Dominicans and Carmelites

On Sunday 21 March 2004 we welcome to St Peter’s as our preacher the Catholic Bishop of Nottingham, the Right Revd Malcolm McMahon OP, and the following Sunday, Father Wilfrid McGreal O Carm. The letters after their name indicate that they are both members of religious orders, and I thought it would be of interest to know a little bit about both orders - the Order of Preachers (or Dominicans) and the Order of Carmelites.


St Dominic was born in around 1170 at Calaruega in what is now northern Spain. He was educated at the new university at Palencia, and entered the chapter of the cathedral of Osma. This was a regular chapter, a body of canons who made profession according to the Rule of St Augustine. Dominic's talent was recognised and he soon became sub-Prior. Accompanying Diego his bishop on a diplomatic trip, Dominic encountered the Albigensian heresy at Toulouse and work to reconcile the Albigensians to the Church became a major occupation. He was never to return to his cathedral. Dominic founded a monastery of nuns at Prouille and gathered about him friars whose lives would be examples of poverty and whose preaching would convert the Albigensians back to the Christian faith. The numbers grew, and the new Order of Preachers began to take shape.

The friars formed preaching communities who would sing the Divine Office and send out preachers to the people. The brothers professed poverty both individually and corporately. A great emphasis was placed on the proper preparation for the preaching work and friars were sent to the university of Paris and took a major hand in the development of other European universities. Great minds such as St Albert the Great and St Thomas Aquinas were soon attracted to the Order. The Order of Preachers was formally established by papal bull in 1216 and largely took shape at the first two general chapters of 1220 and 1221, when the first friars were sent to England. These friars landed at Dover on 5 August 1221, the same day that St Dominic himself died. A friar is accepted into the Order by a province and he usually remains affiliated to that province for his whole Dominican life, even if he is called upon spend time working in another province or for the Master of the Order. Thus the various provinces have developed their own range of ministries and ways of working out the Dominican charism.

The "fundamental unit" of the Order though is not the province but the priory, a formally erected religious house with at least six brothers who elect their own superior, called a Prior. The brothers of a priory are together responsible for making decisions about their own life and work, in collaboration with the local bishop and with the Prior provincial. Sometimes smaller houses are established and occasionally friars are given permission to work away from a priory, nevertheless the priory community remains the pattern for Dominican life. Any friar's work is seen not as his work alone, but as a work of the priory. The English Province currently has six priories and one house in Great Britain.


The Carmelites have a unique background. Unlike most religious Orders they have no founder. Earliest historical accounts find the first Carmelites already settled as hermits on Mount Carmel some 800 years ago, living near the fountain of the prophet Elijah. The chapel which stood in the midst of their cells was dedicated to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. The process of change from a small band of hermits to a world wide family did not happen overnight.

God's founding gift to the Order (the “charism”) is not found in a person or a particular book but in a community of people. Being without a founder the Carmelites have continually looked to the great figures of Elijah and Mary for inspiration. Throughout history these key figures have helped clarify the identity of the order and renew its spirit. They provide a wonderful integration of the two streams of the Carmelite tradition - contemplative and active, prayerful and prophetic, reflective and apostolic. As human models Elijah and Mary provide Carmelites with an example to imitate. Not unlike Carmelites of any era they struggled with fear, stood in the face of very difficult questions, and felt deeply the pains of human life. Being human they appear like us as fragile and vulnerable. Yet they were filled with a deep conviction. It is a conviction that lies at the heart of the Carmelite spirit: God is alive! God is present! God is with us! - in the words of the Prophet Elijah "God lives in whose presence I stand".

Hospitality was no doubt one of the original values for the early Carmelites. Mt. Carmel served as a place of rest for pilgrims in the Holy Land. Some of them were so impressed by the beauty of Carmel and the simple lifestyle of the community of hermits who lived there that they stayed. Adaptation and flexibility were demanded as the Carmelites not only changed their place of residence but also modified their style of life - from desert to city, from hermit to friar. Assuming the mendicant tradition Carmelites went wherever they were needed serving God's people and sharing the spirit of Carmel. Prayer is at the core of the Carmelite spirit. To grow in friendship with God, to experience God's love, to ponder the mystery and wonder of life, to search for meaning - all encompass the contemplative dimension of Carmelite life. In the solitude of prayer one can experience the compassion of God which makes it possible to live in solidarity with others. This experience makes ministry possible. It empowers one to "suffer with" and respond to those in need. It also enables one to be patient with and forgiving towards each other.

How Carmelites serve is not set in stone. Friars respond to the needs of the Church in a variety of ways. Today they can be found in parishes, schools, retreat houses, on campuses, in hospitals, in prisons, in both rural and urban settings. What they do today may not have been done in the past. The same holds true for the future. Depending on the need Carmelites will respond - continually following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Carmelites are ordinary people who witness an extraordinary reality - the abiding presence of God. To live in the presence of God gives ordinary things great meaning. It was the motivating force for Elijah whose spirit continues - "the Lord lives in who presence I stand" and "with zeal, have I been zealous for the Lord God of Hosts."
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 7th March 2004