, each of which is ruled by a provincial chapter and a prior provincial. Each province is made up of convents and houses, each of which is governed by its own prior or superior.”
The first constitution, written by St. Dominic and approved by the first friars, mandated a representative form of democratic governance for the above-mentioned structure. All of the superiors in the Order are elected and there are term limits for office holders. On the local level, all members have a voice in communal decision-making: It is never a matter of the superior having total decision-making authority. Dominicans see their vow of obedience to be supremely communal in its observance. One is obedient to the decisions of the community — the community in which one has an important role to play.
Every three years, at the international level of the Order, a general chapter is held in one of the provinces of the Order. Delegates elected from each of the Order’s 33 provinces participate. (On average, there are three delegates per province.) Every third general chapter calls for the election of the Master of the Order — the friar who will serve as the successor of St. Dominic.
From July 5th to August 4th, 2019, an elective general chapter of the Order was held in Biên Hòa, Vietnam. I was honored to be a delegate to the general chapter. As well as being a once-in-a-lifetime spiritual and cultural experience, it was also an experience of “Dominican government in action.” Delegates from all 33 provinces of the Order participated in the chapter and were assisted by a team of translators. (Simultaneous translation was available in the three official languages of the Order: French, Spanish and English.)
The general chapter is to encourage the members of the Order in their life and ministry; it also sets priorities and policies for the upcoming three years. After much give-and-take and voting on proposal after proposal, the official Acts of the General Chapter were approved by the assembly by a majority vote. The process, while painstaking, was definitely representative democracy in action!