The introduction to the Primitive Constitutions of the Dominican Order stated with confidence that the Order “is known to have been established, from the beginning, for preaching and the salvation of souls, specifically.” This core idea, taken up in modern times as part of the Fundamental Constitution of the Order, contains three key phrases worth noting when reflecting on the Dominican’s role in the ministry of the Word.
Working backwards, we are told that the Order exists for the “salvation of souls.” This is as broad and as bold a claim as any group can make; that the Order’s mission is not the betterment of society, political activism, or even feeding the hungry. As important as those goals are in their appropriate contexts, the Dominican Order intends something far more radical: bringing souls to Jesus Christ. This mission extends universally, as the work of salvation begins with the man himself—his own soul—and reaches out to every person he meets.
The mission of salvation arises out of the next idea from the Primitive Constitutions: preaching. Because of St. Dominic’s great holiness, people both in and outside of the Order quickly gave it the loving nickname “Dominican,” but the Order’s official title has always been the Order of Preachers (Ordo Praedicatorum). Preaching is not merely something a Dominican does; it is his entire life. Preaching, the perennial need to speak the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is the reason the Order exists, and is the driving force of every Dominican labor.
The last notion we see in the Primitive Constitutions points to the larger world: the Order “is known to have been established” for preaching and the salvation of souls. This simple passive construction is of great importance, because it means that the Dominican is perpetually called outside of himself, outside of his familiar circles in society, and outside of his private interests to be known as a man transformed by the Gospel, a member of a brotherhood united by the mission to preach for the salvation of souls. But by whom is he to be known? By the people in his society, certainly, as an instrument of God’s grace. But also, and more importantly, he is to be known by the Holy Spirit, known so deeply as to be suffused by the presence and power of the Spirit, to be made a partaker in the very mission of the Son: to make known the Father.
The Constitutions of the Order of Preachers refers to all the preaching of the friars as the “ministry of the Word,” a beautiful phrase that draws out the inner meaning of Dominican preaching. Preaching has countless forms, from the liturgy to mass media, teaching, talks, retreats, parish work, chaplaincies, pilgrimages, writing, and on and on, but all these modes of preaching are united by the presence of the Word within them.
Preaching is a ministry of the Word in the fullest sense, as the preacher must attend to and serve the living Word in order to speak of him to others. The Word through whom all things were made speaks words of grace through the preacher not because the preacher is worthy, but because the Word longs to be made known, to draw all men to himself. This ministry, this service, this holy preaching, is the reason the Dominican vows his life to God.