The origins of the Lay Dominican Rule

fr. Rui Carlos Lopes, the Promoter General for Laity

On April 1st fr. Rui Carlos Lopes, the Promoter General for Laity, held a lecture on “The origins of the Lay Dominican Rule” at the Mater Ecclesiae, the Advanced Institute of Religious Studies (ISSR). This institute is linked to the Faculty of Theology of the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome. This is the transcript of the first part of the lecture.

The lecture is part of a series of lectures on the contemporary relevance and richness of the project of Christian life initiated by St Dominic of Guzman or inspired by him. These reflections are aimed at women Religious and Laity belonging to the Dominican Family, as well as anyone interested in knowing the original charism of the Order of Preachers. This is the transcript of the first part of the lecture:

The origins of the Lay Dominican Rule

The first reference to what today we call the Dominican Laity bore the name of “Order of Penitence”. Today the Dominican laity is called to proclaim the Gospel, according to the indications that the Jubilee of the Order left to all of us who share the charism left by Dominic. The Church asks this of all of us members of the Dominican Family. As the Master of the Order reminded the laity in 2014, the year devoted to the Dominican laity as preparation for the Jubilee, we are sent out in the midst of uncertainties and difficulties to preach the Gospel.

A word about legislative texts may help us to understand how this call corresponds to this evangelising spirit. The laity, for a very long time under the name of Third Order, was without many legislative texts, or Rules. We know of five versions: 1285, 1923, 1964, 1968 and 1987. For a long time, as is evident, we needed no change to the Rule.

Hence we must discover the meaning of the Dominican laity, and its identity, in order to have a better understanding of its task and of what the Church expects as witness and style of preaching. For a long time it was said that the Third Order was founded by St Dominic. I have even found a text that suggests its foundation in 1209 by Count Simon de Montfort and his Militia Christi. We have all heard this explanation, which is probably false in historical terms. In order to have a clear understanding of what is the basis of this movement, we must understand what the movement of the Penitents was, and how subsequently there arose an Ordo Pænitentia S. Dominici with its own Rule. It all began with a Gospel call, and today it may still be a path for the Dominican laity.

The Penitents

The data that can guide us on this path can be found in a splendid text written by Fr. G.G. Meersseman with the title “Dossier de l’Ordre de la Pénitence au XIII siècle”, published by the University of Fribourg.

The penitenti were already a well-known phenomenon before the creation of the Franciscan and Dominican Orders. St Francis was certainly a penitent, and it seems that the gesture of stripping off his clothes and giving them back to his father, protected from total nudity by the mantle of the Bishop of Assisi, was a mark of this movement, which was very widespread at that time in the Church. Some of the penitenti lived in community, others were hermits, still others were virgin women or widows, and others lived with their families. These groups no longer corresponded to the penitenti, who were committed to a course of preparation for the Reconciliation of Maundy Thursday, according to the penitential practice of the Church: they wanted to live a new life in accordance with the call of the Gospel. St Francis, says the author, was a member of this movement; joined by a number of companions, he began to direct himself towards a stable religious life.

Subsequently the preaching of the Friars Minor and the Preachers was to have a decisive influence on society. The penitenti heard this preaching without being members of any Order (Franciscan or Dominican). Particularly in Italy, this movement had great impact on the cities. This is why, from the historical point of view, the attribution of the Rule of 1221 to St Francis appears less than certain. These groups of penitenti created problems in the cities which were undergoing an unexpected social and political development: they demanded exemption from military service, and sought visitatori without asking the permission of the bishop. The preaching of the mendicants with the invitation to conversion to the Gospel sometimes caused problems between these penitenti and the civic and ecclesiastical authorities. The Rule or Rules were to help the organisation of these groups and contribute to their federation: This i show the Third Orders, both Franciscan and Dominican, were founded.

The Penitenti of the Order of Preachers

As we have said, the preaching of the Franciscans and Dominicans ha san extraordinary impact on the cities, above all in Italy, among the bourgeois. The sermons against usury struck a society in which the banking system was beginning to be established. Many decided to change their lives and buy shares, as an expression of this change, building new hospitals or restoring others for the poor, hospices, houses for pilgrims and a whole series of houses of mercy.

Certainly the Dominicans, a mendicant Order, found economic assistance among the bourgeois, as we can see in Florence, where these donations began in 1227; in another sense the bonds between the bourgeois and the Order was a source of prestige. Gradually the division between black and grey penitenti became clearer, some seeking the style of the Friars Preachers and others the Style of the Friars Minor. In 1264, Blessed Jordan of Saxony preached to the penitenti without connecting them with any particular Order; in 1275 there is a reference t someone who called himself a: frater de Poenitentia vitae coniugatorum habitus nigri. In 1277 the division was already clear.  One of the reasons for this separation seems to have been the problem of sin against the Rule: For the Franciscan Visitators failure to observe the Rule was a sin, whereas it was not for the Dominicans: in Dominican spirituality failure to observe the Rule is never a sin in itself.

The Rule of Munio di Zamora

2017-10 zamoraMunio di Zamora was Spanish, the seventh successor of St Dominic. The Rule is dated 1285 and was approved by Pope Honorius IV on 28 January 1286. Here the division is clear between the Franciscan and the Dominican penitenti. There is still some doubt about the attribution of the Rule of Munio de Zamora to that date. As Fr Vicaire has shown, there are no copies of this Rule in the 14th century; it is only in the 15th that we find news of it. There is not even any reference in the life of St Catherine. However, reference to this document is made as the official beginning of the Dominican Third Order. Let us look, with due caution, at the novelty of this text.

This document is addressed to those who are under the direction of the Friars Preachers: the brothers and sisters of the Order of Penitence of St Dominic. The Rule does not forget the preceding Rules of the Penitents, but introduces an important dimension, another direction in the manner of viewing the works of mercy, no longer speaking of corporal works of mercy but adding the specific purpose of the Order, namely zeal for preaching and for the truth of the faith: “tamquam sancti Dominici singularis in Domino filius sit veritatis catholicae fidei juxta suum modulum aemulator ac zelator praecipuus”. This is absolutely new, proposing as it does a clear distinction for those under the direction of the Friars Preachers: the Dominican penitents have a new form of life and mission.

Some conclusions and queries

The problem of the foundation of the laity by St Dominic becomes a secondary problem. The historical view offers us a new standpoint for reflection on the identity of lay Dominicans.

The first conclusion we can draw is this: the Dominican laity began as a lay movement. Further links with the Order, such as the habit or the Rule, came later. This is really important as an affirmation of a lay structure. The concept of a kind of religious life for lay people which is dominant in the style of the Rule of Munio di Zamora, came later. At first, the penitents were lay people who experienced a special call that is related to preaching that invites them to metanoia and to a life in accordance with the Gospel which they want to put into practice. The beginning was a genuine conversion.

Perhaps this is still valid today: the vocation leads us to a change of life in accordance with the Word of God. The Dominican vocation begins when we listen to the Word of God and this changes our lives. The vocation of the penitenti led them to concrete signs of conversion, not to a theoretical position. When these lay people listened to the Word of God and were converted, they contributed to a personal and community change, something real and tangible in the cities where they lived: thus hospitals and houses for the poor were built. Perhaps this was because the works of corporal mercy were the simplest way of demonstrating this conversion.

Another important aspect was the choice of the Order, at their own initiative: they wanted a real link with the Order. Then the Order welcomed these groups, helped them with a juridical status and an organisation, with accompaniment and spiritual formation. The entire process of choice and discernment was lay, as was their initial decision.

The first Rule, that of Munio di Zamora, led to a clear orientation of the spirituality of the Order, not least in preaching: we know that some groups left the Order to continue their work with the poor. Perhaps they felt closer to Franciscan spirituality, which promoted this kind of activity. The rule proposed by Munio was very clear about the practice of a different orientation, that which was the purpose of the Order: preaching.

These historical references still inspire today the direction that the Order asks of its lay members: preaching. Those lay persons who were struck by the preaching of the friars were determined: they had a clear initiative. Today perhaps this initiative should be developed.  This call to witness to the truth is still a truly important challenge. This preaching of the truth is always up to date.

But everything begins with listening to the Word of God, letting oneself be seized by the Word, wanting the Word to become flesh in our flesh, personal conversion as preparation for preaching. And it is our relationship with the Word that causes us to become preachers.


(6 April 2017)