At 5:30 in the morning the Gothic chapel of St. Albert’s Dominican Priory in Oakland, California, is barely lit. White hoods cover the heads of young men praying silently before the Blessed Sacrament. Father Michael Fones, OP, the Student Master, then intones the Tantum Ergo while returning Our Lord to the tabernacle. Matins is sung at 6:30, followed by breakfast, animated discussions about St. Thomas Aquinas, the history of the Dominican liturgy, recent studies of Sacred Scripture, and the Giants’ recent victory in the World Series.
Holy Mass is celebrated at 5:00 pm, followed by a social hour with lively and good-humored conversation beside the fireplace, dinner, Compline, and an evening of private study. In 2016 the Dominican Order will celebrate its eight-hundredth birthday, and after eight centuries the daily routine of Dominican friars preparing for the priesthood is essentially unchanged. Prayer, study, community, and ministry form their hearts and minds into priests in service of the Church.
During my five days in the priory I was able to learn more about the remarkable community at St. Albert’s. I heard several stories about the astonishing lives of the men below the hoods, which helped me better understand why, during my short stay, I observed more than twenty other visitors who had come as aspirants to the Order. I also was able to spend time with several of the Dominicans, who shared some of their stories and reflected on being in the Order in the 21st century.
Fr. Emmanuel Taylor, OP
Sitting in the refectory of St. Dominic’s Church, the Dominicans’ flagship parish and novitiate in San Francisco, I listened to the exciting story of Father Emmanuel Taylor, OP’s, life before entering the Order. His “other passion” is oceanography, and he lived aboard a research ship, where his duty was to dive ten thousand feet into the ocean on submarine Alvin, owned by the US Navy. Fr. Emmanuel recalled how frightened he was when he made his first dives into total darkness; he went to Confession to prepare for the possibility of dying in the ocean. “I asked big questions then,” he said, “questions that led me closer to God.” He also recalled the exhilaration of observing sea creatures glowing in darkness at depths with no sunlight, and he connected his life underwater to his current interest in the mysteries of liturgy, where God reveals Himself in an otherwise darkened world.
Fr. Michael Fones, OP
Father Michael Fones, OP, the Student Master at St. Albert’s, witnessed my marriage more than seventeen years ago, and he is among the people I most admire. I was particularly pleased that he was able to spend time with me recalling his life in the priory. Father Michael is one of those rare persons who listens with generous attention, and unselfishly gives himself to others as the “hands and feet of Christ.” On our way to Stanford, where I was giving a talk, Father Michael discussed his graduate research in Stanford’s geophysics program, where he helped settle a debate regarding whether stone formations in California had moved there from below the equator. “No,” he said, “my research demonstrated that the rocks used to make that claim were remagnetized, and thus useless for determining their original location.” A Dominican priest with a graduate degree from Stanford? In geophysics? Father Michael is one of the finest confessors I’ve ever had. He is a holy and prayerful man, and yet he can answer complicated questions about the earth’s tectonic plates.
Fr. Christopher Renz, OP
After spending a morning with the friars, I met Father Christopher Renz, OP, who received his Ph.D. in microbiology at Northwestern University before studying philosophy and theology to become a Dominican priest. I began to discern a clear pattern—these Dominicans are not only men of pastoral interests; they are servants of the Church who are steeped in the life of the mind. Father Chris showed us around the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, where he currently serves as the academic dean. As we walked through the campus, I was happily surprised by the number of posters advertising courses on “Thomistic Studies.” Father shared his vision for a new library (we should pray for this intention) and then signed a copy of his recent book. We then walked and discussed the merits of beauty in enriching the soul.
Fr. Augustine Thompson, OP
An exception was made for my wife, Amanda (also known as “the other Dr. Clark”) to enter the cloistered area of the priory to visit the community’s collection of rare books. Amanda is the director of our library and special collections at Whitworth University, and she and I marveled at the truly exceptional holdings under the care of Father Augustine Thompson, OP. Father Augustine is an example of the kind of academic achievement rarely encountered in the Academy today. I meet a large number of scholars in my travels, and Father Augustine is uniquely gifted. “Brilliant,” is the adjective people generally use to describe him. He took an hour out of his demanding schedule to show us some of the gems in their collection: original copies of the first polyglot bibles, editions of Cornelius Jansen’s controversial seventeenth-century works, and early Dominican liturgical texts. He even told us about an original Nostradamus work kept in their collection.
Beyond his care of the rare books, Father Augustine teaches the history of Christianity and philosophy at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, trains the brothers in the Dominican liturgy, and publishes highly regarded books on such topics as Calvinist theology, medieval preaching, and the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Navigating through Western languages with a facility seldom seen nowadays, Father Augustine showed us valuable works from many countries, and explained their importance in the history of the Church. As we said goodbye to Father Augustine, surrounded in shelves of dusty volumes, I mused over his impressive erudition, and recalled the famous quip by St. Thomas Aquinas: “Beware of the man of a single book.”
Bro. Gregory Liu, OP
The large number of young men preparing for priesthood in the Dominican Order is as impressive as the priests who train them. Brother Gregory Augustine Liu, OP, earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is now spending much of his “spare time” reading about the theology of the Eastern Church, the philosophical traditions of China’s Confucian past, and the beautiful rites of the Dominican liturgy. Before the Saturday Mass according to the Dominican Rite, Brother Gregory brought me a copy of the Dominican Missal so I could follow the readings; he then returned to the center of the chapel where he and a Polish Dominican chanted in Latin.
One cannot help but feel optimistic about the future of the Church in the hands of such holy and intellectually vibrant men. Saint Thomas Aquinas, OP, famously wrote that, “it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so is it better to give to others the fruits of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate.” This describes well the attitude of the priests and brothers I met during my stay at St. Albert’s Priory; all they gain in the classroom and on their knees, they insist, is not for themselves, but rather for those they are called to serve. They live for others; that is evident to all who meet them.
“White Blood Cells”
Before leaving Oakland I attended Holy Mass in the Dominican Rite, celebrated by a kindly priest, Fr. Bryan Kromholtz, O.P., who was born and raised in Spokane, Washington, where I now live and teach. As I awaited the beginning of Mass a number of local Catholics filed into the chapel, and to my right was a large family who were clearly devoted to this stunning and summoning rite. Father Kromholtz, whose beautiful singing voice poured from the altar, is a professor of philosophy who was interviewed on EWTN by the late Father Benedict Groeschel, CFR, to discuss his book, On the Last Day, which is about “what happens after death?” I wondered if those attending Mass were aware of the intellectual distinction of the humble priest at the altar, hooded in his white Dominican habit. I wondered, too, if many people there knew of the impressive educations received by the other Dominicans around them, or even of the extraordinarily rich lives they had lived before receiving their habits.
“The world is wounded,” a friar told me, “and even the Church has wounds, and we Dominicans want to be the white blood cells that go into the world and the Church to heal and to bring Christ.” To do this, he said, “we need to have the intellectual and spiritual tools to defend and encourage the Church’s unchanging teachings.” These men believe in what the Magisterium teaches, and they also believe in the necessity to preserve and promote those teachings with well-trained minds and outstretched arms, demonstrating that Christ came into the world to love mankind with truth and charity. The Dominican Order is more properly called the “Order of Preachers,” for it is to this end that they dedicate their lives.
As St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote, “A preacher has two reasons for glorying in his preaching: One is that those converted by his preaching are making progress; the other is that other people are converted by his converts.”
(Images: All photos taken by Anthony & Amanda Clark)