“One of the characteristics of Dominican spirituality is to work with people who, in one way or another, live on the peripheries of society, whether they be students or prisoners”, explains Ludovic Namurois who is in charge of the Dominican lay fraternities in Belgium. “Without much planning or goals, we simply get on with things. It is about being available for pastoral needs. When one challenge presents itself, then we see how to resolve it.”
That’s exactly what happened at the prison of Ittre, south of Brussels, where the Dominican friar Patrick Gillard (Convent of Louvain-la-Neuve) was working as chaplain. The weekly Eucharists were well attended and there was a flourishing prayer group. It emerged that prisoners found much strength in their praying. Some prisoners expressed the desire to deepen their prayer and to know more about Dominican spirituality. Albert Rondelet, one of the lay members of the chaplaincy team expressed something similar and wanted to join a Dominican lay fraternity.
Ludovic Namurois continues his story. “One day, when I was visiting the prisoners, I was impressed by the quality of their prayer life, as well as by their longing to be connected with others, within and outside the prison walls, and with something which transcends their daily life. At the same time, Bruno Cadoré, the then Master of the Order of Preachers, suggested to erect a lay fraternity at the prison of Ittre, following the example of then only Dominican lay fraternity in a prison environment, in Norfolk (US). Under the protection of Our Lady, and with the consent of Philippe Cochinaux, provincial of Belgium, a small fraternal group was set up within the prison walls of Ittre. In a first phase, we offered the participants a Christian initation course and taught them elements of the Dominican tradition. They learned to pray vespers and were in contact with the lay fraternity in Norfolk. In October 2018, ten prisoners and the lay chaplain made their first commitment. Each year they are invited to renew their promise. Since then, some have committed themselves for life. In October 2019, the Belgian provincial erected the fraternity, which became the second Dominican lay fraternity in a prison environment in the world.”
Ludovic Namurois further shares: “The prisoners who we accompany have the impression that, just as cloistered monks or nuns, they can contribute through their prayers to offer a real support to others, to the Order of Preachers and to the world within or outside the prison. To pray is to preach. They experience that their prayers can weigh on life. This is very important for them.”
Brother Patrick confirms that “to be part of the lay fraternity makes clear to them that, even after grave acts, there is still a way to search for God. They are no longer dependent on each other for everything but they take care of their own religious formation and can preach in the prison. While they were deprived of rights and excluded from society, they had a voice in the 2019 provincial chapter of the lay fraternities. This helped them to regain a sense of responsibility. They felt recognized in their human dignity.”
“During the meetings of our lay fraternities, we study the Bible and we prepare prayers for all the prisoners, such as the stations of the cross or the rosary. It is our way of preaching”, says Steven, one of the detainees who is a member of the fraternity. “We are at the beginning of our journey but we believe in it and we pray in union with all the Dominican fraternities worldwide. There may be iron bars in front of our windows, but our hearts are wide open.”