Another Option: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I’ve been reading an interesting book by Caroline Bruzelius. Published by Yale University Press, it is entitled ‘Preaching, Building, and Burying. Friars in the Medieval City’. In the main, the book is an architectural monograph that examines the churches built by Franciscans and Dominicans in the thirteenth century. Unlike the Benedictines whose convents and monasteries provided a retreat from secular society, the Franciscans and Dominicans had a different mission as they were mendicant preaching orders. Their task was not to retreat from society, but to engage society through their manner of life and their preaching. While both of these orders espoused the virtues of a life of poverty, the Franciscans preached the evangelical counsels of simplicity, while the Dominicans saw their task as converting heretics and returning them to the church.
Initially, both groups tended to be based in sparsely populated rural areas from which they would make preaching forays into cities and then return to the countryside. By the 1230s, however, both orders began a concerted effort to establish themselves in the very heart of medieval cities, most of which, by this time, had experienced a rapid rise in their populations. Moreover, the Franciscans and Dominicans had themselves experienced a dramatic increase in the number of men and women who joined their orders. This growth constituted what some have called the “evangelical revival” of the thirteenth century. Partially owing to this growth, in cities and towns throughout France and the Italian peninsula, Franciscan and Dominican communities became an integral part of the urban landscape.
Now, most larger cities had a cathedral precinct within which lived the bishop and those who serve the cathedral itself. Often this was a community of Benedictines who, owing to their rule, tended to be cut off from the activities of the urban setting. Scattered throughout such an urban landscape, were numerous small parish churches where a priest sought to serve the population that was in close proximity. When the Franciscan and Dominican friars arrived in such towns and cities, they found that they addressed a pressing need in the religious life of the community. Bruzelius makes the following observation:
“As members of the clergy, friars, however, were in between social, religious, and spatial systems. They engaged with the public, but lived in a community according to a rule. They proposed a new role for the clergy and reshaped the concept of the place of religion in the lives of the public and in the city… They also visited lay people in their homes, an activity that spurred great hostility on the part of their clerical critics. By engaging with the public in their secular spaces, both public and private, friars offered city people a new and more intimate connection to the sacred and a new form of access to salvation. They not infrequently presented a more educated and thoughtful approach to reconciling the complexities of modern life with spiritual salvation, entering into a different kind of relationship with lay people in homes and with families.”
When establishing such communities, the friars remembered that they were to be “the poor walking among the poor” and therefore gravitated toward the less desirable, and often dangerous, section or quarter of the city. The friars were especially known for their care of the sick and dying, often establishing a hospital within the precincts of their community, and a cemetery to care for the dead.
This is not the Benedict Option of withdrawal. This is another option… one of engagement. It is an engagement of preaching and of education. It is an engagement of personal and pastoral care. It is an engagement of faith in the public square that is expressed not merely in words but in sustained and visible actions for the good of all. It is an engagement with the whole of life, and, ultimately, with death.
If I am going to look to the past for inspiration, it seems to me that our time calls for engagement, that is, if we are willing…