Saint Dominic is the founder of the Order of Preachers, commonly known as the Dominican Order. He was born at Calaroga, in Old Castile, around the year 1170. He died August 6, 1221. His parents, Felix Guzman and Jane of Aza, undoubtedly belonged to the nobility of Spain, though probably neither was connected with the reigning house of Castile, as some of the saint’s biographers assert.
Little is known about Felix Guzman. Dominic’s mother, Jane of Aza, was a holy woman, upright in virtue and full of integrity. In 1828, Pope Leo XII beatified her. The example of Dominic’s parents had a profound effect upon their children. Saint Dominic was not the only child in his family known for practicing extraordinary sanctity. Dominic’s oldest brother, Antonio, became a secular priest and, having distributed his patrimony to the poor, entered a hospital where he spent his life ministering to the sick. Following in the footsteps of Dominic, his other brother, Manes, became a Friar Preacher and was beatified by Pope Gregory XVI.
From age seven to fourteen St. Dominic pursued his elementary studies under the tutelage of his maternal uncle, the archpriest of Gumiel d’lzan. In 1184 Saint Dominic entered the University of Palencia. Here he remained for ten years, pursuing his studies with such ardor and success that throughout the university he was admired by his teachers and peers as a true scholar.
Amid the frivolities and dissipations of a university city, the life of the future saint was characterized by seriousness of purpose and an austerity which singled him out as one from whom great things might be expected in the future. However, more than once he proved that under this austere exterior he had a most tender heart. On one occasion, he sold his books-which were dear to him and annotated with his own hand-in order to relieve the sufferings of the starving poor of Palencia. His biographer and contemporary, Bartholomew of Trent, states that twice he tried to sell himself into slavery to obtain money for the liberation of those who were held in captivity by the Moors.
Although Dominic’s biographers are silent about the date of his ordination, we know that after university, he was ordained to the Catholic priesthood.
In 1203 the King of Castile, Alfonso IX, deputed the Bishop of Osma to demand on behalf of the king’s son, Prince Ferdinand, the hand of the Lord of the Marches’ daughter. (The Lord of the Marches was presumably a Danish prince.) For his companion on this embassy, Bishop Don Diego chose Saint Dominic. Passing on their mission through Toulouse, the bishop and Dominic witnessed with amazement and sorrow the work of spiritual ruin wrought by the Albigensian heresy. Contemplating this scene, Dominic conceived for the first time the idea of founding an Order that would combat heresy and spread the light of the Gospel by preaching to the ends of the then known world.
After their first mission ended successfully, Bishop Don Diego and Dominic were dispatched on a second embassy for the purpose of escorting the betrothed princess to Castile. This mission, however, was derailed by the sudden death of the young princess. The two priests were now free to go where they would, so they set out for Rome, arriving there towards the end of 1204. Diego had decided to resign his bishopric so that he could devote himself to the conversion of unbelievers in distant lands, and he went to Rome seeking permission. However, Pope Innocent III refused to approve this project, and instead sent the bishop and Dominic to Languedoc to join forces with the Cistercians, to whom he had entrusted the crusade against the Albigensians.
The scene that confronted St. Dominic and Diego on their arrival in Languedoc was not an encouraging one. The Cistercians living in the region should have been fighting the Albigensian heresy, but their worldly manner of living was not persuading anyone to become Christian. They had entered into their work with considerable pomp; they also lived a glaringly comfortable life. Therefore, to counter the Cistercians’ display of worldliness, the leaders of the heretical Albigensians proposed a rigid asceticism which commanded the respect and admiration of their followers.
Diego and Dominic quickly recognized that the failure of the Cistercian apostolate was due to the monks’ indulgent habits. They strongly encouraged the Cistercians to adopt a more austere way of life. Because of the convincing testimony of these two men, great numbers of Cistercians reformed their lives.
Theological disputes played a prominent part in the propaganda of the heretical Albigensians. Dominic and the bishop, therefore, lost no time in engaging their opponents in spirited conversation on matters of faith. Whenever the opportunity arose, they accepted the opportunity to teach and challenge. The thorough training that St. Dominic had received at Palencia now proved of inestimable value to him in his encounters with the heretics. Unable to refute his arguments or counteract the influence of his preaching, the Albigensians grew bitter and heaped upon him repeated insults and threats of physical violence.
With his headquarters in Prouille, Dominic labored in his preaching in the areas of Fanjeaux, Montpellier, Servian, Béziers, and Carcassonne. Early in his apostolate around Prouille, the saint realized the necessity of an institution that would protect the women of that country from the influence of the heretics. Many women had already embraced Albigensianism and were its most active propagandists. These women erected convents, to which the children of the Catholic nobility were often sent–for lack of anything better –to receive an education. In the process, the children were tainted by the spirit of the heresy. To supply for the needs of these women, Saint Dominic, with the permission of Foulques, Bishop of Toulouse, established a convent at Prouille in 1206. To this community he gave the rule and constitutions which have ever since guided the nuns of the Second Order of Saint Dominic.
On January 15, 1208 Pierre de Castelnau, one of the Cistercian legates, was assassinated. This crime precipitated the crusade under Simon de Montfort, which led to the temporary subjugation of the heretics. Saint Dominic participated in the stirring scenes that followed, but always on the side of mercy, wielding the arms of the spirit while others wrought death and desolation with the sword. Some historians assert that during the sack of Béziers, Dominic appeared in the streets of that city, cross in hand, interceding for the lives of the women and children, the aged and the infirm. The testimony of the most reliable historians, however, tends to prove that the saint was neither in the city nor in its vicinity when Béziers was sacked by the crusaders. During this period he was generally following the Catholic army, reviving religion, and reconciling heretics in the cities that had capitulated to, or had been taken by, the victorious de Montfort.
St. Dominic possibly first came into contact with Simon de Montfort in September, 1209 and formed with him an intimate friendship which would last until the death of the brave crusader under the walls of Toulouse (June 25, 1218). Dominic was at the side of de Montfort at the siege of Lavaur in 1211, and again with him in 1212 at the capture of La Penne d’Ajen. In the latter part of 1212 Dominic was at Pamiers, laboring at the invitation of de Montfort for the restoration of religion and morality. Just before the battle of Muret, September 12, 1213, the saint was again found in the council that preceded the battle. During the conflict, he knelt before the altar in the church of Saint-Jacques, praying for the triumph of the Catholic arms. So remarkable was the victory of the crusaders at Muret that Simon de Montfort regarded it as altogether miraculous, and piously attributed the victory to the prayers of Saint Dominic. In gratitude to God for this decisive victory, the crusader erected a chapel in the church of Saint-Jacques, which it is said he dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary. (It would appear, therefore, that the devotion of the rosary, which tradition says was revealed to Saint Dominic, had come into general use about this time.)
St. Dominic’s increasing reputation for heroic sanctity, apostolic zeal, and profound learning caused him to be much sought after as a candidate for various bishoprics. Between 1212 and 1215, three distinct efforts were made to assign him to the episcopate. But Saint Dominic absolutely refused all episcopal honors, saying that he would rather take flight in the night, with nothing but his staff, than accept the episcopate.
By 1214, the influence of Dominic’s preaching and the eminent holiness of his life had drawn around him a small band of devoted disciples eager to follow wherever he might lead. Saint Dominic never forgot his purpose–confirmed eleven years before–of founding a religious order to combat heresy and propagate religious truth. Now seemed to be the opportune time for the realization of his plan. With the approval of Bishop Foulques of Toulouse, Dominic began to organize his followers. So that Dominic and his companions might possess a fixed source of revenue, Foulques made St. Dominic the chaplain of Fanjeaux. In July, 1215 the bishop canonically established the community as a religious congregation of his diocese, whose mission was both the propagation of true doctrine and morals and the eradication of heresy.
During this same year, Pierre Seilan, a wealthy citizen of Toulouse who had placed himself under the direction of Saint Dominic, put at the group’s disposal his own home. Through this man’s generosity, the first convent of the Order of Preachers was founded on April 25, 1215. (The community dwelt here only a year because Bishop Foulques then established them in the church of Saint Romanus.)
Though the little community had proved the great need of its mission and the efficiency of its service to the Church, it was not yet satisfying the full purpose of its founder. The group was at best only a diocesan congregation, and Saint Dominic had dreamed of a worldwide order that would carry its apostolate to the ends of the earth. Unknown to the saint, however, his hopes would soon be realized. In November, 1215 an ecumenical council met in Rome “to deliberate on the improvement of morals, the extinction of heresy, and the strengthening of the faith.” The mission of this council was identical to the mission Saint Dominic had determined for his Order. Together with the Bishop of Toulouse, Dominic was present at the deliberations of this council.
From the very first session it seemed that Dominic’s plans for the order would be shortly realized. The council bitterly arraigned the bishops for their neglect of preaching. In canon X, the bishops were directed to delegate capable men to preach the word of God to the faithful. Under these circumstances, it appeared that Dominic’s request for the confirmation of an order designed to carry out the mandates of the council would be joyfully granted. But, while the council was anxious that these reforms should be put into effect as speedily as possible, it was also opposed to the institution of any new religious orders and had legislated to that effect in no uncertain terms. Moreover, preaching had always been looked upon as primarily a function of the episcopate. To bestow this office on an unknown and untried body of simple priests seemed too bold to the prelates who influenced the deliberations of the council. Dominic’s petition for the approval of his infant congregation was refused.
Returning to Languedoc at the close of the council in December, 1215, the founder gathered about him his little band of followers and informed them of the wish of the council that there should be no new rules for religious orders. The group therefore adopted the ancient rule of Saint Augustine, which, on account of its generality, would easily lend itself to any form they might wish to give it. Having established a rule, Saint Dominic again appeared before the pope in August, 1216, and again solicited the confirmation of his Order. This time Dominic was received more favorably. On December 22, 1216, the Bull of confirmation was issued.
Saint Dominic spent the following Lent preaching in various churches in Rome, as well as before the pope and the papal court. At this time he received the office and title of Master of the Sacred Palace, or Pope’s Theologian, as it is more commonly called. (This office has been held uninterruptedly by members of the Dominican Order from the founder’s time until now.)
On August 15, 1217, St. Dominic gathered the brethren around him at Prouille to deliberate the situation for his one-year-old Order. He decided upon the heroic plan of dispersing his little band of seventeen unformed followers over all Europe. To the eye of human prudence, at least, this action seemed nearly suicidal. However, St. Dominic received support and encouragement from the pope, thus affirming him in his vocation as a founder.
To facilitate the spread of the Order, Pope Honorius III on Feb. 11, 1218 addressed a Bull to all archbishops, bishops, abbots, and priors, requesting their favor on behalf of the Order of Preachers. By another Bull, dated Dec. 3, 1218, Honorius III bestowed upon the little community the Church of Saint Sixtus in Rome. Here amid the tombs of the Appian Way the Dominican Order founded its first monastery in Rome.
Dominic believed for many reasons that his followers should be afforded the best educational advantages possible. His own experience at the University of Palencia proved to him the importance of good education; he was also grateful for that education’s practical use which he had been able to exercise in his encounters with the Albigensians. St. Dominic had a keen awareness of the needs of his time. This awareness convinced him that a solid education for his Order would be the way to ensure the highest quality and effectiveness in his community’s preaching and apostolate. It was for this reason that, on the dispersal of the brethren at Prouille, he dispatched Matthew of France and two companions to Paris. A foundation of the Order was made near the university, and the friars moved in during October, 1217. Matthew of France was appointed superior of that place, and Michael de Fabra was put in charge of the studies with the title of Lecturer.
Having laid a foundation of his Order at the University of Paris, Saint Dominic next determined upon a settlement at the University of Bologna. After requesting the desired foundation from the pope in Rome, Bertrand of Garrigua, who had been summoned from Paris, and John of Navarre set out for Bologna with letters from Pope Honorius. On their arrival in Bologna, the church of Santa Maria della Mascarella was given to them. In the meantime, the Roman community of Saint Sixtus was growing so rapidly that the Order’s need of larger living quarters became urgent. Pope Honorius, who seemed to delight in supplying every need of the Order and furthering its interests to the utmost of his power, met the emergency by bestowing on Saint Dominic the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome.
Towards the end of 1218, having appointed Reginald of Orléans his vicar in Italy, St. Dominic and several of his brethren set out for Spain. On the way they visited Bologna, Prouille, Toulouse, and Fanjeaux. From Prouille, two of the brethren were sent to establish a convent at Lyons. The group reached Segovia just before Christmas.
In February, 1219 St. Dominic founded the first monastery of the Order in Spain. Turning southward, he established a convent for women in Madrid, similar to the one at Prouille. It is quite probable that on this journey he personally presided over the erection of a convent in connection with his alma mater, the University of Palencia. At the invitation of the Bishop of Barcelona, a house of the Order was established in that city.
Again heading towards Rome, he re-crossed the Pyrenees and visited the foundations at Toulouse and Paris. During his stay in Paris, he directed that houses be erected at Limoges, Metz, Reims, Poitiers, and Orléans, which in a short time became the center of Dominican activity. From Paris, Dominic traveled towards Italy, arriving in Bologna in July, 1219. Here he devoted several months to the religious formation of the brethren he found awaiting him, and then, as at Prouille, he dispersed them all over Italy. Among the foundations made at this time were those at Bergamo, Asti, Verona, Florence, Brescia, and Faenza.
From Bologna, Dominic went to Viterbo. Arriving at the papal court Dominic was showered with new favors upon his Order. Among these marks of esteem were many complimentary letters addressed by Pope Honorius to all those who had assisted the Fathers in their foundations. In March of this same year, Pope Honorius, through his representatives, bestowed upon the Order the Church of San Eustorgio in Milan. At the same time a foundation at Viterbo was authorized.
On his return to Rome, towards the end of 1219, Dominic sent out letters to all the convents announcing the first general chapter of the Order, to be held at Bologna on the feast of the following Pentecost. Shortly before, by a special brief, Pope Honorius had conferred upon St. Dominic the title of Master General, which until then Dominic had held only by quiet and humble consent. At the very first session of the chapter in the following spring, the saint startled his brethren by offering his resignation as Master General. Needless to say, the resignation was not accepted and the founder remained at the head of the community until the end of his life.
Soon after the close of the chapter of Bologna, Pope Honorius III addressed letters to the abbeys and priories of San Vittorio, Sillia, Mansu, Floria, Vallombrosa, and Aquila, ordering that several of their religious be deputed to begin, under the leadership of Saint Dominic, a preaching crusade in Lombardy, a place where heresy had developed alarming proportions. Somehow the plans of the pope were never realized. The promised support failing, Dominic, with a little band of his own brethren, threw himself into the field, and he spent himself in an effort to bring the heretics back to their allegiance to the Church. Accounts estimate that 100,000 unbelievers were converted by the preaching and the miracles of the saint.
Towards the end of 1221 Saint Dominic returned to Rome for the sixth and last time. Here he received many new and valuable concessions for the Order. In January, February, and March of 1221, three consecutive Bulls were issued commending the Order to all the prelates of the Church.
On May 30, 1221, Dominic was again in Bologna presiding over the second general chapter of the Order. At the close of the chapter, he set out for Venice to visit Cardinal Ugolino, to whom he was especially indebted for many substantial acts of kindness. Dominic had scarcely returned to Bologna when a fatal illness attacked him. He died after three weeks of sickness. During this illness, Dominic bore many trials with heroic patience. Not surprisingly, after signing the Bull of canonization at Spoleto on July 13, 1234, Gregory IX declared that he no more doubted the saintliness of Saint Dominic than he did that of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
The life of St. Dominic was one of tireless effort in the service of God. This athlete of Christ always conquered himself before attempting the reformation of others. While he journeyed from place to place, he prayed and preached almost uninterruptedly. His penances were of such a nature as to cause the brethren, who accidentally discovered them, to fear the effect upon his life. While Dominic’s charity was boundless, he never permitted it to interfere with the stern sense of duty that guided every action of his life. If he abominated heresy and labored untiringly for its end, it was because he loved truth and loved the souls of those for whom he labored. He never failed to distinguish between sin and the sinner.