How Does a Dominican Chapter Work?

Since the earliest days of St. Dominic, the Order of Preachers has been a fiercely democratic institution, embodying the principles of collegiality, subsidiarity, representation and accountability. Thus, the Order values the wisdom, experience and ideas of a wide spectrum of friars in providing for the good of our mission: preaching the truth.

The Order of Preachers is organized around the world into provinces. In the U.S., there are four provinces: East, West, Central and Southern. Each has their own set of leaders and governance.

One of the most important democratic moments in the life of a Dominican province is called the Chapter. Held once every four years, a Chapter is a gathering of friars elected from around the province to represent the needs of their local church, debate changes to the province’s legislation, address important issues of the day and elect friars to key leadership positions, including the leader of the entire province, the Prior Provincial.

Today, we’d like to share with you a behind-the-scenes look at this process, and why a Chapter is so important to the life of a Dominican.

A Chapter first begins with the election of representatives from around the Province. Some are appointed by virtue of their other elected positions, such as priors of priories, and others are elected from the pool of the available friars from their region.

The elected delegates arrive at the Chapter and enter into a spiritual retreat to discern God’s will and seek His grace.

Next, a Mass of the Holy Spirit is celebrated, and the Holy Spirit is invoked for wisdom and guidance throughout the Chapter.

Following, the Chapter reports begin. This is where key leaders and staff from the current administration give reports on the status of their work or major projects since the last chapter.

Next, all the delegates of the Chapter caucus to elect the next Provincial. Another Mass of the Holy Spirit is celebrated and then the rounds of balloting begin. A provincial must be elected with an absolute majority. In other words, votes for him must equal more than 50% of all votes cast.

Once the Prior Provincial is elected, the friars sing the Te Deum, an early Christian hymn of praise. Also, in the Western Province, a large bell is rung in the cloister garden of the house of studies, St. Albert the Great Priory. This is like the white smoke billowing from the Sistine Chapel when a new Pope has been elected. It’s a time of celebration and fraternity for the friars.

Technically, the newly-elected Provincial is not officially provincial until his election is confirmed by the Master of the Order in Rome. In the early days of the Province, this would have been done by letter correspondence, taking weeks or months to hear back. Later, it was done by telegraph, then fax, and now, a simple email. If the Master of the Order approves the election, the Chapter continues with its business. If he is not approved, called cassation, balloting begins again.

Once the new provincial is confirmed, the Diffinitorium is elected. The members of this body are called Diffinitors, and, along with the new provincial, form the core of the new Provincial Council, which are those leaders who represent the province and help advise the provincial on important matters throughout his term.

After the Diffinitors are elected, the friars of the Chapter break into four different commissions, with each commission representing a core aspect of Dominican life. These commissions are titled Economic, Governance, Religious Formation and Following of Christ. The friars then debate how healthy the province is in each of these four areas, review any related petitions from friars around the province, and recommend changes or updates to the Acta, which is the law of the province. This is where the heavy legislative work occurs.

As the commissions are meeting, the Diffinitors are also selecting friars for key leadership positions around the province, such as Novice Master, Master of Students, Vocations Director and the various promoter positions, which are essentially advocates for key elements of Dominican ministry and life.

Lastly, the entire Chapter meets together again, reviews the proposed changes to the Acta submitted by the various commissions, and votes to accept, modify or reject the proposed changes. When this process is over, the Chapter is complete, and everyone returns to their ministries for some much-deserved rest.

This basic process is how it has been for over 800 years: Dominicans managing their affairs through an orderly process of representative governance. It is what St. Dominic himself envisioned for the Order, and what has given the friars their strong sense of accountability, transparency and fraternity through the centuries. Through this process, the Holy Spirit has guided the Order of Preachers and kept them true to their mission: to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the salvation of souls.

Source: some elements of this text were taken from "The Dominicans ~ A Short History" by William Hinnebusch, O.P.