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Encyclical Letter, Gillet 1933

Encyclical Letter
of the Most Rev. Fr. M. S. GILLET
79th Master General of the Order of St. Dominic
to the Secular Tertiaries

[ 7 March 1933 ]


To Our dear sons and daughters in Christ, the brothers and sisters of the Secular Third Order of Saint Dominic, greeting and increase in the spirit of their Holy Vocation.

Saint Dominic, divinely inspired, chose to establish his convents in towns. He did not intend his houses to be merely centres of religious life and prayer, similar to the monasteries that had preceded them, beacon-lights of holiness as it were, for reminding Christians that perfection is the ideal towards which all must aspire. He meant his convents to be like military strongholds too, whence soldiers of the Faith should issue forth to make a peaceful conquest of the world. The ideal of Saint Dominic, as it is expressed in the Third Order, aims at infusing into the very stuff of the world the leaven of that perfection which alone can render souls pleasing to God.

History of the Third Order

There were numerous groups of penitents in the Middle Ages who sought to attain in themselves and to develop in those who joined them, the evangelical perfection counselled by the Gospel. The Dominican Order was hardly initiated when a great number of these penitents discovered in Saint Dominic’s Foundation a familiar atmosphere and a definite programme of life that was safeguarded from all personal illusions and, moreover, protected by the Church. Such aspirants to perfection hastened then, like children of one family, to place themselves under the doctrinal and spiritual influence of the sons of Saint Dominic. So it was through the natural course of events that many souls, while remaining in the world, attached themselves by their own free choice to our first convents. These Brothers and Sisters in the world soon became so numerous that the need of giving them a Rule became imperative. A Rule had to be framed before they could be placed officially under the direction of the Church and of the Order, so as to adapt to their circumstances such regulations as are essential for any form of religious life, and so as to consecrate canonically the bonds that attached them to the entire Order. This was the task confronting the Master General Munio di Zamora, who was the successor of John of Vercelli. Shortly after he had been raised to the Generalship, that is on the 12th May 1285, he published the document consecrating the Dominican Third Order.

No one has ever defined the spirit of the Third Order better than Munio di Zamora: it is not a devotion, but a religion. “Because the Tertiary,” he said, “is the special son in Our Lord of Saint Dominic, he must strive before everything else, in the measure of his power, to be a zealous propagator of the Catholic Faith.” By entering into the Third Order, he insists, one enters into religion. It is a third way, but a real way, of belonging to the Order founded by Saint Dominic; when one receives a call into the Third Order, one spiritually abandons the world. Since therefore he is a religious who lives in the world, the Tertiary has a Rule that he must observe, superiors whom he must obey, and the vocation of an apostle to which he must respond in all his actions. The Statutes of 1285, which canonically established the existence, the nature, and the mode of life of the Third Order, were approved the following year by Pope Honorius IV in a Bull of the 28th January 1286. From that time onwards, the secular Third Order became ever more numerous and more flourishing. Religious who were famous for sanctity, such as Blessed Raymond of Capua, devoted themselves to its diffusion and development. The Fraternity at Siena, for instance, which counted among its members Saint Catherine, Patron of the Third Order, became an ardent centre of spiritual life. One understands therefore why, on the 18th January 1401, Pope Boniface IX gave to the Third Order new and solemn approbation, and why on the 23rd April 1923, Pope Pius XI again gave it a Rule more suitable for our times.

It is from examples such as these, and by having recourse to a living, strong and austere tradition, that Tertiaries may become increasingly conscious of the grandeur of their vocation.

Spirit of the Third Order

In the light of its history, it is dear that the Third Order is a branch of that great tree known as the Order of Friars Preachers. The Third Order is an integral part of that tree and the sap sustaining it is that which vivifies the Order too. The spirit of the Third Order is an apostolic spirit and the Tertiary does not fully understand his mission, unless he practises the apostolate to the fullest extent of his power; and frequently his own power in this direction will surpass anything that he would have believed possible when he began the work.

One can comprehend therefore what a gross error it would be to regard the Third Order as a simple confraternity, which one joins for the purpose of pious exercises or works of charity, perhaps to obtain spiritual favours, particularly indulgences, or to assist in the spreading of public devotions; of course all that is found in the Third Order too, but there is more in it than that. Notice, however, that although it stands apart from all kindred societies, the Third Order, by the Code of Canon Law, is to be clearly distinguished from religious Orders according to the exact definition of that term. What then precisely is the Third Order? It is a state of life in which seculars — whether they be priests or laymen — strive through vocation and until death, but without leaving the world, to attain to Christian perfection in their whole life and in all their actions, “according to the spirit and under the direction of the Order of Saint Dominic,” as Chapter I of the Rule expresses it.

Tertiaries then are the true collaborators of the Friars-Preachers. Assuredly, they already know this well; throughout the whole world and especially wherever they can group themselves around a convent of friars or of nuns, Tertiaries offer themselves in our service with a zeal and a generosity that frequently astounds us and that always evokes our heartfelt gratitude. And yet this genuine, deep and devoted love that they feel for the Order does not really find expression unless Tertiaries unite together and gather along with themselves around the Fathers, souls of good will who shall receive through their means a stronger and a more abundant spiritual life. The perfection that they draw from Dominican sources should be handed on by them in their turn; that is the point: if Tertiaries are to learn, to receive benefits, and to acquire ardour in the Dominican household, it is in order that when the moment comes or the occasion presents itself, they may communicate to others the superabundance of their own supernatural life.

The Holy See was never so anxious as in the present hour to develop in all her children, that is, in those who are baptized and confirmed in the Faith, a more enlightened conscience regarding their duties to Holy Church, so as to spur them to Catholic Action and to remind them of their duty to practice fraternal charity, in obedience to the hierarchy and in submission to both its decisions and its discipline. This is the hour then when Tertiaries especially should perfectly fulfil this duty under the direction of the Order and in accordance with its spirit; in all places where they are grouped, they should make use of such connections as nature and circumstances offer to show themselves “true lights of the world,” exemplars, helpers of the Lord, in a word — Apostles.

The Apostolate of the Third Order

In the Family

It is in the family circle in the first place that the Tertiary must be especially faithful to his vocation, whether he be in a position of authority or of subjection, whether his function be to teach or to learn; he has before him the Master’s example, not to be served, but to serve. If the family is a truly united one, as every Christian family should be, what good can not the Tertiary achieve in it! Without imposing his authority, while respecting — as he is bound to respect — that freedom which is every individual soul’s prerogative, he is in a position to reveal the life of the Order, to help others with discretion to consolidate their faith and piety on the same solid basis which he thanks God has been given to himself. He can do all this unobtrusively even in the course of conversation, or through reading a few pages of a book which he will then interest his hearers to finish for themselves, or in bringing about a meeting with one of the Fathers; how many painful crises would not the father or mother of a family avoid, or considerably ease, through such means! They would help the light to shine in minds confused by the clouded wine of youth, or by the sophisms of the world; they would assist the souls of those dear to them to blossom radiantly in that broad and joyous spirit of the Dominican religion; and they would lead to the apostolate hearts that ask only how they may dedicate themselves.

Who has not seen, however, how individualism brings about disruption even between husband and wife, between parents and children, among whom, if Christian laws were truly respected and obeyed, there should be but one heart and one soul? Even where there appears to be no misunderstanding, where in the eyes of the world, the family seems to be united, is there not oftentimes a mere living together rather than true union, an agreement about material rather than spiritual interests, a mere pretence of unity before strangers and the curious, rather than true concord? How many parents complain that they are neither respected nor understood by their children, and how many children complain that they are neither understood, nor encouraged, nor comforted by the warm affection they need and which it seems to them quite natural they should demand, before all else, in the bosom of their family? Whether it be a father, a mother, or a child, the good Tertiary neglects no family duties, under the fallacious pretext of fulfilling those of the Third Order; on the contrary the Tertiary knows the best means of being faithful to these latter duties is to fulfil perfectly all family duties, in self-forgetfulness and self-sacrifice.

By that true spirit of abnegation acquired through union with the Order, by that humble self-forgetfulness which yet does not involve sacrificing one’s authority, dignity, or duty, in what an admirable position is the Tertiary, to be a promoter of union, harmony, and serene happiness.

In the Parish

If Christian brotherhood be not an idle term, if it be reality and not mere metaphor that the sons of God are brethren, it is clear that our remarks on the Tertiary’s position in his family apply also to the role he must fill in his parish. The place held by the family in the social framework is similar to that which the parish holds in the City of God.

We must exclude from consideration here certain class of Tertiaries who say they want to know nothing that is outside their Order; who, in their words or in their attitude complain or insist that they can enjoy nothing that is outside it. These, by such indiscreet behaviour, merely discredit the Order as much as they discredit themselves. They prove, moreover, by thus shutting themselves away in one little chapel, as it were, that they completely misunderstand the spirit of the Order, and theirs is even a form of infidelity to the Rule. But speaking of Tertiaries not prone to such error, do even these grasp all that is expected of them? They are an elite, they know it; but one cannot be and remain an elite without acting upon it. “Can the Faith that is inactive be called a sincere Faith?” A Tertiary is an adjutor Dei and he is not following out his vocation unless he is as much a help to his parish priest as he is to the Order. To be a Tertiary is to hold a certain grade in the rank of Christian service: in this his duties are not lessened: on the contrary, they are increased, and it is among our Tertiaries that parish priests should find their best parishioners. What does it matter even if it is always the same persons who do everything!

Admittedly in large cities, where through force of circumstances our Tertiaries are the most numerous, neither the extent of the parish, nor the number of its members is usually favourable to the development of this so desirable family spirit. If the parish priest strives to become acquainted with all the members of his flock, the latter have not always the same measure of goodwill to make themselves known to him. All the more reason then why the Tertiary should go to the help of his parish priest, if only in order to become a kind of recruiting agent. There are certain individuals in every parish who require very little encouragement, or merely an introduction to the clergy, to be induced to take an interest in the life and work of their parish, attend the meetings of parishioners, and assist to make plans for its progress. Every Tertiary is acquainted with such persons, and sufficiently intimately too to approach them without imprudence. But would this suffice? No; because it is not sufficient to secure a large attendance at such meetings; one must endeavour to make them attractive too. There is a deeply-rooted tendency in the nature of men, even when Christians, to go to sleep, just as the Apostles did in Gethsemane; but when Jesus suffers and is in Agony — and He will continue so to suffer until the end of the world — it is not the hour for sleeping. The Tertiary moreover will not be satisfied merely to keep awake, he will keep others awake too, and he will be a real “pillar” of his parish. His activity, by radiating out in every direction, will prevent good works from having a mere documentary existence.

It is every Tertiary’s duty to find the necessary time for such service to his parish. Those who have no alms to give away are recommended by the Apostle to work until they earn sufficient to enable them to give alms; but in our day when, as everyone knows, time has become money, one can either earn a little money to give away, or one can spare a little time for one’s neighbour’s interest. Very often, it would suffice to take the alms of time from some occupation that could be dispensed with, and experience shows that it is by no means the busiest people who have the least time to spare.

Tertiaries should likewise consider to which good works they must give preference. Unless there be some charity that, through likelihood of perishing, imperiously demands their help, they should reserve their best efforts for such activity as the apostolate has for its direct aim, whether this be teaching the catechism to children or adults, to a large group, or to one special catechumen: “One soul is in itself a great audience,” declared Father Lacordaire. There are lectures of all kinds too, study groups, and research work, whether specifically Catholic or of general interest, all of which work aims at attracting indifferent Catholics, to whom, when thus drawn, a more directly apostolic word can be spoken. And these indifferent Catholics are encountered at the present day not only among men, but among women too.

Tertiaries, in order to excuse abstention from such work, must not seize upon the pretext that they are insufficiently instructed in the truths of their religion, or that they are not capable of expounding such truths. They should master the content of their Faith and strive to give a reasonable account of it.

In a more modest or a more self-effacing role, however, Tertiaries can also render great and most valuable service. Every work of charity requires organizing and administrating; it needs obscure but devoted helpers who see to it that all is well ordered and prepared, whether in the work itself, or in keeping it united with similar works in other parishes; this usually involves a good deal of secretarial work and correspondence, which can be done at home or at the headquarters of the charity, which one can do personally or confide to others, whether members of the family or employees. The field is vast: there is room in it for all labourers, for those who sow and for those who reap; there is work for the labourers of the eleventh hour as well as for those who got up betimes and enlisted in the early morning.

In Social Life

However important be the place held by the parish in the organization of the Church, the parish alone does not exhaust the possibilities of the apostolate. The whole world — that eternal sick man — lies before us, appealing for our help; the world needs us and since it is wholly sunk in iniquity, as Our Lord teaches, we must bear in mind that the Saviour came to seek sinners rather than the just. We who possess truth and charity, who are certain that we possess them, have the duty to promote these virtues everywhere they should be practised, that is, throughout the whole world: in public, social, economic, and in international life. It is to attain this end that the Holy See is now engaged in organizing Catholic Action, to which every religious association is the proper auxiliary, as is shown in a letter from the Secretary of State, dated the 30th March 1931. If the social fabric, constituted as it is, threatens now to crumble, the reason is because Jesus Christ was not taken for the corner stone when it was being built, or because He has been rejected. There is need to go over the foundation-work and restore to the Master that place which is His due, in the sphere of action as well as in the sphere of thought.

In Action

The obvious duty of Tertiaries in the sphere of action is to support Catholic works of general interest, renew them tirelessly by adapting them to the changing conditions of life, perfect them so as to make of them models for enterprises of similar kind, and establish further new groups. During the last few years, many Catholic associations have been founded for the various professions: but there are still countries where there are none of these associations, and even in such countries where this movement is active, there are still professions, as well as employees and workers of both sexes and of all kinds, remaining quite unorganized. It should not be a case of being dragged behind such a movement, nor of being passed out by it; one should keep well ahead. But understand this: enmity is not desirable between Catholic Action groups, nor even rivalry, but only a sincere and loyal spirit of emulation.

This emulation should be fostered on the enemy’s very ground. There are certain institutions neutral by nature or by force of circumstances: for instance, associations for fostering science, or art, or national propaganda, or international co-operation. There are other institutions neutral by the will of men, and in the organization of these we are not in a position to import any change, or at least not rapid change. Certain posts or offices in such institutions are obtainable by competition, or are entrusted to reliable members. Who has not witnessed how the spirit of certain institutions can be changed according to whether unbelievers, those who are indifferent to religion, or believers solidly grounded in the Faith, form their membership? And this is very important in the case of institutions whose members visit the sick, care for prisoners, hold chairs in universities, or occupy different ranb in the teaching profession. Women’s place is marked here too, as well as that of men. There is of course a danger: there is danger in giving life and strength to organizations capable of turning against all that we hold most dear. But the safeguard is very easily found: it consists in being true and faithful Christians, or Tertiaries one hundred per cent!

In Thought

Although it may perhaps be more difficult to render service here, the sphere of thought is just as vitally important as the sphere of action.

When Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, drew up a list of all the virtues; and when, in his other works, he treated the same subject, either as a whole or in answering some particular objection, mark how he never evolved mere theories. While laying down principals and drawing conclusions that hold good for all time, as for all nations on earth, he is not pursuing an abstract ideal, but he writes in concrete terms, having before his eyes the social and political organization of his epoch. It was the same in philosophy — he had no other physical data to work from save what was furnished by the science of his contemporaries. Yet how many prodigious modern discoveries — there are at least as many in the speculative as in the practical field — invalidate in nowise either the principles or the primary conclusions of his philosophy. The same holds good with the changes — we should rather say, the upheavals — that have taken place in political relationships, in economics, and in social and international questions; these do not shake in the very least the principles of morality. One has but to carry on the enquiry to a point where it has not yet been carried, or where it has not been exhaustively pursued.

Let us make no accusations; charges of such kind risk being false as they are vain. We remark only, and not indeed without sadness, that on a certain number of important questions, many Catholics, both men and women, whose spirit is deeply Christian, seem to reason with an understanding that is far less Christian, and they even go to the length of defending as true and lawful certain opinions that are nothing of the kind, from the point of view of sound doctrine. On this score, there is an immense work to be accomplished, so great that it seems beyond the power of man, even of a genius who could rank with Saint Thomas. To carry out such a work, one should first, for the sake of truth and of the general good, establish a more frequent contact and a more intimate relationship between Christian philosophers and theologians on the one hand, and on the other hand, scholars, economists, lawyers, industrial leaders, merchants, men in public life, and diplomats. Are there not among our Tertiaries any whom such an enterprise could tempt? Are there not any who understand the nature of this difficult duty to help in thus bringing about the peace of Christ? Like all peace, it means the tranquility of order. God has left the world to the contradictions of men; let us strive to bring their contentions to an end, rather than fall asleep over the difficulties, as men are prone to sleep in the hope of Heaven knows what human miracle intervening. But let no Tertiary attempt such a work without going back to true first principles, or without a sincere spirit of intellectual charity; I mean that spirit which sacrifices none of those rights one is bound to defend, but which endeavours all the same to seize upon that kernel of truth nearly always found in the opposing opinion, to disentangle that truth from the meshes of error and permit it to expand.

Father Lacordaire said one day to his congregation at Notre Dame in Paris that he would like to make them drink to the dregs the chalice of his glory. We cannot, in this letter make you drink of all the Order’s glory. May those among you who know our history refer to it: may the others among you learn it, so that you may all become enflamed with a spirit of holy emulation, and resolve to accomplish in our times what your predecessors achieved in their own day. Is it that our times are more difficult, our enemies more numerous, the horizon darker? What do we know about that? Even if it should be true, what does it signify: that we shall have to suffer more? Remember that being compelled to suffer was for Saint Dominic a source of joy, because he believed this condition to be a certain pledge of victory over the enemies of God.

In this hour when the appeals which the Church addresses to all her children become daily more urgent, it is the imperious duty of our office, one which moreover we joyfully fulfil, to enlist your services in an apostolate that cannot fail to be fruitful. “Every man,” wrote Father Lacordaire, in his “Life of Saint Dominic,” “is the vicar of Jesus Christ, and he has to work, in self-sacrifice for the redemption of humanity.” It is therefore the strict duty of our Tertiaries of Penance, in the so tragic circumstances of the present day, without neglecting any of their usual penances to which we can only exhort them to remain faithful, to redouble their efforts in offering themselves sacrificiaily in the service of God and of their neighbor.

Interesting Enterprises

We are happy to be informed that, in addition to the enclosed retreats made by Tertiaries belonging to the different Fraternities, in several of our Provinces certain days have been set aside for meeting where they can exchange their views, study questions of interest to the Third Order, and for which they return to their homes, comforted by such intercourse, edified by the enterprise of their Brothers or Sisters, and resolved to follow their example.

In certain districts, periodical meetings have been planned for the benefit of Tertiaries who, in accordance with Chapter I, Number 4, of the Rule, have, for a legitimate reason not joined a Fraternity. Thanks to these meetings, several of such Tertiaries, believing the reason that kept them from joining a Fraternity had ceased to hold good, made arrangements for their reception. Since one of the most pressing of these reasons for abstention was the necessity for certain Tertiaries to devote themselves during the week to the duties of their profession, Sunday meetings have been in many places arranged for their convenience.

Summons to a Congress

It seemed to us that the moment has come to make still more strenuous efforts. At present, while the Seventh Centenary of the death of our Holy Patriarch is being celebrated at Bologna, a National Congress of the Third Order is being held. Next year will be the Seventh Centenary of Saint Dominic’s canonization; We envoke therefore at Rome a General Congress of the Third Order. The Bull Pons sapientiae, given at Rieti by Pope Gregory XI, is dated the 5th of the Nones of July, that is July 3rd; but this season of the year is hardly the favourable one for bringing to Rome people not accustomed to its climate. We should like, moreover, to offer our Brothers and Sisters an opportunity to come here during the course of Holy Year, which terminates next Easter Monday, April 2nd. We therefore call them to Congress from Thursday, 8th February 1934, to the 11th following, which is Quinquagesima Sunday.

Nomination of a General Promoter

In Order to organize this Congress efficiently and to ensure its success, We order all our Provincial Promoters to send us the annual report prescribed by No. 798 of the Constitutions, regarding the position and the progress of the Third Order. Let them be sent then immediately to our General Promoter, Very Reverend Thomas E. Garde, with such suggestions as may seem good for the successful organization of the Congress.

This letter will be communicated directly to the Fraternities and published in our Provincial Magazines, so as to come to the knowledge of every individual Tertiary. Priors and Directors are to take immediate steps to promote and to secure full participation in the Congress; they shall receive, in good time, all necessary information from the General Promoter, as well as any information which they may think it necessary to ask from him.

We bless you from a most paternal heart, and We recommend Ourself and Our Assistants to your fervent prayers.

Rome, in the House of the General, 7th March 1933.

Fr. Martin S. Gillet, O.P.
Master General.

Written by Jan Frederik

23.11.2016 kl. 21:19

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