Dominican life in a phase of transition: the situation of the Dutch province

A translation of a letter by fr René Dinkle, Provincial of the Dutch Province to the Dutch brothers concerning the generation gap. So the Dutch brothers are the audience of this letter.
fr René Dinkle, op

In our days we live in a world which sees itself confronted with far-reaching changes. Large groups of people have come adrift because they are trying to find a way out of their misery. They move away from regions at war, looking for safe places to live in. It may be seen as a compliment to Western Europe that so many refugees try to settle here, as though we were the Promised Land.  At the same time our experience is that Western Europe itself is going through a variety of changes as well. Churches lose ever more members, secularization manifests itself in many countries and regions. The European Union is more and more feeling pressure from various directions. The complexity of our society makes it extremely difficult to find solutions for the problems connected with the way in which we threaten our environ­ment, try to solve the refugee problem or find solutions leading to peace. Moreover, we spend an ever growing part of our lives in the digital world and on the social media, and at the same time many people long for spirituality, meaningfulness and genuine affection.

In the middle of such changes and shifting the Dutch Dominican Province finds itself in a phase of transition. Looking back at our history we may claim to stem from a rich and old tradition. This year, as an Order, we are celebrating our 800 years existence and recently in the Netherlands we could also commemorate that our own province has existed for 500 years already.

These milestones and the fact of our having to come to terms with a situation of transition invite us to return to our sources and reflect on where we are now. When I entered the order - in the early nineties – people in our province talked of re-founding the order and of Dominican laypeople being our heirs, as the branch of the brothers in our own country seemed to be slowly evaporating. A re-foundation still is a possible task, though at the moment it might take a direction which is different from what was expected at the time, for it seems that a new generation of Dominicans may be presenting itself.

In the past fifty years our Dominican province has had to face a considerable transformation of its size and vitality. Ours used to be one of the largest Dominican provinces in the world, but it had to face a period of many brothers leaving the order and at the same time very few new members entering it. Our own houses of study – philosophy and theology – had to be closed, just like various priories and houses; the parishes in which we served had to be given back to the dioceses. At the same time, however, various Dominican projects were started and lay people began to participate actively in the Dominican mission. Brothers, sisters and laypeople more and more co-operated in the common tasks and responsibilities.

The Dutch Dominican province now consists mostly of the generation of earlier days, a generation which at the moment –  his is the stern reality – is nearing its end. Not for very long will we be able to retain the status of a `province', existing communities are becoming weaker. Since March 2013 – when I was elected as provincial – 13 brothers have died, of whom 11 were living in an Old Age Pensioners' home.

And yet: five new Dutch Dominicans are now in their formation period, three novices and two students. I have recently accepted one candidate as a novice to start in September. Such hopeful signs generate their own dynamism. Our old province may add new colours to its grey image.

This blessing of new life in our province also provides the possibility of new tensions within our group, for it may lead to strains between the different generations. A life-size risk may manifest itself: that the generations take up fixed positions which would split them into two parties and alienate them from each other. But most of all we ought to ask ourselves in which way we might make such tensions fruitful for our lives as brothers.

The older generation grew up in what in our country is called `Rich Roman Life', after which it witnessed the developments in the Second Vatican Council and the changes in the liturgy. It hoped for substantial changes in the church, which were realized partly and partly did not come about. The older generation could experiment with new forms of Dominican common life, the Dominican habit remained in the cupboard rather than that it was worn as usual. 

Novices and students of the present time can hardly be compared to novices and students in the forties, fifties and sixties of the past century. The present generation following formation consists of mature people who have studied and had jobs, who had relationships and carried various responsibilities. But above all, our recent brothers start from a different position in the Church. In my earliest memories of visiting a church I remember that the traditional confes­si­o­nal was already used as a storage room for the drums used by youth choirs, the liturgy was in the vernacular and subject to various forms of experimentation. There was greater respect for the word in the liturgy and there was more austerity in rituals. The present cultural context has changed as well. The brothers following formation have grown up in a society which has become post-Christian, while the older generation were used to a society in which various traditions, Christian as well as secular, all had their own place and context.

Young people who explicitly choose to be active in the life and work of the Church, or take the step of entering the religious life, often follow a route which is the reverse of the way taken by the older generation.  Present-day young people are looking for identity in a post-Christian society. Wearing the habit may be a help to reach such an identity. They come across Dominican singing or prayers the older generation has abandoned, they appreciate texts from the new liturgical books from Rome and find spiritual nourishment in them. 

In this situation tensions between generations may arise.

Of course, what I described is a generalization, for within the different generations one also finds different ideas. But it is a good thing to give a name to the tensions between generations. At the same time we should not be surprised that they exist. The dominant generation in our present province thinks and acts differently from the generation preceding it, and young people will again think and act differently from the older generation. One of our problems is, though, that in the Dutch province the middle generation is practically non-existent, which makes the generation gap relatively wide.

Fortunately it is realized in our province that a serious dialogue between us as brothers must be started, - a dialogue which should lead to a better understanding between us. The most difficult point is to listen to each other without prejudice and not yet passing judgment, let alone condemnation. Looking critically at yourself it may come as a shock that a number of times you judge genuine points of view of fellow brothers, and at times also express such a judgment. We should all of us remain committed to asking questions in all openness, to listen and to tell each other of our experiences. 

It certainly is not constructive if brothers label each other with terms like `conservative'. The older brothers say this about the younger ones because of their different view of traditions, and on the other hand the younger brothers may use the term for older brothers because they seem to keep everything as it is now. It goes without saying that this may be a serious cause of pain. Whatever the older generation has experienced as valuable, cannot simply be passed on to the next generation.

The older generation has gone through far-reaching changes and realized developments in the Dominican mission which at present they consider as valuable assets. It is natural that they would prefer to pass these on to the younger generation, but such a process cannot be forced. As I said earlier, our younger generation starts from an experience which is very different from that of their older brothers. The new generation is looking for a form of religious life which more clearly reflects a certain identity. The younger brothers would like to re-discover a number of religious practices, rituals, forms of singing and prayer from the Dominican tradition which the older generation has set aside, and see them as something of great value. 

Sometimes the younger generation may feel that their older brothers suffer of a loss of iden­tity. At times they feel that some of them downplay too much the value of their own religious life.

At the same time the younger generation should try to go deeply into how and why the forms of present-day Dominican life and of the mission in the Netherlands developed. The older brothers have laboured with great energy and determination and had to weather severe opposition, for which much and sincere appreciation is due.

When looking at history I notice that the Dominican order appeared as a more attractive option at times when the religious life had more appreciation for religious observances, and eventually such a choice usually invited a counter movement. Being right, therefore, does not appear to be absolute but relative, in line with the spirit of the time. If we realize this we may become more open to the idea that the other generation might well be right in its own context.

The art of living consists in following the rolling of the sea. Those who try to resist the wallowing of the waves meet with misfortune and are in danger of drowning. One should note that the direction of the rolling sea does not necessarily coincide with the direction of the undercurrent! In the end we are all pilgrims looking for the road towards God's kingdom. And we may be much more likely to find each other in the undercurrent than we may think. We judge each other too quickly on the basis of certain external forms and may tend to forget communication on what really matters.

The older generation has a great wealth of Dominican experience and history at its disposal. It is important that the younger brothers make this their own as part of their formation. They them­­selves realize it will be an enrichment of their life to share in the authentic experiences of the older generation. Do the older brothers realize sufficiently how valuable are the experien­ces they could share with their younger brothers?

We are on the brink of far-reaching changes. We all agree – on the basis also of experiences in other countries and provinces – that assigning our younger brothers to various existing priories or houses is not a good idea. During their noviciate in Cambridge our younger brothers directly touched on the international character of the order and became part of a common experience which connects them with other members of the order. In the course of this year a group of Dutch student brothers will start functioning in our priory in Huissen, which for our student brothers will be a shared experience as well. Not just their new student master but the whole community will share in the important task of the formation of the temporarily professed members of their priory. And ultimately our whole province will share in the formation of our recently entered  brothers. It is of particular importance to enter into communication with them instead of only talking about them.

If we wish our younger brothers to remain with us, we will have to take them very seriously from the very beginning and offer them the chance to work together, after their formation period, in a new project. In fact, we are thinking of a new community to be formed in our priory in Rotterdam, around the middle of 2018, where there will also be room for some brothers from outside our country and for one or two experienced Dutch brothers. 

The great changes we have to face involve an appeal – at times a far-reaching appeal – to a quality we may expect of our fellow religious: the ability to let go. For that which you try to keep at all costs, you will almost inevitably lose, just like it is easier to keep loose sand in a slack hand than in a hand grimly closed!

I was, therefore, very positively surprised when it became apparent that each member of the present Rotterdam community is prepared to make place for a community newly to be formed. I would call this genuine care for your brothers.

Such care I also recognize in the hospitality warmly given by our brothers to those who entered recently and to people who show interest in joining us. This shows both a proper curiosity and a genuine interest in younger people who are religiously motivated.

When we entered the order, the question was put to us: `What do you seek?' And we replied: `God's mercy and yours'. This implies that we are not just brothers of each other, but that we are committed to become brothers of each other again and again. This implies openness and genuine interest in each other, becoming aware of our own judgments and prejudices and those of others, and recognizing the injuries you yourself have suffered and those sustained by your brother in the church or during the religious life. Expressing your own experiences in this regard, however painful, and letting those of others into your personal awareness, helps us to grow in brotherliness and humaneness. Such growth becomes possible if we have the courage to abandon things and ideas which block us and manage to create for each other an environment which makes us feel such safety that we also may touch on our mutual shortcomings. This is possible only if we believe that God supports our life and intends to heal its brokenness. If we grow in mercy towards our fellow brothers, we also grow in mercy towards other people and towards our self.   

Our longing for mercy is something we may foster and cherish, in this Year of Mercy, in which we celebrate our eighth centenary by a courageous project of communication in the Netherlands with those outside our reach, and in the encouraging phase in which our province now finds itself. 

René Dinklo, o.p.


(13 April 2016)