When St Dominic founded the Order of Preachers in 1216 he was renowned for his apostolic zeal, heroic sanctity and profound learning.
It is in keeping in this charism that the Dominican Province of the Assumption – which encompasses Australia, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea – will focus its energy on university chaplaincy.
While Australian Dominican priests and Brothers still do parish work and run retreats, they are most prominent in eastern States universities, with chaplains based at the University of Sydney, Monash University, the University of Notre Dame Australia in Sydney.
What’s more, Dominicans being Dominicans, who are known for their level of education, this is where they like to be involved, says Fr Kevin Saunders, who has just been elected as prior provincial of the Dominican Province of the Assumption.
Fr Saunders, who himself completed a Bachelor of Arts with honours before being ordained in 1975, told The Record that while the Order is experiencing a vocations explosion in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, there are far fewer in Australia.
In fact, there are barely a handful, though a Dominican, Anthony Fisher OP, has risen to be Cardinal George Pell’s Auxilliary Bishop of Sydney.
Fr Saunders says the significant numbers of vocations to the Order in the Solomon Islands and PNG is because “they’re not affected by the secularisation of western society, unlike Australia, where religious values are less strongly held, and religious belief has more competition from secular values”.
“Not that people in Australia are specifically anti-religious, they just don’t have any religion,” he says. “As a society as a whole, western society has become less religious, and that effects religious orders and seminaries.”
Thus the Dominicans find themselves in the very places where young Australians are searching for their place in life – universities.
Though Fr Saunders has noted that in England, the Catholic Church is being revived by an influx of Polish and Africans, from countries where people have strong values, and parishes in England have been reinvigorated.
As for Australia, he says the Dominicans have a plan of action to take full advantage of World Youth Day in Sydney to “reawaken in young people a sense of their baptisimal vocation, first and foremost; and secondly to help them realise whether they are meant for the Religious life or even Christan marriage”.
Fr Saunders says the surge in vocations in the Solomon Islands and PNG will not mean Australia will necessarily benefit, as “the demand and need up there is still very pronounced”.
“I don’t think we’re in the position of wanting to bring people down from PNG and the Solomons to work in Australia. They may come down for experience, but the main needs for us as Dominicans is up there, rather than filling needs here,” he said.
As for Australia, “we still have people active in ministry as priests and Brothers here, and a few students coming through.
“We’re not expanding and growing like elsewhere including the Solomon Islands, but we’re still functioning.
“Intellectual formation and preaching and teaching has always been our charism.”
Fr Saunders himself gave “overall guidance” at Blackfriars School in Adelaide “rather than classroom teaching”, and that seems to be how their mission is carried out in universities.
He says his objective as regional provincial is to maintain the Dominican contribution to the Church and the charism of preaching and teaching the faith; and ensure that Dominicans will continue to live out their lives, and preaching by their lives.