By Mark Michael
The Anglican Order of Preachers (Dominicans) accepted the vows of thirteen new members at a solemn Eucharist in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Together with their local superior, the Rev. Rafael Zorrilla, these new Dominicans will form a local dispersed community or “house,” under the patronage of Dominican saint Martin de Porres. This is the eighth house for the order, which now has members on four continents.
The Rt. Rev. Rafael Morales, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Puerto Rico, presided at the service, and hailed the occasion in his sermon as “an occasion of great joy.” He added, “For me as a bishop and servant to have [those called to] the religious life in the diocese is a consolation, a strength, and a sign of prayer. It is a sign of the riches that come through the charism that each of you presents.”
Morales urged the new postulants, oblates and novices to be faithful to the distinctive vocation of their order, the ministry of the Word. “Preach the truth,” he said, “because the Gospel is truth. Contemplate and then preach what you contemplate. Preach that Christ is alive.”
James Dennis, master of the order, said that the Puerto Rican house is expected to form the base for a significant expansion of the Dominicans throughout Latin American Anglicanism. The order, which celebrated the 20th anniversary of its founding in August, has grown steadily in recent years. “We’re on the verge of 100 members, which isn’t huge,” Dennis said. “But when I became master two years ago, there were only 63 of us.”
“We are becoming more widely known, especially in Latin America,” he added, noting that religious communities make a smooth cultural fit there. “It’s an area where people are accustomed to seeing people who are in religious life. They grew up in Dominican parishes or were taught by Jesuits. This just hasn’t been so popular in America.”
Dennis said that Zorrilla, who became a professed member about three years ago, has served as a passionate spokesman across Latin America and brings intimate knowledge of the order’s gifts. A former Roman Catholic Dominican, he found out about the order on the internet after he had been ordained as an Episcopal priest. Zorrilla has assumed responsibility for teaching and directing those discerning about membership in the order who are Spanish speakers, a process that usually takes about three years.
Since Zorrilla became the formation director, the order has been receiving inquiries from prospective postulants in Cuba, Venezuela, Columbia and Mexico. Dennis also said that Morales’s support has been invaluable, as the bishop has made building up the religious life a priority in diocesan ministry, and also recently welcomed an Anglican Franciscan community.
The Diocese of Puerto Rico has 48 churches, but only 14 of these are self-supporting parishes. The majority of congregations are small, and unable to support resident clergy. Anglican Dominicans, many of whom are lay people with secular jobs, can provide valuable help as trained preachers and teachers.
“There are lots of places in the world where there aren’t enough priests to go around,” Dennis said. “The one thing that tends to get back-burnered in places like that is formation. This is where we have been a gift to the church, teaching in places that don’t have formation programs, serving as preachers, assisting the clergy who need a break.”
He added that he has been meeting with the bishop of a large Latin American diocese, which only has six priests to serve a territory of 5,000 square miles. He will go on a tour of local congregations, hopefully with some of the Puerto Rican friars, “as soon as I can get there.” Dennis hopes God will call some parishioners to join them in the order. “Having someone who can preach and lead morning and evening prayer in places like that can really allow the church to thrive. Any place where there is a geographical scarcity of clergy is ripe for the religious life to come and fill the gaps.”
Dennis himself, a retired lawyer, exercises his ministry as a teacher, leading six-week adult forum classes in a number of smaller parishes around San Antonio, where he lives. Other members of the order teach and lead services at nursing homes. About 60% of Anglican Dominicans are members of the clergy, who find their ordained ministry strengthened by this fellowship. “The outward forms vary widely,” Dennis said, “but inwardly everyone is directed to the ministry of teaching and preaching.
Dennis attributes the order’s growth to the unique ways that it has adapted the charism, or spiritual gift, handed down from the Roman Catholic Dominicans to the realities of contemporary life. Members take an adapted form of the traditional threefold vow, committing to simplicity, purity and obedience, giving them the ability to marry and to own property. In contrast to the Roman order, the Anglican Dominicans are markedly egalitarian, with a lay person serving as master. The order is also mixed in gender, comprising 30% women and 70% men.
Maybe most controversially, the Anglican Dominicans have been dispersed from its origin, rising around the time that the internet became widely popular. “We are an apostolic order, not a monastic one,” Dennis said. “that means we are compelled to go out. … When Dominic founded the order he said, “we will be travelling. We use the same theory to reach across the world, but through the internet. All our formation is done online. Technology has made what we do possible.” The formation program for the order’s postulants notably requires that one has “met face to face with an Anglican Dominican (if reasonably possible), or [made] contact using a video call or regular phone call.”
He said the order enjoys significant exchange and warm relationships with Roman Catholic Dominicans in some areas, including in Puerto Rico, where Zorrilla’s former brothers celebrated his new vocation. “But it depends on geography,” he added. “In some places, we are received as Protestants, and therefore as heretics. It depends on one’s ecclesiology.”
The order’s major challenges center around developing appropriate ways to provide formation to the increasing number of Anglicans and other Christians who express interest (full membership is limited to men and women who are members of churches in full communion with the See of Canterbury, though others can become oblates). Dennis said the order has been lucky that recent postulants in Germany and the Philippines were able to speak English. He looks forward to the time when the Filipino brother will be ready to guide other Tagalog speakers.
“These are the challenges that come when you become a worldwide mission,” Dennis concluded. “This is the charism of people who passionately care about preaching and teaching. It has survived for 800 years. The church still needs it today.”