Lay Dominicans: Specifically included in the cultural rooting of the Gospel

- Reflections from the perspective of a Friar Preacher -

fr. David M. Kammler OP
Promoter General of Dominican Laity



In 2011, as sisters and brothers of St. Dominic, we are already moving forward in the second half of the “Jubilee Novena of years”, on our common spiritual pilgrimage of renewal which culminates in 2016, when we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the official approval of our Order of Preachers. I am very pleased to note, within our Dominican Family, from year to year a growing awareness of and active response to the proposed annual mottos (i.e.: 2007 = Contemplation / 2008 = Rosary / 2009: St.Dominic, Preacher of Grace / 2010 = Mission of Preaching). So, in the ongoing provincial and local formation programmes, these themes are treated more and more, as proposed four years ago by the previous Master of the Order, Fr. Carlos: « I wish to invite each entity of the Order as well as each community and individual to begin the long process of renewal through reflection, decisions and actions taken relating to our whole way of life as preachers of the Gospel. » As you know, within the already published listing of annual issues until 2016, the current year 2011 is assigned to the Jubilee Theme of “Preaching and Culture / Community Preaching”. “How, as members of our Order in its different branches, do we preach as a community? How do we preach within the diversity of cultures?” – reflecting and discussing these questions will encourage and strengthen our ongoing mission of preaching, essential to our Christian Dominican vocation.

Inculturation in the history of salvation

As biblical headline of the 2011 Jubilee theme, the well-known verse of Acts 2:11 has been chosen: “We hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God”. The miracle of Pentecost, day of the event that gave birth to the Church, underlines the diversity of cultural “tongues”, in which God wants to incarnate Himself. The Holy Spirit is acting as the real “intercultural interpreter”. From the very beginning, God chooses in His creation interpreters who reveal and translate His incomprehensible Love into human imagination. The wonders and variety of creation (cf. Ps 19: “The heavens proclaim the glory of God ...) and within it, the human being as His image speak from the very beginning of the mighty acts of God. In the history of the Holy People of God, characteristic expressions like “Father”, “Shepherd”, “King”, “Lover”, “Bridegroom” and many more were taken from their respective social-cultural contexts as media to inculturate the relationship between God and humanity. The language of liturgy was originally the place of that inculturation, as is still evident in the verbal connection between “cultus” (worship) and “culture”! On the other hand, every religious term is an interpretation, and therefore not identical with the original, but more or less approximate. Our language of faith is always symbolic. The Italian saying: “traduttore - traditore” (“translator  = traitor”) stresses that the cross-over from one culture to another never happens without alterations. The liturgical Hebrew-Jewish and Christian celebrations, including our Christian sacraments, are an example that show how traditional symbols can assume a new, current, updated meaning. Moreover, a writer or poet does not normally invent a new alphabet in creating a new content, but in describing a situation, he/she puts traditional words into a new context. The Holy Spirit guarantees that even in limited human words, culturally differently coloured, the ineffable divine reality shines through. In our understandable human doubts as to how to articulate the appropriate words in a specific situation, Jesus already confirms: “It will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Mat. 10:20). Against the background of deep meditation and study of the “signs of the time”, the old prophets dared to formulate:  So speaks the Lord: “ I  ....” – and there follow words of warning, accusation or comfort, in direct speech.  

When reflecting about the “inculturation” of God’s presence in human conditions, for us Christians the personal Incarnation of the Eternal Word of God in Jesus Christ is the unique and matchless event of the world’s history. When preaching his message of the “Kingdom of Heaven”, he does not preach in abstract philosophical expressions. His parables are taken from ordinary everyday situations. To address God, he invites us to use the same expression as a loving child when he addresses his Father as "Abba". The fact of four canonical Gospels shows us that already the evangelists were speaking in various social situations and to various cultures. In the Acts of Apostles, the famous speech of St. Paul to the Greeks at the Areopagus of Athens (Acts 17,22-33) could be considered as the first attempt at inculturation. Around the year 50 AD, at the Council of Jerusalem, the inclusion of Gentiles and inculturation of Gentile culture were confirmed. Greek philosophy made its appearance in the attempts at Christian theological formulations. To inculturate faith within those living in the Roman Empire, the Latin language was introduced; even titles and functions of the Roman Emperor were transferred to the Pope and the structure of the Church. In obedience to the instruction of Jesus after his Resurrection to preach the Good News to all nations, the Bible has been multifariously translated (there are at present editions of the entire Bible in 451 languages, of the New Testament in 1185, of partial translations in 2454 !). Every translation of the Scriptures is an example of inculturation. The influence between preaching the Gospel and culture is reciprocal, as can be seen, for example, in my mother tongue German: through the mediaeval Dominican Rhineland mystics and later on Martin Luther, the vocabulary of the common language has been enriched with new expressions. After the discoveries of new territories, the Church had to ponder and learn how to evaluate elements of ancient non-Christian Culture. Immense, inspired by the biblical source of creativity, are the testimonies of inculturation of the Faith in architecture, painting, poetry, music and other arts, mostly done by lay people! 

The inculturation of the Gospel in our days too follows the supreme model of the Incarnation of the Word of God. Generated by the Holy Spirit, the Word of God becomes flesh, liberates and refines the specific human values lying dormant in the roots of every culture. It is an ongoing dialogue, bringing the power of the Gospel into the very heart of cultures, and in addition the Gospel becomes a concrete word in and through a particular culture.  Our preaching as members of the Dominican Family therefore follows the logic of incarnation, as the way of “earthing” the Gospel into a special time and place.

After my “accelerated-trip” through the Biblical-Christian history of salvation, it is now time to ask:  What could be the specific contribution of Lay Dominicans involved in the cultural rooting of the Gospel, so that people of 2011 can hear us speaking in their own tongues of the mighty acts of God?

Lay Dominicans - involved in cultural rooting of the Gospel

First of all: It is not my office to give you wise instructions telling you what is left to be done by you collecting the pastoral crumbs, after we friars have had our five-course banquet. Instead, we religious members of our Dominican Family should look at you and listen to you, to discern what kind of “tongues” the Holy Spirit has especially entrusted to you as secular citizens of the one royal, priestly and prophetic people of God. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical “Redemptoris Missio” (1990), addressed the practicalities of inculturation saying that “inculturation must involve the whole people of God, not just a few experts, since the people reflect the authentic sense of faith (sensus fidei) which must never be lost sight of (No. 52)”. With admiration and deep respect I therefore prefer looking at what is already happening! I am convinced that there is much to learn from your experiences,  for instance as (grand-)parents, teachers and catechists, as people involved in society and politics, in the arts and professions, in parishes and in contact with non-Christians or even non-believers!

You are genuine interpreters inculturating faith in families and neighbourhood, in your circle of friends and acquaintances, in your profession and working life. Essential qualities we ascribe to God, like “Love, Protection, Solidarity, Forgiveness, Liberation, Compassion ...” will remain nothing but euphonious words, if they are not translated into experiences of human behaviour. That will be the most intensive inculturation, much more convincing than spoken or written words. We ourselves then become living “words of God”, even in our imperfect behaviour, “holding this treasure in earthen vessels (2Cor 4,7a)” and therefore constantly dependent on the forgiving and completing Grace of God. When the situation allows, we too can dare verbally to “give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope (1 Peter 3, 15b)”. Certainly, this ability to give appropriate testimonies of faith needs formation and must be trained. The recent General Chapter of the friars, held in September 2010 in Rome, asked that all of the Dominican Family, including lay persons, be offered documentation for preaching by promoting the creation of regional schools or centres of preaching in the Order (Acts GC/Rome, No.149+170). In retrospect, we are often surprised to realise how we have responded appropriately in an unforeseen situation. For more than a year, the Council of  European Lay Fraternities/Chapters has been collecting short lay preaching stories of Lay Dominicans on a website ( By sharing their experiences of preaching in their work environment, family, parish, local community, they encourage and broaden the viewpoint of their preaching lay sisters and brothers. If more and more of the European laity is motivated to make a contribution (- other regions may install a similar website -), their examples will set a precedent. It is to be hoped that these testimonies of inculturation will stimulate our Dominican Family companionship in preaching. The vineyard of the Lord, into which we are called, really urgently needs workers able to co-operate with others. There are, in the meantime, more and more “post-Christian” societies (for example: in my home country Germany only every seventh child is baptized!). 

You are appropriate interpreters inculturating the values of the Gospel in society, the economy and politics. Lay people are the first to be called to the transformation of society, in collaboration with the bishops, clergy, and the religious, infusing the Gospel into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the secular world in which they live. Over the centuries, many Dominican lay women and men have been involved in translating the liberating message of Peace and Justice into the structures of their societies. There are not only those well known lay persons like the late mayor of Florence/Italy, Giorgio La Pira (+1977). Many anonymous others, engaged in voluntary social projects, have discovered that the secular pulpits are their most suitable fields of preaching. An international organisation, like our Order, is called to act locally and think (and hopefully also act ) globally. The Dominican Family members in Iraq, Pakistan, Haiti, and places in other continents must know that in prayer and, if possible, active support, they are not forgotten! As members of one body, our solidarity is requested, as the letter to the Galatians exhorts us: “Do good to all, but especially to those who belong to the family of the faith. (Gal 6,10b)”.  It needn’t necessarily be a full time job. I know some of my lay sisters and brothers whose apostolate is writing, from time to time, letters to the editors of newspapers; “the shorter the better” – also a special charisma, entrusted not only to the learned and clever ones. By the way: you as Lay Dominicans can help us friars not to preach far beyond the real essential questions of secular people! As we are sitting in the same boat, we need your collaborative formation to keep us in our liturgical sermons with both feet on the ground and not to escape into speculative theological balloon flights.

You are suitable interpreters, as Jesus was with his parables, in finding in our everyday world modern parables hidden even in secular configurations, which reveal qualities of the “Kingdom of Heaven”. The daily life of his society and culture was taken by Jesus as a pattern of what is happening in the dimension of religion, such as food and drink (leaven / wine), nature (mustard seed /  the sower / barren fig tree / vine and branches), animals (lost sheep / net of fish / birds of heaven), professions (sower / shepherd / unjust judge / unmerciful servant / unprepared builder), economy (lost coin / pearl of great price / ten talents / the two debtors / hidden treasure) or social community (friend at midnight / children in market / feast invitations / dinner guests / wedding ceremonies). It is not unreasonable to assert that in his parables, Jesus in our days would have implied our world as well, as it is presented to us today - including its technological developments. The younger generation, living in a different world to the parent generation, has its specific “culture”: a world of interactive digital communication, of internet-surfing, cell-phones, i-Pad, facebook, twitter etc. How to find access to the “language” of the young adults often living like – in traditional biblical terms – “sheep without a shepherd”(Mk.6:34c)? I myself, who grew up in what was still a pre-television area, greatly admire the opportunities given by the modern technical miracles. Why should they be excluded from proclaiming the Glory of God (cf. Ps. 19) as well? For example: sometimes I like to use a technical parable in describing the relationship between Jesus Christ and his church, saying that everyone of us is a “Pixel”: a tiny but important point as a part of a whole screen, composed to form a picture that reveals the face of Jesus Christ in our world. Each one of us has his/her different colour and position within the entire “mosaic”. Diverse in function but of equal value – that also characterizes the structure of our Dominican Family between its different branches and entities. So, the classical biblical parables of the living church described as a “building of different stones” – with Christ as “cornerstone”  (cf. Eph. 2:20b) or the well known comparison of the “different members of a body” – with Christ as “head” (Col. 1:18)  can find a contemporary updated correlation.

You are qualified interpreters of inculturating the religious dimension through the arts in all their manifold manifestations - visual, audible and detectable by our other senses. Human creativity, entrusted to us by God the Creator, gives birth to artistic “languages” which go far beyond rational perception and let us approach the deepest sources of life. The culture of arts enables communication from heart to heart, overcoming geographical and social barriers. During my visits I have the privilege of coming into contact with many Lay Dominican Family members preaching by the media of art. They don’t expect to get a place in the international “hall of fame”, like our late brothers Fra Angelico, Master Francke, or the Norwegian writer and Nobel prize winner Sigrid Undset (+1949). Most of the Lay Dominican sisters and brothers who are artistically gifted are known and esteemed only by a limited circle of friends and admirers. Nevertheless they are important preachers of the Divine mystery. Even if they are not actively producing arts, they are preaching by opening people’s eyes to the dimension of faith in works of art. I know, for instance in Europe and Latin America, members of Lay Chapters in places with famous churches and museums, who are engaged in guided tours attracting a lot of tourists. By explaining the meaning of the various artworks, they give a true catechesis, especially for children and those who will never be seen in a regular liturgical ceremony. Lay Dominicans are involved, not least, in contemporary arts. Using the medium of cinema, they invite people to evenings where artistic films are presented, those with substantially moving human subjects; subsequently, they engage in a verbal exchange with the audience. The testimonies of Dominican preaching by way of the arts are versatile. On my visit to Vietnam, I enjoyed the gift of a whole text booklet of modern songs, written and composed by Lay Dominicans. Similar work has been produced by lay sisters and brothers also in other countries. Finally, as you may know, on our Order’s official website (, under the Dominican Jubilee link, there is also an Art Gallery and section of poetry which shows results of artistic realisation of the respective Jubilee themes by Dominican Family members, including those of Lay Dominicans.

You are authentic interpreters, not least preaching the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. In the Passion section of the Gospel, lay people like the grieving women were the last to remain at the foot of the cross - women also the first to proclaim his Resurrection (- “Dominican Women and Preaching” will be next year’s theme!). God’s compassionate closeness, even in weakness and suffering, can be preached much more convincingly by those who themselves are weak and suffering, keeping their faith and hope upright. When during my meetings with Fraternities/Chapters I ask for the number of group members, I often get the answer: “Oh, actually we are... (= there follows  the number of registered members) .., but unfortunately a number of us are old, sick and cannot get about.” My constant reply is: “Don’t worry, even the currently absent ones remain fully active preaching members of your group! More than we can do, as more or less healthy persons, they preach, stuck in their apartments or even beds, the compassionate and crucified Jesus Christ.” Dominican lay preaching activity therefore must not be concentrated only on outer mobility - otherwise the contemplative Dominican sisters wouldn’t belong to the Order of Preachers! Following Jesus in his Passion also in our personal and communal “stations of the cross”  can be an  authentic preaching of God’s loving compassionate presence in a world of violence, suffering and mortal destructions.

Lay Dominicans - included in communal preaching of the Gospel

There is a saying, attributed to the late Brazilian bishop Dom Helder Camara: “If one is dreaming alone, it's just a dream; when many dream together, it is the beginning of a new reality”. The dream of St. Dominic was “earthing” the vision of the Gospel in the communities of his time. He entrusted that apostolic vision to you too as Christian lay persons.  Proclaiming God’s Grace by “praising, blessing, preaching” is our common vocation. The Acts of the General Chapter of friars, Rome/2010, emphasize: “The Dominican laity as members of the Dominican Order form one family with the nuns, friars and sisters and share in the apostolic mission of the Order and of the Church (Acts GC/Rome, No.148).” During this year, already existing examples of communal ways of preaching will be collected. All over the world, Dominican communities of friars, nuns, sisters and laity are already announcing the Good News more and more in a communal way, or within an intercultural, ecumenical or interreligious context. The publishing of these stories will be done through International Dominican Information (IDI) on the website of the Order. Through this sharing, the willingness to launch more joint projects within our Dominican family may increase. We are united under the same roof, supported by our classical four pillars: Prayer, Study, Community and Mission. The last pillar, Mission, naturally is not one alongside three others of equal value, but it is the decisive, key pillar; prayer, study and community are targeted at the Mission of Preaching as the essential feature of our Dominican identity within the community of the Church.
At the end of last year, when visiting the Dominican Family of Southern Africa, I learned to describe these constitutional elements of our Order in a typical African inculturated symbol: it is the “firepot” as an essential gathering centre. Around a cooking firepot the community meets not only to be fed but also for communication by sharing their experiences and discussing, by celebrating and planning. The firepot, over the burning flame, is supported by three stones (in a modern form by three already pre-fixed legs). Our Dominican preaching mission is like the “firepot”, supported by the “three stones/legs” of prayer, study and community. The nourishing content of the pot is the life-giving Word of God. Spices and additional ingredients may be culturally different. As disciples of Jesus we are called to become not only to satisfy ourselves, but to fulfil the mission of Jesus, with regard to the hungry and thirsty people of our time: “Give them something to eat yourselves! (Mat. 14,16b)”. In distributing the nourishing food of life, blessed by Jesus, you as Lay Dominicans have a special task within our Dominican inculturating “service team” of physical and spiritual distribution!