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Can we talk? Dominicans gather to urge a contentious church to find unity in dialogue.

"Are we coming or going?"

I met a sister standing in the hallway of a motherhouse infirmary. "Do you know anything?" she asked.

"I know a little," I replied.

"That might be enough," she said. "Are we coming or going?"

"I'm not sure," I said, "but I do know this much." I wrapped my arms around her. "You are almost there."

A question posed in the hallway of a motherhouse infirmary might have been about the future of religious life, the state of the church, the role of preachers or all of the above. For preacher, poet, storyteller and Dominican Sr. Ann Willits, the question becomes a core challenge for the church she firmly believes is always both coming and going. It is both big enough to encompass deep differences and balanced enough to absorb honest conflict. But only if its members can keep talking to one another.

Willits laid this challenge before nearly 500 of her Dominican sisters and brothers, vowed members and lay associates from North America and as far away as Great Britain, Ireland, Hungary, New Zealand, Iraq and the Philippines. They gathered at Siena Heights University in Adrian to mark the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Order of Preachers, as the Dominicans are formally known.

Dominicans are known for talking, and the May 13-16 symposium, which focused on keeping peace in a deeply divided church, offered a rich fare of presentations, responses and open conversation. In a continuation of what Willits dubbed "our 800-year-old chat," the group focused on the need for preachers who are grounded in prayer and study to enter the contentious atmosphere of the times through their support of dialogue in community.

Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, master of the order from 1992 to 2001 and now a member of the Dominican community at Blackfriars, Oxford, England, led the symposium by invoking the nonviolent spirituality and strategy of Gandhi's Satyagraha--truth force combined with love force--to effect transformation on behalf of human liberation. Radcliffe's trademark flying hair and rumpled clothing--evidence that he had just stepped off one airplane and was about to depart on another--distracted only momentarily from the charm and intellectual precision that have made him a global voice for church unity and an end to violence, including the verbal violence that has characterized so much recent church conflict.

In a reprise of his 2006 book What Is the Point of Being a Christian? Radcliffe described the struggle in the post-Vatican II church as between conservative "Communio Catholics," who fear the loss of doctrinal clarity, tradition and identity, and progressive "Kingdom Catholics," who fear getting stuck or going backward after living in the hope of a transformed church.

For Radcliffe, the church has always been about both preserving tradition and expanding mission. The Eucharist itself expresses the essential balance between gathering the faithful into the one bread (communio) and the mission to the world (kingdom). This single act of worship is never either/or, always both/and, a shared life that is always both coming home and going forth. The one eucharistic table shared by traditionalist and progressive Catholics is both home base and a point of departure for the church.

This balance is threatened by the internal quarrels now consuming the church. For Radcliffe, the primary sin that infiltrates humanity in the Book of Genesis is rivalry leading to fratricide, competition that justifies violence, often in the name of religion. For Jesus, to be holy as God is holy is to purge the heart of competition and distrust, subdue the ego and engage one another with love. True dialogue opens us to listen to others, seek common ground and feel empathy while we work out our differences.

Willits, whose quick wit inspires affection similar to that afforded Radcliffe, addressed the necessary balance between prayer and action, mysticism and mission as the way the church has always sustained its dynamic inner life and Gospel mandate to engage contemporary culture. Again, only dialogue can get us into the future together.

Willits' preaching credentials include 21 years as codirector of Parable Conference, a retreat program for Dominican men and women that has inspired and supported scores of collaborative preaching teams, and 15 years of such preaching in parishes with fellow Dominican Fr. Jim Marchionda.

Because only male clergy are allowed to preach, women have had to find alternate ways and times to exercise their preaching charism. Despite official obstacles and some lay resistance to a woman preaching, for the past 30 years, mixed-gender preaching teams have given thousands of parish missions and retreats across the country.

The authority to preach, according to Sr. Nadine Foley of Adrian, derives from the inner authority of the order's charism, and she said she thinks it has been underused.

When appropriately exercised, this charism has provided Catholics a rich experience of hearing the Word proclaimed by men and women together, a sign of Gospel freedom in a world and church where men and women are still defined by hierarchical and cultural inequalities.

In a Web interview posted by Newman University Parish in Stevens Point, Wis., where Willits and Marchionda preached last year, Willits said: "Collaborative ministry is a preaching in itself, and is a visible reminder of the way Jesus ministered. I think women's experience of the Gospel is a valid perspective which completes the circle of equality that happens with our baptism."

Fr. Liam Walsh of Ireland noted the careful balance St. Dominic built into his order from the start, affirming that before canonical roles were defined for the order, Dominic "conceived the preaching as being realized by a community made up of women and men, of clerics and lay, of religious and seculars." And where Dominic encountered barriers to Gospel freedom, whether geographic, cultural or conceptual, he saw them as frontiers to be explored, Walsh said.

[Patrick Marrin is editor of Celebration, NCR's sister publication, and was a member of the Dominicans from 1965 to 1983.]


Adrian, Mich.
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Title Annotation:PREACHING
Author:Marrin, Patrick
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 8, 2007
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