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St Dominic

Feast day: 8 August

St Dominic was born in 1170 at Caleruegga in Old Castile, Spain. He was named after St Dominic of Silos, a Benedictine monk, whose abbey was nearby. Jordan of Saxony (1190-1237) wrote the first life of St Dominic, having the advantage of knowing him personally. He does not mention Dominic’s parents; however he tells how his barren mother had prayed for a child and dreamt that a dog leapt from her womb carrying a flaming torch in his mouth and seemed to set the earth on fire. The story probably emerged when the order became known as “Domini Canis” which means “dog of the Lord.” According to Jordan’s account, Dominic was brought up by his parents and a maternal uncle who was an archbishop. A later thirteenth-century source names his parents as Juana and Felix, and a fifteenth-century writer gives the father’s surname as Guzman and the mother’s as Aza. Juana was beatified in the nineteeth century.

At 14 years of age, Dominic was sent to the Praemonstratensian Monastery of Santa Maria de La Vid and then to the schools of Palencia, the first university in what later became Spain. In 1191, when the country was devastated by famine, Dominic sold his possessions - even precious manuscripts - to feed the hungry. He is reported to have told his fellow students: “Would you have me study off these dead skins when men are dying of hunger?”

At the age of 24 Dominic was ordained a priest and subsequently joined the canonry of the cathedral of Osma. The bishop of Osma made Dominic sub-prior of the chapter. In 1203 he accompanied the bishop on a diplomatic mission for the king to secure a bride in Denmark for the crown prince. On the way to Denmark they passed through the south of France and were shocked at the heresy being preached there by the Cathars. The mission was successful but the princess sadly died. The pair then went to Rome to ask the Pope, Innocent III, for permission to preach to pagans in far-off countries. The Pope refused and instead sent them to Languedoc to join forces with the Cistercians in their crusade against the Cathars, a Christian religious sect. The Cathars believed in two gods, one good and one evil. Physical matter was created by the evil god and therefore tainted with sin. It followed that all bodily actions were sinful; Jesus only had the form of a human body like that of an angel. This was condemned as a heresy by the church. Dominic and the bishop concluded that the Cistercians were not successful against the Cathars, because of their extravagant lifestyle which compared unfavourably to the asceticism of those to whom they preached. They decided to adopt a more ascetic form of life and began a campaign to convert the Cathars. Catholic-Cathar debates were held. Meanwhile the bishop died and Dominic was left alone in his mission.

Dominic was particularly concerned with the influence the Cathars had on women, many of whom entered convents where they educated children of the nobility and influenced them in the heresy. Dominic founded a convent at Prouille where many formed Cathar women became nuns.

In 1215 he established himself with six followers in a house owned by a rich resident of Toulouse. He saw that a new type of organization was required to address the spiritual needs of the growing cities of that time, which would adapt itself more readily than the monastic orders or secular clergy. He subjected himself and his companions to the monastic rules of prayer and penance. He was concerned for the theological formation of his men and took them to lectures by an Énglishman named Alexander Stavensbury. They were given permission by the bishop to preach in the territory of Toulouse.

In 1215 Dominic went to Rome to secure the approval of Pope Innocent III. The Fourth Lateran Council was being held and the authorities were unwilling to countenance a new order. It was recommended that Dominic adopt the rule of an existing one. At some point he met St Francis of Assisi, though this may have been as late as 1221. Their friendship is a strong tradition in both orders. He went back to Toulouse and with his companions adopted the rule of st Augustine, as well as constitutions, based on the canons regular, concerning Divine Office, monastic life and religious poverty. The Order of Preachers was finally approved by the new Pope Honorius III, Innocent’s successor in 1216. In the winter of 1216-1217, Dominic met William of Monferrat, who joined Dominic as a friar and remained a close friend.

Cecilia Cesarini, a woman from a family of minor nobility was, received into the female branch of the order. She wrote her memories of the Dominican foundation, describing Dominic as “thin and of middle height. His face was handsome and somewhat fair. He had reddish hair and beard and beautiful eyes. He never got bald, though he wore the full tonsure, which was mingled with a few grey hairs.”

Dominic travelled extensively to maintain contact with his growing number of friars but he made his headquarters in Rome. In 1219 Pope Honorious invited the friars to take up residence in the ancient Roman basilica of Santa Sabina, which they did by early 1220. The studium at Santa Sabina was the forerunner of the Studium Generale de Santa Maria sopra Minerva; the latter would be transformed in the sixteenth century into the College of St Thomas and then in the twentieth century into the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas (also called the Angelicum), located at the convent of St Dominic and St Sixtus. He set up his two principal houses in Bologna and Paris, near the universities there, and established schools of theology. Education was and still is of primary importance to the Dominican Order.

At Pentecost 1220 the first General Chapter of the Order took place and a system of democratic representation was decided upon. At the second chapter the order was divided into provinces. Dominic visited Venice in 1221. He was worn out, contracted a fever and died in Bologna at the convent of St Nicholas, where he had lived. One biographer states that he asked to be laid on sacking and he exhorted his followers to have charity, to guard their humility and to make a treasure out of their poverty. His remains were transferred in 1267 to a shrine made by Nicholas Pisano and his workshop. He was canonized by Pope Gregory IX in 1234.

Dominic was a good leader in that he was able to form a vision and bring his men along with it. He laid down firm foundations for his order. He believed in the power of laughter, being always cheerful and optimistic himself. According to one of his opponents, John of Spain, who gave evidence at his canonization, he often spent the whole night in the chapel in prayer. He abstained from meat, always sought the worst accommodation, and observed periods of silence and fasting. He saw the need for his new order to be flexible and adapt to the needs of the time. He had respect for the individual, so that the Dominican order has always been marked by variety.

St Dominic and the Dominicans are closely associated with the rosary. It is said that Our Lady appeared to him and gave him the rosary, but it is generally agreed that this is a legend, as this method of prayer is probably much older. However, the Dominicans have been instrumental in spreading and encouraging the devotion.

The Dominicans and Dominic have been seen as closely involved with the Inquisition. It is true that Dominic was shocked by the heresy of the Cathars and preached vigorously against them. He was a friend of Simon de Montfort, who waged a merciless campaign against the sect. There is no evidence that Dominic was involved in any inquisition, since the papal inquisition was only established after his death. The Dominicans were later charged by the Pope, together with the Franciscans, of carrying out inquisitions and later they would have been involved in the Spanish Inquisition. Dominic generally believed in the power of persuasion.

St Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order of Preachers, pray for us.