"Go, sell what you have and give to the poor, then come and follow me!" Mt. 19:21

"Go, sell what you have and give to the poor, then come and follow me!" Mt. 19:21

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Dominican as a Sign of Hope

"Simeon's Prophecy to Mary" - Rembrandt 1628
People do all sorts of things when they see a Dominican in habit. Sometimes they smile, or point, or look away. Others ask questions: "Are you a monk?" "What group are you with?" "Where's your lightsaber?" Sometimes they give words of encouragement and thanks. And on occasion, very rare occasion, they may have something not as nice to say. Whatever the response, a Dominican in the world provokes a reaction.

I think this has something to do with being a "sign of contradiction." Blessed John Paul II spoke eloquently about the responsibility of the Christian today and the Church in general. I think it applies in a particular sense to the religious:

"Forty days after his birth Jesus, son of Mary, was presented at the temple in Jerusalem in accordance with Old Testament law. When Mary and Joseph entered the temple to go through the presentation rite, the old man Simeon took the child in his arms and spoke the prophetic words which the Church recites every evening during Compline: 'A light to shine for the gentiles', and then, turning to Mary, referred to [Jesus, saying]: 'He is set for the fall and the rising of many in Israel, and as a sign of contradiction...' (Luke 2:34)."

John Paul II goes on to say: "It is becoming more and more evident that those words (Luke 2:34) sum up most felicitously the whole truth about Jesus Christ, his mission and his Church." The Catholic Church does present herself as a sign of contradiction to the world in many ways: we are led by a different Master, seeking things that are above and not those below, and living according to the Spirit as opposed to the flesh. Since the religious lives a life on the way to perfection through the evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity and obedience) it is no surprise that we are reacted to in strong ways: the more one is conformed to Christ the more one becomes what he was prophesied to be: a sign of contradiction for the world.

Without denying this aspect of the religious life, I like to think that we are more than a sign of contradiction when ministering: I think the religious is also a sign of hope. In his book on pastoral ministry of the same title, Donald Capps says that the pastor is to be an "agent of hope:"

"In my view, what pastors have uniquely to give others is hope. Where other professionals may offer hope as a byproduct of what they do, the offer of hope is central to what pastors do. Oftentimes, it is all that they can offer. To be a pastor is to be a provider or agent of hope."

This is an important aspect of ministry, even the ministry of a student brother, and it doesn't always involve words or conversations. We simply don't have time to respond in full to everyone who asks questions or smiles when they see us. But I like to think that just seeing a religious in ministry, whether at a school, a nursing home, hospital or parish, is enough to offer some hope, because we are a sign of a better future, a reminder to those in the world that God is still here, still listening, still calling and still worth giving up everything to follow. When someone in the world sees a religious they should feel a little encouragement and while a number of people have said such to me I hope that many more who simply smile or stare are thinking the same thing. A religious is a reminder of God's mercy to a world that is weary and heavy-laden, a promise that He will work all things for good and a pledge of future glory to those who put their trust in Him.

So religious, Dominican or otherwise, are no doubt called to be a sign of contradiction in a world turned and turning away in many respects from the Church and the Gospel. But more than a sign of contradiction we should be a sign of hope to a world desperately in need of that message. The Dominican is called to be a preacher of grace, which includes being an agent of hope to a world sometimes too much in despair.