SAINT DOMINIC [Confessor, c.1170-1221]
Dominic de Guzman was one of those best and remarkable assets that characterized the Medieval Europe. He founded Order of Preachers, or Dominicans as the order is usually called.
Today, Australia is celebrating his feast. So let’s get him for a chat.
JF: So St Dominic, do you mind telling us about yourself?
Dominic: Well, as you know, I’m a Spaniard. I come from a family of the Castilian nobility at Caleruega, in 1170. My childhood attraction to the religious life was encouraged by my mum or Dona Juana as she was commonly known.
JF: I understood that you really had this priestly vocation, in the sense that you underwent priestly training rather smoothly or having no serious obstacles at all.
Dominic: Not really. It was not a smooth journey. But anyway, in 1195, after several years of study in the liberal arts and theology, I was ordained. I spent my first years as a priest at the cathedral of Osma as one of its canons.
JF: And how was it for you?
Dominic: It was great.
JF: I believed in you. Because I heard that while you were serving the first few years of your priesthood, people began to notice your spiritual qualities that were to characterize your life: a completely selfless love of God, a profound understanding of the needs of the soul, and a warm desire to help other men satisfy those needs by bringing them the word of God.
Dominic: I was just trying to be faithful to my vocation.
JF: And after your assignment in the Cathedral, where else did you work as priest?
Dominic: In 1203, I was sent with Diego de Acevedo, bishop of Osma, on a mission to Denmark for Alfonso VIII, the king of Castile. It was a challenging mission, because the way led through Languedoc in southern France, the Albigensian heresy was flourishing, and in fact while on that trip, we had many contacts with heretics. The experience so aroused our zeal that, when our work for the king was over, we went to Rome and requested Pope Innocent III to send us as missionaries to the pagans of the Volga region.
JF: And did the Pope grant your wish?
Dominic: No, instead he persuaded us to return to France and fight the Albigenses, who were spreading rapidly.
JF: And did you go?
Dominic: Yes, Bishop Diego and I went back to Languedoc. There we joined forces with the Cistercians, who had been combating the heresy for some time, but with poor results.
JF: Wait a moment, can you please tell me what this Albigensian heresy is all about?
Dominic: This heretical sect first appeared at Albi but the principal centers became Toulouse and Carcassonne, from which the heresy spread through Languedoc. They who believed that matter was evil and that earthly existence was best ended by suicide. They led lives of fanatical austerity. In fact, the Cistercians were not nearly as self-denying as they are, for they went about the country with servants and rich baggages. So obviously, for the people, it seemed obvious which group had the more Christian spirit. Therefore, for the heretics, the monks’ angry denunciations of the heretics had a hollow ring.
JF: Oh what an insurmountable mountain it was indeed? But I believed you got them at last?
Dominic: I was determined to remedy this situation. I urged the monks who preached against heresy to be the living examples of a true Christian spirit themselves, that they should own nothing and should travel on foot, depending on the alms of the faithful for support; that they should preach, not merely with zeal, but with understanding and charity; above all, that they should do the work out of love for God and man, not any lesser motive. You know, too often, hatred seemed to be the compelling force for zealous heretic hunters.
JF: And was it effective?
Dominic: A little. Because even with this new spirit, the struggle remained a difficult one, to the extent that even Bishop Diego finally in discouragement left for Spain.
JF: And how about you? Were you not thinking of giving up?
Dominic: No, I stayed. I was inspired to found an order. So in 1206, at Prouille, I formed a group that was to be the forerunner of the order. This was a convent of nine nuns, all converts from the heresy, and a small monastery of “brothers” who directed the nuns’ spiritual life.
JF: I understand that to start a new order is not that easy. Was that a smooth beginning for you?
Dominic: No, not at all. In 1208, civil war broke out in Languedoc between orthodox and heretic. I followed the orthodox army, doing what I could to bring a little mercy into the conduct of the war, which was fought with viciousness on both sides. At the same time, I preached the true doctrine incessantly. By the grace of God, it broke the strength of the heretical movement.
JF: So, that’s a graced moment for you then?
Dominic: In a way, yes. With the lessening of danger from heresy, I began to formulate more clearly the ideas my experiences tell me for a new religious order. I had in mind that this order is to be linked with traditional monasticism, in that its members would be professed religious, with contemplation and prayer at the heart of their existence; its radically new feature was to be the sharing with others of the fruits of that contemplative life by teaching and preaching.
JF: What a noble idea indeed! Do you think that was really what God wants for you to do?
Dominic: I thought so. But to abide with the Church’s law, I went to Rome to obtain approval for my order in 1215. The pope then approved it readily but just verbally. I went back to Prouille, where I drew up the rule for the men based mainly on that of Saint Augustine.
JF: So it was established formally then?
Dominic: Yes, and in August of 1216, I went back to Rome to receive formal approval for the order from Pope Honorius III. After it gained the Pope’s confirmation, at Prouille, in August of 1217, I assembled all my followers for a last address and then sent them to establish houses at various places in France and Spain. I myself opted to return to Rome, once more hoping that I would be sent to the East as a missionary.
JF: And was this wish of yours granted readily as well?
Dominic: No. Pope Honorius, however, asked me to stay in Rome, and for the next six months, I remained there and taught theology, did preach in Saint Peter’s, and many other things.
JF: Did you stay in Rome for how long?
Dominic: Not very long. From 1218 to 1220, I travelled about in Spain, France, and Italy, and established more houses for my order. Several of these were in university towns, reflecting my main motive and conviction that the best intellectual training and much study were essential for priests whose mission it was to preach and to combat heresy.
JF: It seems now that your order is expanding. How did you manage all of them?
Dominic: A general chapter was held in Bologna in 1220 to think about the right and proper administration of the order. I then decided to take up residence there. There, I had the chance to visited Francis of Assisi in Cremona later that year. We became friends when we met in Rome one time.
JF: Oh that was amazing of you two. Anyway, thanks so much Dominic for chatting with me. Cheers for your feast day.
On August 6, 1221, Dominic died, at the young age of 51. His order, together with that of Saint Francis (who died five years after Dominic), was to bring a new spirit into every branch of European life in the succeeding years. Art, learning, social life, religious expression: through the work of the mendicant friars, all these were to feel the transforming effect of the Christian poverty and brotherly love that Dominic and Francis had lived so nobly.