The Dominicans, one of the most prominent religious orders in the Catholic Church, have elected the first Asian leader in their 800-year history.
Fr Gerard Timoner, who comes from the Philippines, was chosen as the 88th Master of the Order of Preachers on July 13. The election took place during a gathering of the order in Bien Hoa, Vietnam.
The 51-year-old master is a former leader of the Philippine province of Dominicans and up until now has held a senior Rome-based position – a “socius” – advising on Asia Pacific matters. In 2014, he was chosen by Pope Francis to sit on the International Theological Commission, which advises the papacy and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
His election reflects the Church’s growth in Asia, and a new generation of emerging leaders from the continent. Fr Timothy Radcliffe, a former Master of the Order, who took part in the General Chapter in Vietnam, told The Tablet he had been “bowled over by a sense of the growth” of the order in the continent explaining that in Vietnam alone there are 400 friars, 2,500 Dominican sisters, and 117,000 lay members.
“We elected Gerard because he is a joyful preacher, and a qualified theologian,” he said. “It is also significant that he is Asian, though that is not why we elected him.”
The tilt to church leadership in Asia was noted by the Pope in a recent book length interview, “The Strength of a Vocation”, with Spanish Claretian priest Fr Ferando Prado, whose order is led by an Indian superior-general.
“In institutes today, it is not rare to see general superiors, men and women, who come from other continents,” Francis explained.
“It is clear that the origins of both men and women general superiors, who are from non-Euro- pean and non-Western continents, is more and more becoming a reality. And this is good news that makes us happy. As time goes by, this change of the face of the Church is more and more visible, a fruit of its history and the marvel of evangelisation.”
The pope pointed out the “clear phenomenon of a ‘de-Europeanization’ of the Church” adding that this is staring to “bear fruits in strong local churches, those particular churches that have a strong and specific identity. India is one example of this, even with its own concrete theology. In Asia, we see the beginning of a strong theological thinking. The Philippines are also a clear example of how this is coming to be.”
After his election, Fr Gerard said he had initially been reluctant to take up the position, confessing that were it not for the prayer and encouragement of his fellow Dominicans “the answer would have been ‘no’.”
In a message to the order, he emphasized the importance of evangelisation, mission, and the order’s focus on preaching.
“Mission is not what we do. It is who we are. And if that is clear, everything will just follow,” he said. “We are preachers even when we are not preaching. We are preachers even if in our old age, we can no longer speak. We are preachers even if we are not ordained. We are preachers even if we are sick. We are preachers even if we are doing serious research alone in our rooms. We are preachers when we are helping the less privileged. We are preachers. That is our identity.”
He also emphasized the importance of communion among Dominicans and the need to overcome differences. “Once we have agreed, I think that is my job, to be the first among brothers to say ‘We should do what we have set to do’.”
The Dominicans, founded by St Dominic in 1216, are comprised of friars, sisters and lay members and have a strong intellectual and devotional tradition. St Dominic is widely considered to have established the Rosary devotion, while the order run several universities. Past Dominicans include two Doctors of the Church: St Thomas Aquinas, one of the most influential western philosophers and theologian and St Catherine of Siena, a mystic and church reformer.