PROVIDENCE — It might not seem noteworthy at first to suggest that Providence College has been producing a lot of Friars lately — the school has been graduating them by the classful ever since settling on a mascot in 1929. Within the past several years, however, an increasing rate of PC graduates have gone on to seek that title in earnest by pursuing a vocation with the Dominican Order.
“During the five years I was in Providence, we had at least one student enter the novitiate at the end of each year,” recounts Father Michael Weibley, O.P.
Transferred in January to serve as the pastor of SS. Phillip and James Parish in Baltimore, Father Weibley’s first assignment after ordination was as a chaplain and professor at Providence College.
“An average of a novice a year like that is a tremendous blessing for the Order,” he told Rhode Island Catholic.
This positive trend has emerged in a climate which finds the rest of the Church trying to reverse declining rates of new vocations. While most Catholics are already quite familiar with the problematic shortage of diocesan priests, religious institutes have been experiencing an even greater decline: in the past 60 years, the total number of active religious priests in the United States has been reduced by more than half.
In an audience held in March of this year, Pope Francis encouraged the general chapter of the Augustinian Recollects “not to be afraid to ask yourselves the question: when there are no more Recollects, have we prepared the laity to continue our pastoral work within the Church?”
In contrast to these challenges and dire predictions, the Dominican Province of St. Joseph (which comprises the Northeastern corner of the United States) has been reporting steadily increasing vocations over the course of the past 20 years, with many of the new recruits being drawn directly from Providence.
The most recent PC alumnus to complete his journey to ordination is Father Damian Day, who was the valedictorian of the Class of 2015. A native of Rehoboth, Massachusetts, Father Day was ordained on May 21 at Washington D.C.’s Basilica of the Immaculate Conception; he is currently completing his Licentiate in Sacred Theology. He says that his first encounter with the Dominicans came during his undergraduate career.
“I was attracted both by their preaching and by their joy,” Father Day recounts. “At Providence College, I discovered the joy of knowing Christ through investigating the truth with my teachers and forming deep friendships.”
The pursuit of truth and a life spent in community have long been hallmarks of Dominican spirituality, tracing back to the foundation of the Order.
“For many of us, it was the character of St. Dominic himself that attracted us to his Order of Preachers,” recounts Trevor Wakefield, who graduated from PC in 2021 and began his Dominican novitiate in the same year.
“Father Weibley recommended a biography of Dominic to me, and I was instantly inspired by him,” Wakefield explains. “His energy and compassion almost made him feel like a new, unexpected father figure for me.”
According to Father Weibley, it is this shared “father figure” of St. Dominic that gives the Order of Preachers its fraternal character.
“I always tell anybody considering joining the Order to start with Dominic,” says Father Weibley.
“Our entire identity is still founded on his zeal for preaching, for seeking the truth, and for serving the Church.”
“The Life of St. Dominic,” written by the Dominican Friar Father Bede Jarrett in 1924, is Father Weibley’s go-to suggestion for anyone curious about the Order’s venerable founder. The book describes the supernatural energy with which Dominic travelled throughout Spain and France in the early 13th Century, publicly debating the heretical Cathars which had become dominant in the region. He founded the Order to continue this work of seeking and preaching truth.
“Veritas” remains a common Dominican motto, often accompanied by the image of a lit torch — the saint’s name was inspired by a vision experienced by his mother, in which she saw her future son as a dog with a flaming torch in its mouth, setting the world afire with the love of God (hence Domini Canis — the hound of the Lord).
Father Jarrett’s biography, however, notes that Dominic’s commitment to preaching came only after “long years of a patient and hidden life,” even saying that “considering at what age he died, and how great a work he inaugurated, it is really astonishing to notice how large a proportion of his life was thus spent in solitude and peace.” For the novices currently emerging from PC, the call to preaching seems to be coming at a much younger age.
“Even more than the volume, I think the shift in age is the most interesting part of this trend,” says Brother Nicodemus Thomas, O.P.
Brother Thomas graduated from PC in 2018 and was one of the first members of the Providence-to-priory pipeline. He believes that the increased interest in vocations among younger men can be at least partially explained as a chain reaction.
“When you’re seeing younger and younger friars on campus, or students your own age going directly into the novitiate after graduating, it becomes much easier to envision yourself actually pursuing that lifestyle,” Brother Thomas says.
Many other commentators have speculated on the province-wide trend as well, most notably Archbishop Joseph Augustine Di Noia, O.P.
The prelate, who is currently the Adjunct Secretary of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith (and a member of the Providence College Class of 1965), offered his thoughts in a 2010 conference hosted by the school. Among other theories, Archbishop Di Noia suggested the intellectual character of the Order gave it a unique appeal in a collegiate setting.
“But it is not just the clarity of the Dominican way of thinking, reasoning, teaching and preaching that attracts them,” Archbishop Di Noia said. “It is something much deeper: not just clarity, but the love that drives it.”
According to Brother Raphael Arteaga, it was encountering precisely this atmosphere that led him to the Dominicans after graduating from PC in 2019.
“The friars took every opportunity to invite students into their common fraternity with invitations to prayers, meals, and recreation… demonstrating with great zeal the perennially attractive dynamism of the Dominican vocation,” wrote Brother Arteaga in a letter to the Rhode Island Catholic. In Providence, Brother Arteaga says he encountered a “zeal for the apostolate that flowed from [the friars’] religious life, a life which included constant prayer… fidelity to religious vows, assiduous study, and the living of one heart and mind with one another in community.”
Brother Arteaga is currently completing his intellectual formation at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. This studium is the second step in the process of becoming a friar: the first is the novitiate, designed to introduce prospective Preachers to the monastic lifestyle. This requires both social and spiritual preparation, with an emphasis on the unique prayers and traditions of the Order.
Several of these have become widespread Catholic practices — none more so than the Rosary. Tradition credits St. Dominic as having been taught the prayer by Mary herself during an apparition in Prouille in 1214; it immediately became a key focus of Dominican spirituality, and through their ministration, one of the representative practices of our faith. The beads, worn from the belt in place of a sword, remain an iconic element of the Dominican habit.
In his address, Archbishop Di Noia ultimately concluded that although the specific reasons for the influx of new friars throughout the province could be known only to God, it was clear that such a great blessing must be used for the good of the Church.
Despite the administrative and logistical challenges presented by the “astonishing grace of the novitiate and studium both bursting at the seams … that grace will bring with it whatever we need to rise to the occasion; the divine ‘vote of confidence,’ so to speak, has already been cast. If God is for us, who can be against us?”
If this steady stream of Friars continues, one can say the Order of Preachers has been blessed by Providence, indeed.