Being back in Denver, leading the pre-novitiate, has surfaced a number of memories of my own entry into Dominican life ten years ago. It’s been fun watching these six young men come together and begin to form a class, bonded by their common experience of the novitiate and Dominican life. I remember those early days, trying to figure out my classmates—naturally wondering who would become a friend, who would stay, and who would end up leaving. I remember, too, sizing up my classmates to figure out where I fit among them. Was I holy enough? Prayerful enough? Smart enough? Could a nerdy physics kid really be called to be a preacher?
Perhaps such sizing up is a natural part of the beginning of formation, something fairly common among incoming novices, and perhaps it’s not all bad. I know for me, though, it mainly served to increase the doubts I had. Instead of seeing myself standing at the threshold of formation, eager to learn and grow in grace, I was mainly concerned with not looking or sounding too dumb. I had to show my nine new brothers that I belonged. Really, though, I had to convince myself of that fact.
It was during these early days of my Dominican life that I first heard the story of Dominic’s late-night, tearful prayer vigils. I remember reading about him spending hours before the crucifix, weeping while repeating the prayer: “My God, my mercy, what will become of sinners?” Given my mode of comparison and self-centeredness, such a prayer seemed odd to me. Sure, I could pray for sinners. Sure, I might wonder if a sinner could be saved. But to weep for sinners? Such an action seemed so far from where I was spiritually. I was too concerned about myself, my own holiness and salvation, to weep for others—especially for those with whom I had no formal relationship.
As the novitiate year continued, I came to know Dominic more fully. In reading about the founding of the Order I came to know a man truly moved by compassion. It was compassion for the innkeeper in Toulouse which kept Dominic up through the night, bringing the innkeeper back to the truth of the faith and sparking the idea of founding an order of preachers. It was compassion for women whose families had abandoned them which led to the establishment of the monastery in Prouille. It was compassion for the people misguided by false teachings which informed Dominic’s manuductive and intellectual approach to conversion. It was compassion which would lead to the order’s stated mission being “preaching and the salvation of souls.” It was compassion which strengthened Dominic through those late-night prayer vigils as he wept over the state of sinners.
As I settled into the novitiate and this new Dominican identity, I began to realize my own lack of compassion. No longer needing to compare myself to classmates, and more convinced that I did, indeed, belong, I was able to reach out to those in need, to understand why Dominic wept for sinners. This growth in compassion would continue to grow as I progressed in Dominican life. Often the examples of our brothers challenged me to become more compassionate. I remember two brothers going out of their way to help a troubled woman they met on the bus; many of us had looked the other way. A brother once broke into tears when I shared the news that a former Dominican had left not just the Order, but the Catholic Church; my feelings were just anger and frustration. A conversation about a troubled man with a violent history was abruptly ended when a brother stated “I pray for him often. He’s a poor, lost soul, and obviously needs prayer.” I had only been concerned for my safety. Yes, time and again I am reminded of how important Dominic’s simple prayer is: What will become of sinners?
It can be said that this question drives our ministry and way of life. Our preaching and witness, our stated reason for existing, is for the salvation of souls. Of course, it’s a work not our own—salvation is up to Christ—yet how beautiful and significant that Christ invites us into this work in such a special way. Our study, our witness of life, and our preaching are not complete if they are not concerned with the salvation of others. If all we have to offer is a safe space and a good-enough liturgy for those who show up week after week, then perhaps it’s time to re- evaluate. If our communal life is nothing more than the guarantee of good food, premium cable, and the freedom from worry about how the credit card bill will get paid—with no bearing on anyone outside of the community—then perhaps we’re missing something. If we are quick to dismiss those who seem lost in strange theological ideas or find themselves at odds with church teachings, then we fall short of our mission. Imagine if Dominic had seen the innkeeper as a hopeless, lost cause. Imagine if Dominic and Diego, after observing the state of the church beyond the confines of the cathedral at Osma, decided to return to their home and bunker down. Where would we be today?
We live in a society which has little time for sinners, a society deeply in need of compassion. So-called “cancel culture” and its mob of adherents have decided that nothing can be forgiven, that nobody can be redeemed. It’s the mentality which stops at nothing to dig up past sins and display them in full view, quickly proclaiming that the culprit has no place in society without even asking whether this person has changed, grown, or learned from past failures and mistakes. Such a mentality seems to have crept into every facet of society. Only the perfect are safe and deemed suitable for visible life in society; the rest must be cast out. Of course, the problem with such a mentality is that nobody is perfect. Each of us has a past, which includes things of which we are not proud. Every human adult has at some point done something which he or she deeply regrets. Call it an effect of the fall, the consequences of the sinful state in which we find ourselves. It’s only a matter of time before these regrets are discovered, published, and become the reason for one’s downfall—especially in this digital age in which personal histories are publicly curated through social media.
The problem, of course, is that this approach leaves no room for redemption. Cancel culture has no time for past regret, growth, and change. What will become of sinners? Who cares; they have no place here. Just cut all my ties before I get associated with them.
What would Dominic have to say about our time? Would he be found weeping for those whom society has cast out? Would his tears move him to action in caring for these souls—still children of God, despite being lost? Would Dominic weep over the thousands who have left faith behind? Would he weep for those lost in lifestyles which damage the soul? Might Dominic weep for the most notorious and abject sinners of our day—Harvey Weinstein, Amber Guyger, or Theodore McCarrick? Dare I ask—would Dominic’s tears for George Floyd be mingled with tears for Derek Chauvin? It sounds crazy, but so do the words spoken by our Lord from the cross concerning his accusers: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Such compassion does not overlook nor disregard justice, a sense of moral absolute, or objective truth. Dominic’s tears led him to work for the conversion of sinners. It was not enough to just ask the question and hope that sinners would be pardoned. He didn’t simply acknowledge the agreeable parts of Albigensian theology and pretend like the rest didn’t matter; he did what he could to bring sinners whom he encountered to new life. He accompanied them through conversion and into relationship with Christ.
Our compassion may not reach the heroic level of our founder’s. We may never find ourselves weeping over the most abject of sinners. However, Dominic’s mission, that of preaching and the salvation of souls, remains our own. It’s a message this world so badly needs to hear today: there is hope for the sinner, through the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. If we are to convincingly proclaim this truth, we must first join our holy father Dominic, there before the cross, intensely feeling great compassion as we pray: What will become of sinners?