It is good to be a dead Dominican!

November 17, 2012

Praying for our deceased brothers on Dominican All Soul’s Day

In his book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker observes: “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.” Apparently Ernest Becker did not known many Dominicans.

“It is good to be a dead Dominican.” This phrase seems unnecessarily morbid but I think it is good to reflect on now for two reasons: (1) November is one of the times Catholics are called to think about death, particularly with All Saints and All Souls celebrated early in the month; and (2) it is absolutely true!

Why is it “good to be a dead Dominican?” Because Dominicans pray for the dead, especially their brothers. The Constitutions and Ordinations of the Order of Preachers concludes its section on the Common Life with the following:

“Let the brothers cherish the memory of those in the family of St Dominic who have gone before them, leaving them ‘the example of their way of life, a sharing in their communion and the help of their intercession.’ Let the brothers reflect on and make known their teaching and achievements, while not forgetting to pray for them.” (LCO 16)

Dominicans are to constantly remember their brothers in the Order who have gone before them, from the great saints like Thomas Aquinas and Vincent Ferrer to the brothers who they lived with and have recently passed away. All are part of one family, made up of those Dominicans living now and all those Dominicans who have gone before, known and unknown by us.

This exhortation to remember our deceased brothers is made concrete in the lives of Dominicans daily. The Constitutions and Ordinations has an entire section on all the suffrages we are to offer for the dead. Specifically this includes:

         1. Masses for the Dead celebrated for fathers and mothers (February 7), benefactors and familiars (September 5) and brothers and sisters (October 8).
         2. Weekly Masses in each convent for the deceased brothers, sisters, benefactors and familiars of the Order.
         3. Five decades of the Rosary offered each week for the deceased.
         4. The Psalm De Profundis (Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord…”) is recited at least once daily in the community for the deceased brothers and benefactors.
         5. In the case of a death of one of our brothers a Mass is offered in every convent for that brother. (LCO 70-75)

In my experience the daily communal recitation of the De Profundis is one of the most powerful witnesses of our love of our dead; before the main meal of the day we all gather in the cloister and listen to the names of the brothers who have died that day in our Province. It is particularly moving to hear the various low sighs or affirmations from the older fathers in the community who lived with and knew the brothers whose names I am only hearing about. It is a real reminder of the continuity of the Dominican life: we pass on only what we have received and treasure the gift of the Order from our Founder St. Dominic all the way to our recently deceased brothers.

Holy Father St. Dominic with his brothers at his death

For all these reasons and more it is truly “good to be a dead Dominican;” but it is also good to be a living Dominican! This is so especially because of the promise of our Holy Father St. Dominic, made on his deathbed surrounded by his brothers singing the Salve Regina. Blessed Jordan of Saxony recounts how at his death St. Dominic “assured his brethren that he would be of more benefit to them after death than in life, for he knew the one to whom he had entrusted the treasure of his labors and fruitful life.” We remember this each time we sing the O Spem:

O wonderful hope
which you gave to those who wept for you
at the hour of your death,
promising that after your decease
you would be helpful to your brethren.
Fulfill Father what you have said and help us by your prayers.
You shone on the bodies of the sick by so many miracles,
bring us the help of Christ to heal our sick souls.
Fulfill Father what you have said and help us by your prayers.

Death for a Dominican is not a one way street; we pray for our deceased brothers and they have promised to assist us by their prayers. It is truly good to be a dead Dominican, but because of our deceased brothers, it is good to be a living one as well!


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