Dominic, founder of the great order of preaching friars
which bears his name, was born in the year 1170 at Calaruega, Castile,
Spain, of a noble family with illustrious connections. His father, Don
Felix de Guzman, held the post of royal warden of the village; his mother,
a woman of unusual sanctity, was to become Blessed Joan of Aza. Very early
it was decided that Dominic should have a career in the Church. His call
was so evident that while he was still a student, Martin de Bazan, bishop
of Osma, appointed him canon of the cathedral, and the stipend he received
helped him to continue his studies. Dominicís love of learning and his
charity are both exemplified in a story of his student days. He had
gathered a collection of religious books inscribed on parchment; these he
greatly treasured, but one day he sold the whole lot that he might give
the money thus obtained to some poor people. "I could not bear to
prize dead skins," he said, "when living skins were starving and
age of twenty-five he was ordained and took up his duties. The chapter
lived under the rule of St. Augustine, and the strict observance gave the
young priest the discipline that he was to practice and teach to others
all his life. Someone who knew Dominic at this time wrote that he was
first of all the monks in holiness, frequenting the church day and night,
and scarcely venturing beyond the walls of the cloister. He was soon made
subprior, and when the prior, Diego díAzevado, became bishop of Osma,
about 1201, Dominic succeeded to his office. He had then been leading the
contemplative life for six or seven years.
When, two years later, the bishop was appointed by the
King to go on an embassy to negotiate a marriage for the Kingís son, he
chose Dominic to accompany him. On the way, they passed through Languedoc,
in southern France, where the Albigensian heresy was winning many
adherents. The host at an inn where they stopped was an Albigensian, and
Dominic spent a whole night in discussion with him. By morning he had
convinced the man of his error. From that day, it appears, Dominic knew
with certainty that the work God required of him was an active life of
teaching in the world. The ambassadors returned to Castile after their
mission was accomplished, then were sent back to escort the young woman to
her future home, but they arrived only to assist at her funeral. Their
retinue returned to Castile, while they went to Rome to ask leave of Pope
Innocent III to preach the Gospel to the infidels in the East. The Pope
urged them to stay and fight against the heresy which was threatening the
Church in France. Bishop Diego begged to be allowed to resign his
episcopal see, but to this the Pope would not consent, though he gave him
permission to stay two years in Languedoc. They paid a visit to St.
Bernardís monastery at Citeaux, whose monks had been appointed to go on
a mission to convert the Albigensians. Don Diego put on the Cistercian
habit and almost at once set out with Dominic and a band of preachers.
Albigensian doctrine was based on a dualism of two
eternally opposing principles, good and evil, all matter being regarded as
evil and the creator of the material world as a devil. Hence the doctrine
of the Incarnation was denied, and the Old Testament and the Sacrament
rejected. To be perfect or "pure" a person must refrain from
sexual relations and be extremely abstemious in eating and drinking.
Suicide by starvation was by some regarded as a noble act. In its more
extreme form Albigensianism thus threatened the very existence of human
society. The rank and file did not attempt such austerity, of course, but
the leaders maintained high standards of asceticism, in contrast with
which the easy-going observance of the Cistercian preachers away from home
looked far from saintly. Dominic and Diego now advised those who had been
in charge of the mission to give up their horses, retinues, and servants.
Also, as soon as they won a hearing, they were to use the method of
peaceful persuasion instead of threats. The way of life Dominic enjoined
on others he was the first to follow himself. He rarely ate anything but
bread and soup; if he drank wine it was two thirds water; his bed was the
floor, unlessóas sometimes happenedóhe was so exhausted that he lay
down at the side of the road to sleep.
The missionariesí first meeting with the heretics
took place at Servian in 1206, where they made several conversions;
afterwards they preached at Carcassone and neighboring towns, but nowhere
did they meet with unusual success. At one public debate the judges
submitted Dominicís statement of the Catholic faith to the ordeal by
fire, and three times, it is recorded, the parchment was left unharmed by
the flames. The heresy, supported as it was by the great spiritual and
temporal lords of the country, had a strong hold on the populace, who
seemed unmoved either by preaching or miracles. Diego, disappointed with
the results, returned to Osma, leaving Dominic in France.
Women often exerted great influence in the Middle Ages,
and Dominic was struck by their share in the propagation of Albigensianism.
He also observed that many Catholic girls of good family were exposed to
wrong examples in their own homes or else were sent to Albigensian
convents to be educated. On the feast of St. Mary Magdalen in 1206 he had
a vision which led him to found a convent at Prouille, in the diocese of
Toulouse, to shelter nine nuns, who had been converted from heresy. He
wrote for them a rule of strict enclosure, penance, and contemplation,
with the spinning of wool for their manual occupation. A house was founded
a little later, in the same locality, for his preaching friars, whom he
placed under a strict rule of poverty, study, and prayer.
In 1208, after the murder of a papal legate, Pope
Innocent called on the Christian princes to suppress the heresy by force
of arms. The Catholic forces were led by Simon de Montfort, the
Albigensian by the Count of Toulouse. Everywhere Montfort was victorious,
but he left behind him destruction and death. Dominic had no part in this
terrible civil war. Courageously he continued to preach, going wherever he
was called, seeking only the good of those who hated him. Many attempts
were made on his life, and when he was asked what he would do if caught by
his enemies, he answered, "I would tell them to kill me slowly and
painfully, a little at a time, so that I might have a more glorious crown
in Heaven." When Montfortís armies approached where he was
preaching, he did all he could to save human life. Among the crusaders
themselves, many of whom had joined the Catholic side for the sake of
plunder, he discovered disorder, vice, and ignorance. Dominic labored
among them with as much diligence and compassion as among the heretics.
The Albigensian military forces were finally crushed in the battle of
Muret, in 1213, a victory which Montfort attributed to Dominicís
prayers. The victor was not satisfied, however, and, to Dominicís great
distress, kept up for five years longer a campaign of devastation, until
at last he was killed in battle.
Dominic had no illusions as to the righteousness or
efficacy of establishing orthodoxy by armed force, nor had he himself
anything to do with the episcopal courts of the Inquisition which were set
up in southern France to work with the civil power. He never appears to
have approved of the execution of those unfortunate persons whom the
courts condemned as obdurate. His biographers say that he saved the life
of a young man on his way to the stake, by assuring the judges that, if
released, the man would die a good Catholic. The prophecy was fulfilled
some years later, when the man entered the Dominican Order. Dominic
rebuked the bishop of Toulouse for traveling with soldiers, servants, and
pack-mules. "The enemies of the faith cannot be overcome like
that," he said. "Arm yourself with prayer instead of a sword; be
clothed with humility instead of fine raiment." Offered a bishopric
three times, Dominic each time declined, knowing well that his work lay
He thus spent nearly ten years in Languedoc, with
headquarters at Prouille, leading the mission and directing the work of
his special band of preachers. His great desire was to revive a true
apostolic spirit in the ministers of the altar, for too many of the
Catholic clergy lived for their own pleasure, without scruple. He dreamed
of a new religious order, not like the older ones, whose members led lives
of contemplation and prayer in isolated groups, and who were not
necessarily priests. His men would join to their prayers and meditation a
thorough training in theology and the duties of a popular pastor and
preacher; like the earlier monks, they would practice perpetual abstinence
from meat and live in poverty, depending on alms for subsistence. They
would be directed from a central authority, so that they could be moved
about according to the need of the time. Dominic hoped thus to provide the
Church with expert and zealous preachers, whose spirit and example would
spread the light. In 1214 Bishop Foulques conferred on him a benefice at
Fanjeaux, and gave his episcopal approval to the new order. A few months
later he took Dominic with him to Rome to attend the Fourth Lateran
Council, as his theologian.
Pope Innocent III approved the convent at Prouille. He
also issued a decree, which was counted as the tenth canon of the council,
reminding all parish clergy of their obligation to preach, and stressing
the need of choosing pastors who were powerful in both words and works.
The current neglect of preaching, said the Pope, was one cause of the
ignorance, disorders, and heresies then rampant. Yet Dominic did not find
it easy to get formal approval for his preaching order; it contained too
many innovations for sanction to be granted hastily; moreover, the council
had already voted against the multiplication of religious orders. It is
said that Innocent had decided to withhold his consent, but on the next
night dreamed he saw the Lateran Church tottering as if on the verge of
collapse; Dominic stepped forward to support it. Be that as it may, the
Pope finally gave oral approval to Dominicís plan, bidding him return to
his brothers and select one of the rules already approved.
The little company which met at Prouille in August,
1216, consisted of eight Frenchmen, eight Spaniards, and one Englishman.
After some discussion, they chose the rule of St. Augustine, the oldest
and least detailed of the existing rules, which had been written for
priests by a priest who was himself an eminent preacher. He added certain
special provisions, some borrowed from the more austere order of Premontre.
Meanwhile Pope Innocent died, in July of 1216, and Honorius III was
elected in his place. In October of that year, after Dominic had set up a
friary in Toulouse, he went to Rome. Honorius formally confirmed his order
and its constitutions in December. The brothers were to be, in the words
of the Popeís bull, "the champions of the faith and the true lights
of the world."
Instead of returning at once to France, Dominic stayed
in Rome until the following Easter in order to preach. He suggested to the
Pope that since many of the clerics attached to his court could not attend
lectures and courses outside, a master of sacred studies in residence
would be very useful. Honorius then created the office of Master of the
Sacred Palace, who ex-officio serves as the Popeís personal canonist and
theologian, nominates his preachers, and assists at consistories. He
ordered Dominic to assume the office temporarily, and ever since it has
been held by a member of the order. While at Rome, too, Dominic composed a
commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul, much commended in his day, but,
like his sermons and letters, it has not survived.
During this time Dominic formed friendships with
Cardinal Ugolino and Francis of Assisi. The story goes that in a dream
Dominic saw the sinful world threatened by the divine anger but saved by
the intercession of the Virgin, who pointed out to her Son two figures,
one of whom Dominic recognized as himself, while the other was a stranger.
The next day in church he saw a poorly dressed fellow whom he recognized
at once as the man in his dream. It was Francis of Assisi. He went up to
him and embraced him, exclaiming, "You are my companion and must walk
with me. For if we hold together no earthly power can withstand us."
This meeting of the founders of the two great orders of friars, where
special mission was to go out into the world to save it, is still
commemorated twice a year, when on their respect feast days the brothers
of both orders sing Mass together, and afterwards sit at the same table.
Dominicís character was in marked contrast to that of Francis, but they
stood united on the common ground of faith and charity.
On August 13, 1217, the Friars Preachers, popularly
known in later times as the Dominicans, first met as an order at Prouille.
Dominic spoke to them on methods of preaching and urged them to
unremitting study and training. He reminded them too that their primary
duty was their own sanctification, for they were to be successors of the
Apostles. They must be humble, putting their whole confidence in God
alone; only thus might they be invincible against evil. Two days later,
Dominic abruptly broke up his little band, dispersing them in different
directions. Four he sent to Spain, seven to Paris, two returned to
Toulouse, and two stayed at Prouille. Dominic himself went back to Rome.
He had hopes that he might resign his post and set off to preach to the
Tartars, but Pope Honorius would not give his consent.
The four remaining years of Dominicís life were spent
in developing the order. Honorius gave him the church of St. Sixtus in
Rome as a center for his activities. He preached in many of the cityís
churches, including St. Peterís. An old chronicle tells us that a woman
named Gutadona, on coming home one day from hearing him preach, found her
little child dead. In her grief she lifted him out of the cradle, and
carried him to the church of St. Sixtus to lay him at Dominicís feet. He
uttered a few words of fervent prayer, made the sign of the cross, and the
child was straightway restored to life. The Pope would have had this
miracle proclaimed from the pulpit, but the entreaties of Dominic checked
Large numbers of nuns were living in Rome at this time,
uncloistered and almost unregulated, some scattered about in small
convents, others staying in the houses of parents or friends. Honorius now
asked Dominic to assemble these nuns into one enclosed house. Dominic gave
to the nuns his own monastery of St. Sixtus, which was then completed. For
his friars he was given a house on the Aventine Hill, with the adjacent
church of St. Sabina.
A house of the order had been founded at the University
of Paris, and Dominic had sent a contingent to the University of Bologna,
there to set up one of the most famous of his establishments. In 1218 he
journeyed through Languedoc to his native Spain, and founded a friary at
Segovia, another at Madrid, and a convent of nuns, directed by his
brother. In April, 1219, he returned to Toulouse, and from there went to
Paris, the first and only visit he paid to the city. On his way back he
stopped to found houses at Avignon, Asti and at Bergamo in Lombardy.
Towards the end of the summer Dominic reached Bologna, there to live until
his death. In 1220 Pope Honorius confirmed his title as Master General of
the Order of Brothers Preachers, and the first general chapter was held at
Bologna. The final constitutions were then drawn up which made the order
what it has since been called, "the most perfect of all the monastic
organizations produced by the Middle Ages." That same year the Pope
charged them, along with the monks of other orders, to undertake a
preaching crusade in Lombardy. Under Dominicís leadership, a hundred
thousand heretics are said to have been brought back to the Church.
Although Dominic had hoped to journey to barbarous
lands to preach and eventually to achieve martyrdom, this was denied him.
The ministry of the Word, however, was to be the chief aim of his great
order. Those members who had a talent for preaching were never to rest,
except during the intervals assigned to them for retirement. They must
prepare for their high calling by prayer, self-denial, and obedience.
Dominic frequently quoted the saying: "A man who governs his passions
is master of the world. We must either rule them, or be ruled by them. It
is better to be the hammer than the anvil." He taught his friars the
art of reaching the hearts of their hearers by animating them with a love
of men. Once, after delivering a stirring sermon, he was asked in what
book he had studied it. "In non," he answered, "but that of
Dominic never altered the severe discipline he had
established at the start. When he came back to Bologna in 1220, he was
shocked to find a stately monastery being built for his friars; he would
not allow it to be completed. This strong discipline helped the rapid
spread of the order. By the time of the second general chapter at Bologna
in 1221, it numbered some sixty houses, divided into eight provinces.
Already there were black-robed brothers in Poland, Scandinavia, and
Palestine, and Brother Gilbert, with twelve to aid him, had set up
monasteries in Canterbury, London, and Oxford. The Order of Preachers is
world-wide and noted especially for its intellectual achievement; it has
become the mouthpiece of scholastic theology and philosophy today. There
are Dominican establishments adjacent to almost all the chief seats of
learning, and the founder has sometimes been called "the first
minister of public instruction in Europe." The Dominicans are
cloistered, but there is also a Third Order for active workers in the
world, religious and lay.
At the close of the second general chapter, Dominic
visited Cardinal Ugolino in Venice. Afterwards he fell ill and was taken
to the country. He knew the end was near, and made his last testament in a
few simple, loving words: "These, my much loved ones, are the
bequests which I leave to you as my sons; have charity among yourselves;
hold fast to humility; keep a willing poverty." He asked to be
carried back to Bologna, that he might be buried "under the feet of
his brethren." Gathered about him on an August evening, they said the
prayers for the dying; at the Subvenite, he repeated the words and died;
he was only fifty-six years old. The saint died "in Brother Monetaís
bed, because he had none of his own, in Brother Monetaís habit, because
he had not another to replace the one he had long been wearing."
Jordan of Saxony, Dominicís successor as
master-general of the order, wrote of him: "Nothing disturbed the
even temper of his soul except his quick sympathy with every sort of
suffering. And as a manís face shows whether he is happy or not, it was
easy to see form his friendly and joyous countenance that he was at peace
inwardly." When in 1234 Pope Gregory IX, formerly Cardinal Ugolino,
signed the decree of canonization, he remarked that he no more doubted the
sanctity of Dominic than he doubted that of St. Peter or St. Paul.