Defining the Friar Preacher

It is not unusual for brothers of the Order find themselves having to explain the meaning of the title “friar.” This is quite understandable, of course. The term “friar” is basically medieval, and outside of academia or certain religious circles, it is not a word used frequently. Moreover, the term is both useful and misleading (a fact with which numerous Dominican thinkers have struggled over the centuries). Nevertheless, it is the semi-official designation of our way of consecrated life, as well as the larger “family” of orders to which we belong. Thus, I believe it would be helpful to take some time to explore what it means to be a “Friar Preacher” in this Dominicana post.

Let’s start with the word itself. The term “friar” comes from the Norman French “frere,” meaning “brethren.” This, in turn, derives from “frater” in Latin (whence we get the words “fraternity” or “fraternal”). Thus, “friar” simply means “brother.” In this sense, the definition of the word is not very helpful at all. Monks too are called “brothers,” and in the early Church, “brother” (or “sister”) was a common way of addressing any Christian. To get a better idea of the term, we must move beyond the simple definition to the way the word is used in the Church today. In order to do that, we have to explore another important term: “Mendicant.”

For at least a five centuries or so now, the Catholic Church has found it helpful to differentiate between institutes of consecrated life under four main categories. They are listed as follows in the order of their appearance in church history: monastics, canons regularmendicants, and clerics regular. For our purposes, it will suffice to note that the Order of Preachers falls under the category of “mendicants.” This name comes from the Latin “mendicare,” meaning “to beg.” Here we already encounter one of the first distinctions between monks and mendicant friars: the former engage in some kind of manual labor to sustain themselves, whereas the latter rely on begging.

But wait: Why begging? Well, the primary reason is that friars–unlike monks and canons regular–do not take vows of “stability;” meaning that we do not promise to remain in a single place, such as a monastery or a cathedral. Instead, we are itinerant; moving from one community to another every several years or so. Mostly, this takes place in a particular geographic area (called a “province”), but it can theoretically be anywhere in the world where communities of our brothers exist…and beyond! Due to this moving from place to place, as well as the time commitments to both study and our ministries, we cannot rely on manual labor (as do monks) or on income from a single parish or school (as do canons regular). This remarkable dependency on God’s providence and the generosity of the faithful was held in high regard by the early friars, including both Sts. Dominic and Francis.

A second distinction from the monks–but held in common with the canons and clerics regular–is that our way of life is intrinsically tied to some kind of ministry. In our case as Dominicans, this is the ministry of the Word by preaching the Gospel, teaching the faith, and celebrating the liturgy.  This, combined with our mendicancy and itinerancy, form the most visible differences marking our way of life.  During the Middle Ages, these qualities led to us being given the general title of “brothers” (friars) to distinguish us from the “monks” proper. A final point of distinction exists that differentiates us from the newest type of institute: the clerics regular (e.g. Jesuits, Theatines, etc.). Unlike these groups, the mendicant orders have generally maintained many practices, observances, and customs which derive from monastic life. A word or two needs to be said on that point also.

For most mendicant orders, our monastic customs usually come to us by way of the canons regular. This fact is especially visible in the Dominican way of life, as St. Dominic was a Spanish canon regular before founding the Order. Many great Dominican historians and thinkers noted the influence and importance of this “canonical” heritage in our history and way of life. For example, we make profession to follow the classic rule of the canons regular (the Rule of St. Augustine), and our Book of Constitutions–which interpret the Rule–call us to the observances of “the common life, the celebration of the liturgy and private prayer, keeping the vows, the assiduous study of truth, and apostolic ministry.” It goes on to explain that certain practices such as “Cloister, silence, the habit and penitential exercises help us to carry out these effectively.” (L.C.O. 40).

It is worth pointing out here that, though these practices have origins in the lives of the monks and canons regular, they are not pursued by Dominicans for their own sake. Instead, we maintain these practices–following St. Dominic’s example–for the sake of the salvation of souls. As our Fundamental Constitution puts it: “Not only do these things contribute to the glory of God and our sanctification, they also bear directly on the salvation of humankind, since together they prepare and impel us to preach; they give our preaching its character, and, in turn, are influenced by it.” (L.C.O. 1:4). In other words, the reason why we follow these monastic or canonical traditions is to help us become better ministers of the Word of God. They exist to provide for us the foundation on which to preach, teach, and serve the people of God in a way that is uniquely Dominican. This, it appears, was the vision that St. Dominic held when he conceived of an “Order of Preachers.” The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville admirably sum up this dynamic on their website, writing:

St. Dominic saw great value in the cloister, in silence, in the choral office, and in many other ancient practices of monastic life. He recognized their importance, not in isolating the friar from the world, but in forming him for the apostolic work. Prayer and study were necessary to create an apostle on fire with love for God. St. Dominic considered the monastic life essential to the vision of religious life he was bequeathing to his spiritual sons and daughters.

This desire to harmoniously combine the contemplative with the active, the monastic with the apostolic, and the cloister with the mission-field is at the heart of what it means to be a “Dominican Friar.” While we share many of these similarities with other mendicant orders such as the Franciscans, Augustinians, Carmelites, Mercedarians, Trinitarians, and others, it is our focus on ministering the Word of God as preachers and teachers which distinguishes us. Hence, we are known officially as the “Friars Preachers.”

May the Lord help us to holdfast to this seemingly paradoxical, astonishingly ambitious, and marvelously beautiful way of life that our holy father, St. Dominic, entrusted to us.