Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas on August 3, 2020 in honor of St. Dominic (liturgically commemorated on August 4 [EF] and August 8 [OF]) at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City.
The calendars of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms are at loggerheads for two saints this week: John Vianney’s commemoration in the Ordinary calendar is August 8, while he is commemorated in the Extraordinary calendar on August 4; Dominic’s memorial is observed on August 8 on the Ordinary calendar and on August 4 in the Extraordinary Form. Actually, Dominic died on August 6, the feast of the Transfiguration, making that date impossible for his feast; thus, neither the old nor the new corresponds to his date of death. So, I’m going to head both dates off at the pass by preaching on him today!
Of course, Dominic’s claim to fame is his founding of the Order of Preachers (commonly called “Dominicans,” after him); the Order consists in three branches: the first are the friars; the second are the cloistered nuns (whom he established even before the friars because he wanted to have the prayer-support of the nuns for the task ahead); the third are comprised of Sisters in active apostolates and lay people. Dominic’s original goal was to confront the ever-spreading Albigensian heresy.
I have lived in the shadow of the Dominicans for a good portion of my life. My first elementary school was St. Rose of Lima in Newark; when we moved forty miles south to Freehold, it was once again St. Rose of Lima (which pleased my mother since I could use the same school tie!). In high school, I was taught by the Dominican Sisters of Newburgh, New York, who were superb teachers and Religious (before they went over the cliff in 1971). I earned my licentiate in sacred theology from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.
The Dominicans boast of having seventy canonized saints and 200 beati, as well as four popes. Such luminaries as Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Fra Angelico and Catherine of Siena come to mind immediately. Our Lord did say, “By their fruits you will know them” (Mt 12:33), and the Dominican fruit has been very sweet and very bountiful.
A story is told of a neophyte, eager to learn everything possible about his new-found faith. He approached his pastor and said, “Father, I know the difference between secular or diocesan clergy and religious clergy, but what are the differences among the religious clergy?” The priest offered: “Well, take the Dominicans and the Jesuits, for example. The Dominicans were founded by a Spaniard in the thirteenth century to halt the advance of the Albigensians. They wear a white habit and are engaged in teaching, parish work and missionary endeavors. The Jesuits were founded by a Spaniard in the sixteenth century to halt the advance of the Protestants. They wear a black habit and are engaged in teaching, parish work and missionary endeavors.” “Hmm,” came the neophyte’s reply. “So the only difference seems to be the time of their founding and the color of their habit? Might there be something else, perhaps their effectiveness?” His pastor was quick to respond, “I think you’ve hit on it. When was the last time you met an Albigensian?”
Speaking of effectiveness, I would be remiss were I not to bring into high relief the wonderful Dominican Sisters of Nashville and the Dominican Sisters of Ann Arbor – both committed to the Catholic school apostolate and growing by leaps and bounds; both have a vocation problem: they don’t have enough room for all the young women applying. The friars of this province are equally successful, having numbers even exceeding those of the 1950s. They have a large footprint here in the City: St. Vincent Ferrer, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Joseph in the Village, as well as the chaplaincy at NYU. Even more remiss would I be were I not to mention the wonderful cloistered community at Corpus Christi Monastery in the Bronx; I am convinced that they are probably most responsible for staying Our Lord’s punishing hand against this City, sending it off like Sodom and Gomorrah.
What is the secret of such success? In reality, it’s no secret; it’s just that both those two communities of Sisters and the friars are faithful to their original charism, summarized in the Order’s motto, Veritas (Truth). They believe, live and transmit the Truth of Christ and His Church – and that has a powerful magnetism.
For a few minutes, let’s reflect on Truth. “Quid est veritas?” asked Pontius Pilate in what he thought was a rhetorical question (Jn 18:38). Truth Incarnate was staring him in the face and he couldn’t recognize Truth because his intellect had been darkened by a life of compromise, skepticism and relativism. Pilate has numerous descendants in the Church of today and in the secular world of our day.
St. Thomas Aquinas, undoubtedly the best-known son of St. Dominic, offers us this definition of truth: “Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus” (Truth is the conformity of the mind to reality). See how clear, how objective, how sane that is. On the other hand, we are engulfed by the insanity of total subjectivity, which leads someone to proclaim, “My God would never consign anyone to Hell!” Or, “From now on, I expect to be accepted as a woman, despite my genetic makeup.” Such assertions would fit in well with Friedrich Nietzsche’s declaration: “There are no facts, only interpretations.”
We are awash in confusion, as much in the Church as in society-at-large, so that a papal confidant could inform us that 2 + 2 could, in some circumstances, equal 5! Ultimately, lies are born of insanity, and insanity spreads its virus with a vengeance. However, there is a vaccine, which can turn insanity to sanity. Folks like you and me, first, need to be convinced that objective truth exists; second, that it is attainable; third, that such declarations will be met with resistance; but, fourth, eventually truth will resonate with normal people. Listen to the insights of some dead white men who have weighed in on our concern down the ages; I have selected secular sources, precisely to make the point that you don’t have to be Catholic to have common sense and an appreciation for the truth.
So, first, truth does really exist:
“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” – George Orwell
“Truth is its own reward.” – Plato
“While you live, tell the truth and shame the devil.” – William Shakespeare
“The truth is always the strongest argument.” – Sophocles
And think about this trilogy from Cicero:
“Truth is corrupted as much by lies as by silence.”
“Above all, the search after truth and its eager pursuit are peculiar to man.”
“For there is but one essential justice which cements society, and one law which establishes this justice. This law is right reason, which is the true rule of all commandments and prohibitions. Whoever neglects this law, whether written or unwritten, is necessarily unjust and wicked.”
As to the attainability of truth, hear what Sören Kierkegaard has to say: “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”
Now, lest you think this business of truth-telling is easy, heed the counsel of Plato, who warns: “They deem him their worst enemy who tells them the truth.” Or, Lewis Carroll’s realization that people come to believe what they hear repeatedly: “What I tell you three times is true.” That said, Robert Browning offers some consolation in reminding us: “Truth never hurts the teller.”
Finally, truth does win out. “Honest Abe” Lincoln was quite confident of that: “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.” He also saw another societal benefit to the truth: “Let the people know the truth and the country is safe.” Epictetus, one of the ancient Greek philosophers, held that “the people have a right to the truth as they have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Now we know where the Founders got that stirring string of rights from. Last but not least, the astute political commentator Thomas Sowell encourages us: “When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.”
If secular thinkers can be so sure of the power of truth, we believers have even greater reason to hold fast to that conviction. Of the 93 times that we find the word “truth” in the New Testament, 21 of those occasions appear in the Gospel according to St. John. The Fourth Evangelist, you should remember from our course, has recourse to legal terminology to set up a trial against the world for its refusal to acknowledge the One who declared: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). To those, however, who do take Jesus as the Truth, we hear our Savior give us a blessed assurance: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32).
Today, then, we thank Almighty God for giving us eight centuries ago the man who became the “Lumen Ecclesiae” (the Light of the Church) by founding an Order committed to preaching and holding up for all to see the Light of Truth, who is none other than Jesus Christ, “the Light of the World” (Jn 8:12) .
St. Dominic and all you holy Dominicans, pray for our Church and our world, that all may see and accept the truth that truly makes us free.