Mission is who we are
Homily for the Solemn Profession of Br Albert Robertson OP | Fr Martin Ganeri reflects on the words of the new Master of the Order, calling us to an authentic and integral living of the Dominican life and mission. The homily was preached in Blackfriars, Oxford on 10 August 2019.
Only a few days ago I returned from Vietnam, where we held our General Chapter. This General Chapter lasted a full month and drew together members of the Dominican Order from all over the world. And the Chapter was the occasion for us as an Order to reflect on our identity and how this should be lived out in the world of today, with all the challenges as well as opportunities which we face.
The first task of the Chapter was in fact to elect a new Master of the Order, Br Gerard Francisco Timoner, who is from the Philippines. And in a speech he made shortly after being elected the Master of the Order commented that for us as Dominicans, ‘Mission is not what we do, it’s who we are.’ This striking line certainly struck a cord with those who heard it and was repeated in the speeches, sermons and mediations that were given in the following weeks of the Chapter.
‘Mission is not what we do, it’s who we are.’ In saying this, the Master of the Order was in fact summarising a major theme in the Chapter and something fundamental in what characterises Dominican life – the life to which Albert commits himself for life today as he made his solemn vows. And so, thinking a little about what the Master means by this is very fitting for us to do, as we consider what it is that Albert is committing himself to today – what he is vowing to do.
Now, what the Master was pointing to was that being a Dominican involves a kind of integration of life and mission, or of being and action. Being a Dominican is not a kind of job that can be started at nine o’clock and finished at five, something that is taken up and put aside. Rather, being a Dominican is the whole of who we are – it involves the whole of who we are, everything that we have learned in our time in the Order, everything that we have experienced, the whole of our relationship with God and with each other in our communities. And all of this is the basis from which we then do anything, do any work, and carry out our mission. Action follows being, as the Master was keen to add, as an explanation of what his comment was to convey. The possibility and the quality of our mission, of our preaching and teaching, of our pastoral work, is dependent on our life and reflects who and how we are – how we are living out our vows.
This is certainly a challenge. For one thing, religious life itself, that’s to say life in religious communities is very often a challenge, something that can be enlivening, but it can also be infuriating – it can be supportive, but it can also be taxing. More fundamentally, however, the challenge for each of us as Dominicans is to recognise the need for on-going reflection and renewal in the course of our lives. To be alert to the ways in which the work we do becomes just work, a task to be done, rather than an expression of and the fruit of who we are. To recognise the need we have always to seek again to integrate who we are with what we do – seek to integrate our lives in relation to God and neighbour with what we say to those to whom we preach or to whom we minister. We should expect this of the others with whom we live, and they should expect it of us.
In taking life long vows in the Order today, Albert is not at the end of his own journey in facing this challenge to integrate life and mission – rather he undertakes – hoping for the mercy of God and of the Order, and with the certain knowledge of his need for the grace of God to help him on his way – he undertakes to face this challenge as a work in progress for the rest of his life.
We are called, then, as Dominicans to practice a deep authenticity in our religious lives – an authenticity in which there is no gap between what we do and who we are, between what we say and what we believe.
As Dominicans we characterise our mission as being a service of the Word, a preaching and teaching mission that can take many forms. And we characterise this mission as one of handing over the fruits of our contemplation to others.
Contemplation is something very different from much modern study. Much modern study is a work of production whereby we manage information and produce something out of it. We remain separate from and distant from what we study. Contemplation, on the other hand, is itself a process of the integration of what we study with who we are. Whether the Word as found in Scripture, or as explored in theology, or encountered in prayer, the work of contemplation is to allow that Word to transform who we are and to bring us into the life and power of that Word.
So, the mission we assert to be at the heart of our Dominican vocation is one that inherently drives us to seek an integration of life and mission, of being and action. We can only hand on the fruits of contemplation if we have ourselves been transformed by the Word.
This is the deep authenticity that has to lie within our lives as Dominicans. And maintaining and deepening this authenticity is certainly a challenge – something that we have good reason to make vows to undertake and to renew in the course of our lives. Yet it is also the precious and enlivening reality that makes our religious life worthwhile. We are privileged as Dominicans to have this opportunity to dedicate our lives, to spend our time, to realising this authenticity, this integration of life and work.
All those who attended the General Chapter were struck by the sheer vitality of the Order in Vietnam – with the largest Province of friars, with hundreds of sisters of all ages, young and old, with thousands (130, 000) members of the lay fraternities. And when asked what their secret was, the Provincial of Vietnam said that, as for the rest of the Church in Vietnam, their history was one written in blood – and it was that made them strong. A history written in blood, with persecution, imprisonment and death, whether in imperial times or in communist times.
As Albert takes his vows today, we of course hope that he may be spared from writing his own history in too much blood. Yet the witness of our Order in Vietnam, the witness of its deep vitality in the present, is one that should encourage him to welcome the challenges he will face as a Dominican in the course of his life, the challenges which we might call little words of blood in the full text of his own history, to welcome them as an occasion to deepen his own vitality as a Dominican of the Province of England.