Preaching was very important to Jesus. In today’s Gospel (Mark 1:29-39), Jesus announces: “Let us move to the neighboring villages so that I may proclaim the good news there also. That is what I have come to do” (Mk 1:38).
Jesus’ words are echoed by Paul in today’s second reading (1 Cor 9:16-19, 22-23): “Preaching the Gospel is not the subject of a boast; I am under compulsion and have no choice. I am ruined if I do not preach it!” (1 Cor 9:16).
If, as Pope John Paul II declares, the religious or consecrated life is “a closer imitation and an abiding re-enactment … of the way of life which Jesus, the supreme Consecrated One and missionary of the Father … embraced and proposed to his disciples,” then some religious should imitate Christ the preacher.
Actually, this idea came slowly in the Church. For many centuries, almost all religious were monks or nuns, who remained in their monasteries, although some consecrated people took care of the sick and helped the poor. There were also canons, priests who lived in communities and engaged in pastoral work. Yet, the basic form of religious life was monastic. No order was committed to the active ministry of preaching.
For centuries the importance of preaching was overlooked. In the beginning of the 13th century, priests did not usually preach at Mass. Some lay fraternities, inspired by charismatic persons, tried to imitate the apostles by living poorly and preaching in public places. These groups often found themselves in conflicts with the bishops
Pope Innocent III saw promise in the possibility of itinerant preachers. In 1209, he gave his approval to the fraternity that had gathered around St Francis. Their desire was to follow the Gospel, which they preached in simple ways.
In 1216, Pope Innocent’s successor, Pope Honorius III, approved St. Dominic’s group of priests, who were itinerant preachers, even granting them the name that Dominic sought, “Order of Preachers.” The Franciscans and the Dominicans were distinguished from other religious by the humbler name of “friars,” that is, “brothers.”
Not everyone welcomed the idea of religious engaging in such active ministry. Some were convinced that contemplation should be the main preoccupation of religious. Others believed that public ministries should be entrusted to priests of a diocese.
Some honestly could not understand such a form of religious life. Boncompagno of Siena, a professor of rhetoric in Bologna, thought that the friars were trying to plough with an ox and an ass (cf. Deut 22:10) because their way of life seemed to be a combination of the lives of the monks and the canons. He granted, however: “They live on earth like the apostles, because by word of their preaching they build up many people for salvation, especially as they preach nothing which they did not try to put into practice themselves.”
Fortunately, the friars had two powerful defenders of preaching/teaching religious: the Franciscan St. Bonaventure and the Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas.
Thomas starts with the very purpose of religious life: “The religious state is a training school wherein one aims by practice at the perfection of charity” (2a2ae. 188, 1). By “charity,” Thomas means the love of God and the love of neighbor.
Thomas explains there is no inherent difficulty with religious being apostolic and mobile:
Although religious who are occupied with the works of the active life are in the world as to the presence of the body, they are not in the world as regards the bent of their mind, because they are occupied with external things, not as seeking anything of the world, but merely for the sake of serving God … Hence, ‘Religion clean and undefiled … is to visit the fatherless and widows in the troubles … and to keep one’s self unspotted from this world’ (James 1:27), namely to avoid being attached to worldly things (2a2ae. 188, 2, ad 3).
Thomas concludes: “It is fitting for a religious order to be established for the works of the active life, in so far as they are directed to the good of our neighbor, the service of God and divine worship” (2a2ae. 188, 4).
According to Thomas, even religious in active ministry are grounded in contemplation: “Since religious occupy themselves with the works of the active life for God’s sake, it follows that their action results from the contemplation of divine things. Hence they are not entirely deprived of the fruit of the contemplative life” (2a2ae. 188, 2).
For Thomas, preaching and teaching are important works of charity: “The good of our neighbor is advanced by things pertaining to the welfare of the soul rather than by things pertaining to supplying bodily needs … Spiritual works of mercy surpass corporal works of mercy” (2a2ae. 188, 4).
Thomas appeals to Gregory the Great “No sacrifice is more acceptable to God than zeal for souls” (Homily 12, On Ezekiel).
Thomas notes that there already existed religious congregations that had been founded to act as soldiers to protect the shrines and pilgrims in the holy land: “It is a greater thing to employ spiritual alms in defending the faithful against the errors of the heretics and temptations of the devil than to protect the faithful by means of bodily weapons. Therefore it is most fitting for a religious order to be established for preaching and similar works pertaining to the salvation of souls” (2a2ae. 188, 4, ad 4).
Thomas realizes that some of the objections concerned whether religious who were often outside of their monastery might lose their spiritual focus.
Yet, Jesus Himself, who continually journeyed and preached, also maintained His relationship with His Father, as we see in today’s Gospel: “Rising early the next morning, He went off to a lonely place in the desert; there He was absorbed in prayer” (Mk 1:35).
Thomas insists that an active religious order which engages in preaching and teaching must “proceed from the fullness of contemplation” (2a2ae. 188, 6). In other words, a preacher and a teacher must also be a contemplative.
In fact, Thomas insists: “A religious order established for the purpose of contemplating and of giving to others the fruits of one’s contemplation by teaching and preaching requires greater care of spiritual things than one that is established for contemplation only” (2a2ae. 188, 7).
As much as Thomas admires the contemplative vocation, he insists on the special nature of the religious life that combines contemplation and preaching/teaching: “This work is more excellent than simple contemplation. For even as it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so it is better to give to others the fruits of one’s contemplation” (2a2ae. 188, 6).
Since this discussion took place about 750 years and concerned the vocation of preaching and teaching among religious, it may seem to have only a theoretical interest to the vast majority of Christians who are not religious
In fact, the Second Vatican council asserts: “Every lay person, through the gifts given to him or her, is at once the witness and the living instrument of the mission of the Church … All the laity have the exalted duty of working for the ever greater spread of the divine plan of salvation to all people, of every age and all over the earth” (Lumen Gentium, 33).
The Council insists that the mission of the faithful is not just auxiliary: “The laity become powerful heralds … This evangelization, that is, the proclamation of Christ by word and the testimony of life, acquires a specific property and peculiar efficacy because it is accomplished in the ordinary circumstances of the world … Even when occupied by temporal affairs, the laity can, and must do valuable work for the evangelization of the world” (Lumen Gentium, 34).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to the Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa, in this case, the second part of the second part. This is followed by the question, which in this case is question 188, and then the article within the question. When the reference includes the Latin “ad,” it means that the reference is from Thomas’ response to the objections that he poses in the beginning of the article.
 John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, 21.
 Vladimir J. Koudelka, O.P., Dominic, trans. Consuelo Fissler, O.P. and Simon Tugwell, O.P. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1997), 45.