And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency
of speech or of wisdom, [but] declaring unto you the testimony
of God. 1Cor. 2.1.
Like St. Benedict, St. Dominic became a household name in Western Christendom. St. Benedict to meet the needs of his monks at Monte Cassino had compiled a Rule for his brethren, which in time became the basis for most Western monasticism. St. Dominic too in order to meet the immediate need of confronting heresy in southern France formed a preaching order of friars, which also came to play a dominant role in Western Christendom, especially theologically as Dominic had insisted that his brothers be well educated. The Benedictine monks and the Dominican friars or preaching brothers as they were sometimes called complimented one another in the living out the Gospel in Mediæval Western Christendom.
Dominic was born c.1170 in the small town of Caleruega in Castile, northern Spain, into the ancient noble but truly pious Guzman family. From the age of 14 to 20 he studied at the university of Palencia, firstly the Trivium the subjects of grammar, logic and rhetoric, and then the Quadrivium arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. He was thus 20 before he began his theological studies. To offset the dryness of his studies, he increasingly turned to prayer to set the divine truths he was learning on fire with divine love. This would stay with Dominic all his life, and later characterized his whole approach to his preaching. As a student the only extravagance Dominic had were his books, but even these he sold to help war refugees. "I could not bear to prize dead skins when living skins were starving and in want," said Dominic, and thus revealing that truly compassionate and loving nature of his.
We do not know the exact date of Dominic's ordination, but after it, and for the next nine years he was a canon of Osma cathedral, as the priests there lived under the Augustinian rule. In 1199 he was elected sub-prior of the chapter, and when the prior, Diego d'Azevedo, became bishop in 1202, Dominic succeeded him as prior. The administrative experience he gained in that capacity during the next year would stand him in good stead for his future work. The next year, 1203, an event happened which completely changed the direction of Dominic's life.
That year the king of Castille, Alfonso IX, asked Bishop Diego to arrange the marriage of his son, Ferdinand with "a noble lady of the Marches", presumably modern Denmark. Diego in turn sought Dominic as a travelling companion. To reach this part of Europe meant travelling through southern France on the first part of the journey. Their first evening in Toulouse was spent in an inn whose owner was a member of the Albigensian sect. This heresy, a form of Manchaeism, which had even attracted the great Augustine, maintained that all matter was evil, and only the spirit was good. Therefore the body and soul were always in direct conflict, and the only way to live a pure life and to obtain perfection was to abstain from all fleshly desires, and to live a very rigid austere life. As the sacraments were both material and spiritual Albigensians were required to renounce the Catholic faith. It is said that Dominic stayed up all night in conversation with the innkeeper with the intent to win him back to Christ. That he did, for the next morning the innkeeper on bended knees pleaded to be reconciled with the Church. The debate changed Dominic's approach to the teaching of the Christian faith and he knew that he could not live as previously. He envisaged that the only way to convert these heretics was not the forceful and ostentatious way of the Papacy but by a preaching and charitable ministry whose members lived just as austerely as the Albigensians.
However his present mission had to be completed before he could ever contemplate a new way of life. That new life came earlier than Dominic ever expected as word soon reached him and Bishop Diego that the noble lady had died. Despite Pope Innocent 111's disapproval both returned to southern France where Diego took the Cistercian habit to work amongst these heretics. But Dominic remained an Augustinian monk but lived more austerely than the Albigensians. Although he ate and slept little, he threw himself wholeheartedly into public debate with the heretics to try and convert them. This was not enough, he soon realised, and on St. Mary Magdalen's day, 1206 as he sat reflecting on her life and the work to be done amongst these people, outside the north gates of the village of Fanjeaux, he asked God for a sign. The Almighty obliged with a ray of light over the desolate church of Prouille, a sign that was repeated the next two nights.
Accordingly the church was restored and became part of Dominic's strategy in working with the Albignensians. Dominic collected a group of local pious women to live there as nuns but to do similar work as the Albignensian women did in caring for the needy and instructing women in the faith. Before long with the support of the bishop of Toulouse, Foulques, who became a close friend, Dominic moved his little band of men to the church, thus making a double monastery.
In 1208 Dominic's work was made more difficult when Simon de Montfort, an English nobleman, led a bloody crusade against the heretics to revenge the killing of the papal legate. Nevertheless Dominic continued in his own joyful and peaceful way trying to win souls for Christ. He always made the distinction between the sin and the sinner. He began to sense that there was more needed than that offered by a parochial system if heretics and the lapsed were to be converted, not only in southern France but also in the universal church. A preaching order! But a radical thought for the early 13thC.
He had a chance to discuss this idea with Pope Innocent 111 when he attended the Third Lateran Council in 1215 as canon theologian for Bishop Foulques. However this Council had just forbidden the founding of new Orders. Innocent supported the Council's decree, and told Dominic that he and his followers must remain within their chosen monastic rule, which for them was the Augustinian.
The successor to Innocent, Honorius III was more sympathetic to Dominic's vision of a preaching order. In December, 1216, this Pope decreed three bulls, the last of which referred to Dominic's monks as "preachers", and in the second, declared "that the brethren of the Order will be the champions of the Faith and true lights of the world." Dominic wanted to return immediately to Toulouse to turn his vision into a reality. The Pope thought otherwise, and detained him in Rome by making him the theologian to the Pope, the office of the Sacred Palace. Ever since then, that position has been held by a Dominican. This Pope also gave to Dominic and his friars the 5th C. beautiful basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aveline Hill in Rome. This became the headquarters of the Order, and still is to-day. Whilst in Rome the Pope approached Dominic to house all the nuns in Rome in one convent at San Sisto and to give them a more rigorous rule of life. This of course he did!
On returning to Toulouse, Dominic took another radical decision most of the brothers were to be sent to the cities of the great universities of Europe: Bologna, Paris and even Oxford. He knew to preach effectively a brother had to be well educated in theology. [This was the major difference between his idea of a preaching order and that of St. Francis.]
With the formation of houses over Europe, the number of friars increased rapidly. Many were already scholarly, such as Reginald of Orleans who held the chair of canon law at the University of Paris. It was he, through the direction of the Blessed Virgin, who gave the white scapular as the most important part of the Dominican's habit.
Between 1216 and his death in 1221 Dominic undertook an enormous amount of work. On foot, and mostly bare-footed, he visited all the houses to give encouragement, to instil high ideals to his brethren, and to impart a sense of gentleness and compassion and true devotion. As he travelled he always carried with him the gospel of St. Matthew and the epistles of St. Paul.
These visits also made clear the urgent need for a written rule to reflect the purpose and spirit of the Order. Consequently a General Chapter was called for to meet in Bologna on 17th May, 1220. As a result the Superior was elected for a limited period, the brothers were to live on alms, and that a General Chapter be held each year.
After this Chapter Dominic lived for only another year, most of which was spent in travelling to visit the various houses. He returned to Bologna in July, 1221, not long after the holding of the second General Chapter. As he lay dying he repeated over and over those words from prayers for the dying: "Come to [my] help, you holy ones of God. Come out to meet [me], you angels of the Lord, take [my] soul, and offer it in the sight of the Most High." He died on 6th August, 1221, and was canonized in 1534 by Gregory IX. His tomb is in the church of St. Dominic, Bologna, built 30 years later by Nicholas Pisano, and later embellished by Michelangelo.
One cannot finish a homily on St. Dominic without some mention of him and the Rosary as for many years it has been more than a pious belief, supported by nine popes, that Dominic was given the format of the Rosary in the little church of Prouille. That I am sorry to say is not supported by historical documents at all. Of those early Lives of the saints there is not one, even faint allusion, to the Rosary as also from the witnesses who gave evidence for his canonization. Even the early constitutions of the Order contain no reference to this devotion. Indeed it was the Dominican Alan de Rupe in the late 15thC who first suggested that it was Dominic to whom our Lady had revealed the Rosary. It is this assertion which has given rise to Dominic as being the instrument for the Rosary. In saying this, it is not assuming that Dominic was not devoted to using the Rosary for we know by the time of the 13th C the Rosary in some form was used for devotional purpose. Praying with beads of 150 have been common in Christian devotion for a long time as they were based on the recitation of the Psalter, and over the centuries evolved a pattern, which became standard in Western Christendom by the 15thC.
We give thanks to-day for that loving, compassionate and gentle nature of Dominic who with his love of souls, and great organizing ability gave to the Church a mission to convert souls and relieve suffering. Since his death there have been many outstanding black friars such as SS. Albert and Thomas Aquinas. To-day the Blackfriars still continue their work at the great centres of learning, still living on alms and still producing learned theologians and holy men. I know Oxford would not be the same without them, neither would my life, when I am there.
May God the Father who made us bless us.
May God the Son send his healing on us.
May God the Holy Spirit move within us and give us eyes to see with, ears to hear with and hands that your work may be done.
May we walk and preach the word of God to all.
May the angels of peace watch over us and lead us at last by God’s grace to the kingdom. Amen. Prayer of St. Dominic.