The first Constitutions of the Dominican Order spelled out clearly the objective of the Order as instituted for preaching and the salvation of souls. In a similar manner the purpose of the Order was expressed by Pope Honorious III writing on 18 January 1221 to St. Dominic and his brothers in these words:
"He who always makes His Church fruitful with new offspring, wanting to make these times measure up to former times, and to propagate the Catholic faith, inspired you with a holy desire by which, having embraced poverty and made profession of regular life, you have given yourselves to the proclamation of the Word of God, preaching the name of our Lord Jesus Christ throughout the world." (MOPH XXV, p.144)
The goal of the Order and its means are further detailed in the Fundamental Constitution as follows :
"We also undertake as sharers of the apostolic mission the life of the Apostles in the form conceived by St. Dominic, living with one mind the common life, faithful in the profession of the evangelical counsels, fervent in the common celebration of the liturgy, especially of the Eucharist and the divine office as well as other prayer, assiduous in study, and persevering in regular observance.
All these practices contribute not only to the glory of God and our sanctification, but serve directly the salvation of humankind, since they prepare harmoniously for preaching, furnish its incentive, form its character, and in turn are influenced by it.
These elements are closely interconnected and carefully balanced, mutually enriching one another, so that in their synthesis the proper life of the Order is established : a life in the fullest sense apostolic, in which preaching and teaching must proceed from an abundance of contemplation." (LCO. 1, IV)
We have today so many orders and institutes patterned on the Dominicans that it is hard for us to remember that in many of its most characteristic features the Dominican Order was a startling innovation in the history of the Church. The Dominicans, being the oldest mendicant Order, from the beginning demonstrated well the relationship between received traditions, innovations and temporally conditioned adaptations.
The new Order was to be seen as a contemporary fulfillment of the old. As Stephen of Salagnac (+1291), a famous Dominican historian wrote: By his profession [Dominic] was a canon. By the austerity of his life in accord with the rule, he was a monk But as grace increased, he added [observances] from the apostolic rule to both callings.
At their first general chapter in Bologna in 1220, St. Dominic and his friar preachers composed the first constitutions, later on general chapters implemented them and expanded them, proving from the beginning that the salient characteristic of Dominican legislation was its flexibility. No rules were to be allowed to stand in the way of the Orders work of preaching. Superiors were to have complete freedom to dispense the brethren from any obligation or observance which was likely to impede their work. And a great deal was left to the initiative of individuals or local communities.
The constitutions defined the essential constitutional structure of the Order clearly and consistently. The constitutions made de Dominicans a union of persons, the first such union in the history of Christian monasticism. A strict organization which deftly combined monarchic and democratic elements. Thereby a man who joined the Dominicans entered the Order itself and not a specific monastery. The Order assigned him to a religious house, which was not considered a monastery but a convent (conventus), a community or a place of assembly. In these houses the members lived together simply as a community and put themselves at the service of the church. The houses were joined together into territorial provinces. Each house elected its superior, called the prior, that is, the first brother among brothers. Provincial superiors were elected by provincial chapters composed of representatives of the individual houses. The superior general, called the master of the Order, was elected to office by the general chapter, composed of representatives of the provinces. All these offices had set limits to some years of service. At present a prior would serve three years, a provincial four years and the highest authority, the Master General a term of nine years. Masters are not allowed to be reelected and priors and provincial can be consecutively reelected only once.
The Dominicans work as preachers in the service of the Church led them to regulate studies in the Order, and these regulations were incorporated into the orders legislation. In 1220, the first General Chapter established a theological school in each priory. No house was to lack a prior and a professor. Provincial schools of philosophy and theology were established, and from 1227 on, General houses of study for the pursuing of graduate degrees were also established. Study was to be an important task of every Dominican. It was not simply for academics but as a powerful means to prepare for the apostolate of preaching. Such emphasis gave the Dominicans its character of being an Order of students (ordo studentium).
As a result of their expertise and preaching activity, at the mandate of the Pope served the Church on many different fronts, for example, from 1232 on they took on the Inquisition, they expanded the faith outside Catholic borders doing exemplary missionary works in Northern and Eastern Europe, as well as in the Near and Far East; teaching at universities (many Dominicans like St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Albert the Great are among the more famous catholic teachers).
Likewise, the Order of Preachers claimed the time honored epithet of apostolicity. The Order valued poverty as the instrument by which they followed Christ, who was poor and the apostles, who left everything, journeyed through the world, and proclaimed the Gospel, just as the Lord had commissioned them to do (Matthew 10:7-20). In the Order poverty was not a goal in itself, but a powerful means, and its realization took different forms. From the outset St. Dominic emphasized it and by requesting that the Order live without property and without fixed income, prompted not only personal poverty, as it was the common custom in monasticism, but also a community wide poverty. With the Church's mandate, itinerant Dominican preachers took seriously the heretics demand that a priest should follow the naked Christ naked and poverty lived in this way was an efficient weapon against heretical groups.
A final historical innovation of the Dominicans is their family spirit. The Dominican Family includes not only priests and cooperator brothers but also both contemplative and active religious women and Lay people. St. Dominic himself founded a second Order, a contemplative one for women. It was to become a model for other congregations of women. Thus the Dominican men acquired a new ministry: the spiritual direction and supervision of convents of women. Later on, Dominicans carried their religious ideal beyond the branches of the Order and reached out to Christians in the world. These Christians eventually became the Third Order, the Order of Penance of St. Dominic.
At present the Fundamental Constitution, IX recognizes that The Dominican family is composed of clerical and cooperator brothers, nuns, sisters, members of secular institutes, and fraternities of priests and laity.
Like all institutions, as the Church herself, the Order of Preachers has known it its almost 800 years of existence ups and downs, days of fervor and vigor and languid and decadent days. However, during its history the Order has proved to have a formidable apostolic vitality. All in all, it can be said that its contribution to the history and life of the Church has not been negligible: with 4 Holy Popes (St. Pius V, St. Benedict XIII, blessed Innocent V and blessed Innocent XI), 76 cardinals (Moreira Neves and Christoph Schoenborn still alive), more than 1000 bishops and high Church dignitaries, three Doctors of the Church (St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Albert the great and St. Catherine of Siena), innumerable theologians and scholars of note (to the already cited above, others like St. Raymond of Penyafort, Domingo de Soto, Thomas de Vio (Cardinal Cajetan), Domingo Banez, M.J. Lagrange (pioneer of Catholic biblical scholarship) and most recently M.D. Chenu, Y. Congar, E. Schillebeeckx, and other Dominicans can be named. Great preachers like St. Vicent Ferrer, Luis de Granada and Dominique Lacordaire, courageous missionaries as St. Hyacinth, St. Luis Bertrán and the members of the Holy Rosary Province (many of them martyrs), and mystics like St. Catherine of Siena, St. Margaret of Hungary, Meister Eckart, John Tauler, Blessed Henry Suso, St. Catherine de Ricci, Juan Gonzalez Arintero, etc. As well as defenders of the orthodoxy as St. Peter of Verona, and the rights of the Church and human rights (Bartolomé de las Casas, Francisco de Vitoria, Montesinos, etc.); artists like Fra Angélico and reformers as Blessed John Dominici, St. Antoninus of Florence and Savonarola. Likewise, countless Dominicans are good examples of a humble life dedicated to works of charity, for example St. Martin de Porres, St. Rose of Lima and St. John Macías. Lay Dominicans like St. Lorenzo Ruiz (first Philipino Saint), Blessed Giorgio Frassati, Blessed Bartolo Longo (builder of the Pompeii Marian Sanctuary), and many others are not by any means negligible either. Yet rather than a motive of pride, the accomplishments of the Dominican Order should be considered as a challenge for those who today call themselves sons and daughters of St. Dominic.
Renewed Dominican way of life has blossomed in every generation since its foundation. Today we can say with St. Catherine of Siena that The voice of Dominic's preaching is still heard today and will continue to be heard in the preaching of his followers.
Today the Dominican Family is an apostolic force to reckon with in the world. The Brethren of the Order number around 7000, live in 707 houses and are present in 88 countries, and administratively divided into 45 Provinces, 4 Vice-Provinces and 3 General Vicariates. Our Nuns live in 236 monasteries of contemplative life and number over 4000. The active life Sisters belong to 158 different Dominican Congregations number around 37.000 worldwide. Lay Dominicans and members of nine Secular Institutes, united in chapters and fraternities, are more than 75.000. There are also several associations and confraternities closely related to the Dominican Family, such as the Holy Name Society and the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary, with nearly one million members inscribed.
As Dominicans of the twenty first century, scattered throughout the world, we gratefully acknowledge our heritage and with a constant spiritual renewal and fidelity to our Dominican way of life, strive to live up such a great tradition. Today our service to the Church spans over many different fields, our activities are mainly centered on formation and spiritual direction. We keep preaching the Word of God not only in churches but also in many universities and schools as teachers, in parishes as preachers and spiritual directors, etc.