Let yourself be known – reaching out to our secular contemporaries

The unique celebration of the 800th anniversary of the Order in the Netherlands
The unique celebration of the 800th anniversary of the Order in the Netherlands

The Dutch culture is one of the most secularized in the world. That is why in 2016 the Dominican Family in the Netherlands wanted to reach out to their contemporaries in unusual ways: by serving beer with life-questions, making a radio show, inviting writers on a retreat and re-creating the Dominican habit with a fashion-artist. Communications officer and theologian Arjan Broers contemplates on the results: ‘A preacher must be willing to be changed’.

There is a lot of talk about identity these days, it seems to be something one must either sell or defend, by telling how great you are or by attacking people who are different. In 2016 the small Dominican Family in The Netherlands did something brave: they celebrated their 800-years old identity by making themselves known to strangers. In the process they learned something about who they are and how they are perceived.

The Dutch culture is one of the most secularized in the world. Many people hardly know anything about the Gospel or the Church, except perhaps the prejudices. So when, during the Provincial Chapter of 2013, the oldest friar in the province asked: ‘Who is today’s innkeeper?’, we immediately knew who to focus on in our communications in 2016.

The story of Saint Dominic talking all night long with an innkeeper who sympathised with the Cathars became the paradigm for the celebrations of the 800 years anniverisary of the Order of Preachers. Of course the sisters and brothers aimed for their well-known audiences as well. Despite the old age of most of them, they were able to create a host of lectures, concerts, pilgrimages and celebrations in their churches, convents and study centers.

In order to reach out to secular contemporaries we created a project in co-creation with young and non-religious communication professionals. We invited them not to please the Dominicans, but their own curiosity, their desire to learn. Our project meant to create opportunities for encounters, both in person and via diverse media, between Dominicans and secular seekers.

We started by presenting a special beer called Zondag (Sunday, Dominica in Latin). The beer came with coasters on which we printed quotes from Dominican ‘celebrities’ like Thomas Aquinas, Catharine of Siena, Meister Eckhart and Edward Schillebeeckx. ‘What makes you thankful and how do you know that?’ Or: ‘What do you hope for?’. Or: ‘Where do you belong?’ were some of the questions to stir up conversation.

We created a radio show in the summer, together with the broadcasting organisation KRO (founded by a Dominican in 1925!). The show was about the pivotal points in human life, such as birth, finding your vocation, marriage, belonging and death.

We identified seven items and linked them to the sacraments. We send an ‘insider’ (a lay Dominican radio reporter) to secular places where life-questions can emerge. And we let an ‘outsider’ get acquainted with the sacraments by talking to a diversity of priests. They had to find new words to explain their beliefs. ‘It surprises me’, reporter Maarten Westerveen said: ‘again and again I feel that the sacraments are about me – and at the same time I feel my world is expanding’.

We invited six writers on a retreat and published their stories and essays with an avant garde publishing house. We had meetings with students from a student association called after Albert de Great and students from a secondary school called after Dominic. In Zwolle the friars invited three singer-songwriters to stay with them and write a song for Mary – it’s too much to mention.

Learning who you are can be painful. Dominicans are eager to claim their appreciation for encounters, but sometimes we had difficulties getting brothers and sisters to join in. Many of them are old and/or very busy, but there is another reason. Reaching out to people outside of our churches and convents is delicate and scary. ‘Every time I need a little push’, a 82-year old sister told me, ‘and then I deeply enjoy it’.

When you set out into the world, as Pope Francis encourages us, to share God’s friendship, as our Master Bruno Cadoré encourages us, you never know if you will have an impact on the person you will meet. But you can be sure that the encounters will change you.

Faith and love are first of all transferred via faithful and loving persons. This is especially true in a secular context where people respond to authenticity rather than to truth. This makes the mission of the preachers in our days all the more exciting. You have to be present, open and honest. And you have to be willing to be changed – and disappointed too!.

Over the course of a year we reached over a million people, communications experts told us. In the final weeks our project to create ‘a new habit’ with a fashion designer caught international attention. It turned out as a great opportunity to share the story of Saint Dominic and his followers, and talk about the values we literally wear.

Nevertheless, it feels like we only scratched the surface, in reaching out to our contemporaries in a time of angry debates on identity. But we learned something about the art of preaching: it is about taking the risk of letting yourself be known. But then again: isn’t that what we proclaim to believe in and live from?

Arjan Broers


(31 January 2017)