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Dominic’s Education and Ordination to the Priesthood
St. Dominic (1170-1221), son of Felix de Guzman and Jane Aza, was born in 1170 in the village of Caleruega, Spain. From age 7 to 14 he studied under the tutelage of his maternal uncle, Gumiel d’Izan, but at age 14 he entered the Cathedral School at Palencia, where he devoted 10 years assiduously studying Holy Scriptures and theology. His charity was greater than his love for learning. At one time, for example, he sold his hand-annotated books to feed the poor.
Shortly after this, he was ordained to the priesthood. The bishop of Osma, Diego Acebo, invited him to join the Cathedral Chapter as a canon regular. (In the twelfth century, attempts at clerical reform were made by the Church through the development of Cathedral Chapters where the diocesan clergy, following the spirituality of the monastic orders, lived a community life of poverty together with their bishop. The members of the community were known as canons regulars. They engaged in preaching and parochial life, but their ministry was localized in the diocese where they worked.)
The Rule adopted by Bishop Diego Acebo for the use of his canons was the Rule of St. Augustine, which Dominic would also later use for his Order. For the present form of the Rule as adopted by the Dominican Order, see the Rule of St. Augustine.
Dominic’s Journey and Encounter with Heretics
In 1203 Dominic accompanied Bishop Diego on a diplomatic mission to arrange the wedding between Prince Ferdinand of France and the daughter of the Lord of the Marshes (Denmark). On their way to the Marshes, Bishop Diego and Dominic saw the growing threat of the Albigensian heresy in southern France. When they stopped at an inn in Toulouse for the night, Dominic had a long discussion with the innkeeper, who was a strong adherent of the Albigensian heresy. Because of Dominic’s fervent prayers and love for sinners, the heretic was converted and returned to the faith. This incident moved Bishop Diego and Dominic to embark on a new mission of evangelical preaching to reconcile heretics to the Church.
After his second trip to the Marshes, Bishop Diego, therefore, went to Rome to ask the pope that he be allowed to resign from his diocese and be able to preach to the heretics. Pope Innocent III refused. Bishop Diego obeyed but passed by Citeaux on his return trip to Osma to receive the habit of the Cistercians. He then proceeded to Montpellier where he met other Cistercian monks who were previously appointed by the pope to combat heresy in southern France. So far the Cistercian monks had had little success in converting the heretics. Many of these heretics had abandoned the church because of the corruption and luxurious life of the clergy. Bishop Diego, therefore, advised the monks to adopt a more ascetic lifestyle and to espouse a life of evangelical poverty to make their preaching more effective. The monks agreed, but only if Diego would give them a lead. Diego accepted the challenge and sent all his attendants home except Dominic. Beginning in 1205 Diego, Dominic and the Cistercians went about engaging the heretics in theological debates. Although the heretics could not refute Dominic’s arguments, very little conversion was taking place. It was probably during this time in 1206 when, according to an ancient tradition, the Blessed Virgin appeared to Dominic in a vision instructing him to use the rosary as a means of winning the heretics back to the faith. Although the vision of St. Dominic, which gives St. Dominic the credit for originating the rosary, is today being challenged by many scholars as purely mythical or legendary, there is reason to believe that the vision was authentic. Indeed, that form of prayer that consists in the repeated recitation of the Hail Mary and that utilizes beads in counting the Hail Marys, may not have originated from St. Dominic. But the rosary, as a meditative prayer and weapon against heresy, did originate from St. Dominic and the Blessed Virgin. See The Origin of the Holy Rosary.
Saint Dominic (with St. Catherine of Siena) Receiving the Rosary from the Blessed Virgin
A painting at the Trinity Chapel of Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Venice) by Gramiccia Lorenzo (1702-1795)
Photo by Didier Descouens, May 13, 2015.
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In the same year, Diego also received permission from Bishop Fulk of Toulouse to establish a monastery at Prouille (France) for women who returned to the faith and became nuns. In 1207 Diego decided to return to his diocese to raise funds and left Dominic behind to continue their preaching apostolate. Before leaving, Diego entrusted the temporal care of the preachers and nuns to William Claret, and their spiritual care to Dominic. Bishop Diego died before reaching France, so Dominic became the new leader of the preachers and the nuns at Prouille. With their headquarters in Prouille Dominic and his small band of preachers visited other towns in France, and continued praying for, preaching to, and disputing with, the heretics.
The Establishment of the Order of Preachers
In 1215 Dominic and his band of preachers formed themselves as a preaching order of canons regulars under the authority of Bishop Fulk in Toulouse. Although the Bishop allowed the preachers to preach anywhere in his territory, Dominic’s greater dream was to establish a preaching order that would not be limited in its apostolate to a diocese, but one which could preach anywhere in the whole wide world. In the same year, Dominic and Bishop Fulk, therefore, went to see the pope at the Fourth Lateran Council to seek his confirmation for an Order of Preachers that would have a worldwide apostolate. When instructed by Pope Innocent III to choose a rule of life for the new order, Dominic and his friars chose the Rule of St. Augustine, with modifications for stricter observances on the diet, fasting, etc. It was during his second visit to Rome in 1216 that Dominic met Francis of Assisi, who was also seeking Papal confirmation for his Order of Friars Minors. The Order of Preachers was confirmed by Pope Honorius III on December 22, 1216, in a Papal Bull Religiosam vitam (see below). Then on January 21, 1217, he approved the special end of the order: preaching for the salvation of souls. The Pope also gave Dominic the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome, along with his family land to build a convent for the friars.
Papal Bull Religiosam vitam by Pope Honorius III
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For an English translation of the text, see Biographical Documents, Ch. 9
In 1220 the first General Chapter of the Order of Preachers was held in Bologna where the constitutions and administrative details of the order were formed. It was legislated that the Chapter would have superior authority than the head of the order, who was henceforth to be called magister predicatorum. It was also established that the rule and constitutions were not to bind under pain of sin and that all rules were dispensable for the sake of study and preaching (See Prologue, Early Dominicans – Classics of Western Spirituality Series, p. 457). This provision is still in the current Fundamental Constitution, VI.
Dominic died on August 6, 1221, just 5 years after the Order was confirmed by the Pope. Compared to other saints, such as St. John Vianney or St. Alphonsus Liguori, Saint Dominic had a relatively short life, for he lived only to the age of 51. In fact, he was already 33 years old when he realized what work God wanted him to do.
Radiographs of the Remains of St. Dominic
Photo by Georges Jansoone
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Dominic was canonized as a saint of the Catholic Church by Pope Gregory IX in 1234.
The Order of Preachers - A Work of Divine Providence
God is so good and powerful that He often draws good out of evil. One could say that the formation of the Dominican Order, as well as the vigorous growth in scholarship that happened in the years following its foundation, was a providential and fruitful reaction to the hostile stimulus provided by the errors of medieval heresies. As Ronald A. Knox once observed, “The fine flower of Christian scholarship is fertilized, you may say, by the decaying corpse of false doctrine.” See The Occasional Sermons of Ronald A. Knox, Part I, Ch. 8 (Sheed & Ward Inc., N.Y., 1960), p. 35.
As saints were produced during the cruel Roman persecutions, so the clear elucidation and defense of the Catholic Faith were occasioned by the need to protect the church against the errors of various heresies.
St. Dominic: An Innovator
During the time of St. Dominic preaching was primarily the office of the bishop. Sometimes, this task was assigned to pastors, but they were not well-trained for the work. On the other hand, the learned monks (members of monastic orders) might be capable of preaching, but they were of little help because they lived in seclusion and away from urban parishes. St. Dominic changed all this by forming an Order of Preachers, whose members (a) would share directly in the preaching office of the bishop, but (b) whose work would not be limited, like the work of the canons regulars, to just one specific diocese.
St. Dominic Adoring the Crucifixion
Painting by Fra Angelico (1395-1455)
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In this sense, Dominic was a bold innovator in proposing a brotherhood of priests that could share directly in the preaching office of the bishop. It was also due to his innovation that study and preaching became an essential element of religious life. Although prayer remained essential in the Dominican monastic life, it was to Saint Dominic’s innovation that the obligation for oral and liturgical prayer was reduced as required by the needs of preaching and study.
REFERENCES AND RECOMMENDED READINGS
2. The Revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden, Book III, Ch. 17: "The Virgin Praises St. Dominic and His Rule."