Saint Dominic was the founder of the Ordo Praedicatorum (Order of Preachers), more commonly known as the Dominican Order. Saint Dominic was born in Caleruega in 1170, a town in the Kingdom of Castile. At that time the church was struggling against the Albigensian heresy in southern France. The Albigensians believed that matter was evil, and created by an evil god, and only spiritual things could be good. This Albigensian heresy was causing turmoil all over France, which often erupted into violence. Saint Dominic dedicated his life to returning the Albigensians back to the Christian faith through preaching. To this end, he founded the Order of Preachers (Dominican Order) which has continued this mission of preaching to this day, long after the Albigensians have been forgotten.
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saint Dominic, founder of the Dominican order. He is also known as Dominic of Osma or Dominic of Caleruega
Saint Dominic was born in 1170 in Caleruega, Castille (which is in modern-day Spain), from an aristocratic family. This account of Saint Dominic’s early life and education is from Butler’s lives of the saints
The saint at fourteen years of age was sent to the public schools of Palentia, which were soon after transferred to Salamanca, where the university, which is the most famous and best provided in all Spain, was erected in the middle of the thirteenth century. Dominic here laid in a solid stock of learning, and became a great proficient in rhetoric, philosophy, and divinity. He was well versed in the knowledge of the holy scriptures and fathers. Instructed by the oracle of the Holy Ghost that the spirit of the Lord rests only on chaste souls, he watched with the utmost attention over his heart, and its avenues, which are the senses; these he kept in constant subjection by austere mortification. Always walking in the presence of God he made his conversation even with the virtuous very short. Boards or the floor were the only bed on which he took his rest. The death of his mother was a sensible affliction to him; but he improved it to a more perfect disengagement of his heart from the world. From her example he had learned a tender devotion to the holy Mother of God, and an extraordinary affection for the poor; to assist whom, in a famine, he not only gave all his money and goods, but sold even his books and his own writings and commentaries. This was in the twenty-first year of his age. So heroic a charity touched the hearts of all the masters, scholars, and citizens; the latter opened their granaries, and the former emptied their purses to supply the necessitous. Thus Dominic, yet a scholar, became by his example a preacher to his masters. The charity with which his heart was moved towards all who were in distress seemed to have no bounds. A poor woman one day begged of him with many tears an alms to redeem her brother, who was made a slave by the Moors. The saint’s heart seemed rent with compassion, and having already given away all his money to others, he said to her: “I have neither gold nor silver; but am able to work. Offer me to the Moor in exchange for your brother. I am willing to be his slave.” The woman, astonished at such a proposal, durst not accept it; but Dominic’s charity was not less before God. As soon as he had finished his studies and taken his degrees, he explained the holy scriptures in the schools, and preached the word of God to the people at Palentia with wonderful reputation and success. Every one looked upon the man of God as an oracle, consulted him in all doubts, whether of learning or of conscience, and acquiesced in his decisions.
At the age of 24, he was ordained a priest, serving at the canonry of the Cathedral of Osma. His Bishop, Diego de Azevedo recognized Saint Dominic’s talent and gave him important responsibilities in the cathedral. In particular, when Bishop Diego was tasked by the King of Castille to travel to Denmark to arrange the marriage of his son to a Danish princess, the bishop decided to bring Saint Dominic along in this long and difficult journey.
As they traveled through southern France, Saint Dominic had his first encounter with the Cathar, or Albigensian heretics – who would later be the focus of his ministry. The Albigensians were dualists. They believed that only spiritual things could be good, and material things were evil. Christian theology asserts that everything God creates is good. Versions of this heresy have popped up periodically in different forms. Even in scriptures, the apostles warned about the gnostics, which were predecessors of this Albigensian or Cathar heresy. This short passage from Benedict Ashley’s the Dominicans recounts this first fateful encounter with the Cathar heretics
The journey proved the turning point in Dominic’s life, opening his eyes to a wider world and its problems. As they passed through southern France they encountered a shocking situation. While Dominic knew of the Moors and Jews in Spain, here he met former Christians who had become alienated from the Church and converted to the religion of the Cathari (Pure Ones), often called Albigensians from their stronghold at Albi.
This strange cult had its remote origins in the Gnosticism over which the Church had triumphed in the second century but had then passed through the Manichaeism of Persia to the Paulicians of Armenia, then in the ninth century to the Bogomils of Bulgaria, in the tenth to Constantinople, then in the twelfth with the Second Crusaders to northern Italy, France, and the Rhineland, and finally was achieving its greatest success among the nobility of southern France. There it took the form of a radical dualism according to which the visible creation was attributed to an evil god.
One night at an inn in Toulouse, Dominic engaged in a discussion about these doctrines with an innkeeper (who was probably a deacon of the Catharist church). Dominic was so moved by meeting this man deluded by the myth of two gods, one good but remote and hidden, and the other evil but creative, that, weary as he must have been after hours on horseback, he sat up all night talking with him and by dawn had won him back to the true God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Bishop Diego and Saint Dominic made it to Denmark and were successful in arranging the marriage between the Spanish prince and the Danish princess, but unforturnately the princess died before making it to Spain. After this unfortunate end with their dealings with Denmark, Saint Dominic and Bishop Diego decided to devote themselves to bring the Albigensian heretics they observed in France back to the Christian church. Again, from Butler’s lives of the saints:
Being desirous to devote themselves to labour for the conversion of souls deprived of the light of faith, they sent back their equipage into Spain, and went themselves to Rome, to ask of Pope Innocent III leave either to stay at Languedoc, to labour among the Albigenses, or to go to preach the gospel to the infidels in the north. His holiness, charmed with their zeal and virtue, exhorted them rather to choose the neighbouring harvest, and to oppose a heresy which threatened the church with the utmost fury. The holy bishop begged he might be allowed to resign his episcopal see in Spain. This his holiness would not consent to, but gave him leave to stay two years in Languedoc. In their return they made a visit of devotion to Citeaux, a place then renowned for the sanctity of the monks that inhabited it. They arrived at Montpellier towards the end of the year 1205, where they met several Cistercian abbots, who were commissioned by the pope to oppose the reigning heresies. The archbishop and Dominic proposed that to labour with success, they ought to employ persuasion and example rather than terror: and that their preachers should imitate the poverty of Christ and the apostles, travelling on foot, without money, equipage, or provisions. The abbots readily came into the proposal, and sent away their horses and servants. These missionaries saw the dangers and difficulties that attended the undertaking, but they were persuaded they should be abundantly recompensed for all they could suffer if they should be so happy as to become instrumental in rescuing one soul from the slavery of sin, or to lay down their life in such a cause. The prodigious growth of impiety in that country, and the obstinacy of the disease moved them to compassion, but did not terrify them, though the evils seemed extreme. The heretics, not content to fill their own country with terror and desolation, overran several other provinces in troops of four, five, or eight thousand men, pillaged the countries, and massacred the priests, flaying some alive and scourging others to death; in plundering the churches, they broke and profaned the sacred vessels, and sacrilegiously converted the ornaments of the altars into women’s clothes. King Philip Augustus cut in pieces ten thousand of these banditti in the province of Berri, they having penetrated into the very centre of his kingdom. Dominic undertook to stem the torrent by his feeble voice; and God was pleased to make his preaching the instrument of his grace to strike the rocks, to open the uncircumcised ears, and to soften the hardened hearts of many which even the thunder of a Saint Bernard had not been able to move. The conversion of many most obstinate sinners may be regarded as the greatest of our saint’s miracles.
Bishop Diego and Saint Dominic were persistent in bringing the Albigensian heretics to repentance. Unfortunately, Bishop Diego would pass away and leave Saint Dominic alone in this ministry.
In the year 1215, at 46 years of age Saint Dominic had the desire to form an order of preachers, which would become today the Dominican order. He went to Rome to seek the Pope’s blessing for this endeavour. After some hesitation, Saint Dominic was granted permission to form his new order, under the condition that the new order would follow the existing rules of another order. This is because a recent church council had banned the formation of new religious orders because they were already too many. This account is from Lacordaire’s life of Saint Dominic:
Although he had the happiness
of finding Innocent III still the occupant of the Papal throne, the Holy Father did not at
once accede to Dominic’s request. He had readily consented to take the convent of
Prouille under the guardianship of the Holy See, and had issued letters to that effect,
dated 8 th October 1215; but the Holy Father hesitated to give his approval to a new Order
dedicated to preaching.
Historians allege two reasons for this repugnance. First, that preaching being an office
transmitted by the Apostles to the Bishops, it seemed contrary to antiquity that it should
be exercised by any other than the Episcopal order. True that the Bishops had for some
time voluntarily abstained from the honor of announcing the Word of God, and that the
fourth Lateran Council, recently held, had enjoined that the pulpits should be filled by
Priests, capable of preaching in the Bishop’s stead. Still, it was one thing for eachindividual Bishop to provide for instructions throughout his diocese by the appointment
of vicars revocable at will, and another to confide to a particular Order the perpetual and
universal function of preaching. Would not the latter virtually be the formation of an
apostolic order within the Church, and could any other apostolic order exist besides that
of the Episcopacy? Such was the question to which Dominic’s zeal had given birth – a
question this which Innocent III could not at once resolve, as, notwithstanding the above-
named reasons, much was to be said on the other side. The apostolate was decidedly
languishing, and the increasing spread of heresy was due to the absence of skilled and
zealous instruction. The councils held in Languedoc during the Albigensian war, had
unanimously reminded the Bishops of this part of their duty. But Apostles are created by
the grace of God, and not be the decrees of councils. On returning to their palaces, the
Bishops found in the administration of diocesan and state affairs, and in the almost
irresistible force of circumstances, an excuse for their religious inertia. Neither was it an
easy thing to find persons who could instruct in their stead. One cannot say to a Priest,
“Be thou an Apostle!” The apostolic character is the result of a particular course of life.
Such was common in the Early Church, because the whole world having to be conquered,
all minds pursued the only course of action capable of attaining that end. But since the
Church has become the universal sovereign of nations, the pastoral office has superseded
the apostolic one, the aim being rather to preserve than to extend the kingdom of Christ.
Now, by a law to which all created things are subject – where progress ends, death begins
– the conservative régime, though sufficing with the majority, is incapable of restraining
certain ardent minds that escape from a service that does not urge them onwards, as
soldiers weary when never led to face the foe. Such souls, though isolated at first, rally
together unobserved, creating the excitement they need, until the day when, deeming
themselves sufficiently strong, they teach the Church, by their sudden irruption, that the
human intellect is kept faithful in its allegiance to truth only by ding of perpetual
reconquest. . . The state of Europe had but too well revealed this law of humanity to
Innocent III. Ought he then to refuse the succor so opportunely proffered, and resist the
Divine Spirit, who, besides raising up to His Church many a worthy Bishop, now gave a
band of Monks as their co-operators? Still, there was a difficulty in the way. The
Lateran Council having decreed, that in order to avoid the confusion and inconvenience
resulting from the multiplicity of Religious Orders, no new ones should be founded, how
could he act in opposition to this solemn decision?
God, who vouchsafes to the Catholic Church an assistance, the perpetuity of which is one
of the visible miracles of His wisdom, desiring only to prove Dominic by this final trial,
now dissipated the Holy Father’s anxiety. Sleeping one night in the palace of St. John
Lateran, he dreamt he saw the basilica about to fall, and Dominic supporting the falling
walls on his own shoulders. Warned by this inspiration, he sent for Dominic, whom he
ordered to return to Languedoc, to select, in concert with his companions, that one of the
ancient Rules which should appear to him most suited for the formation of the new
militia with which he desired to enrich the Church. In this way the Lateran decree would
be observed, and the seal and protection of antiquity given to a new undertaking.
Saint Dominic would spend the next few years building this new order of preachers. He would settle in Bologna, in Italy in 1218, and live there for the rest of his life. He would pass away there in 1221, at the age of 51.
The Dominican order he founded would have an immense influence on the Catholic church in the centuries to come. (Formally, they are still known as Ordo Praedicatorum, the Order of Preachers) As of the year 2020, the order has more than 5000 members spread out all over the world, including more than 4000 priests. The Dominicans are known as a mendicant order, that is they adopt a lifestyle of poverty, charity and simplicity while preaching, with a special focus towards the poor. This is in keeping with the example of Saint Dominic himself.
Perhaps the way in which the Dominican order has been most influential in the life of the average Roman Catholic is in popularizing the Rosary prayer. Saint Dominic did not invent this prayer, it existed in some form centuries before, but the Dominican Order did create the formulation of the prayer that is commonly in use today. Let us recite part of the Rosary prayer:
The time for the Incarnation is at hand.
Saint Dominic himself is one of the most beloved of the western saints. He has the unique distinction as being the only person who has two independent countries named after him: that is the Dominican Republic in Central America, and the Commonwealth of Dominica in the Carribean. His feast day is on August 8, and is recognized by both the Roman Catholic church and the Anglican church.
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Christian saints podcast. Look for the Christian Saints podcast page on Facebook or Instagram, or look for us on Twitter at podcast_saints. All music in this episode was composed by my good friend, James John Marks of Generative sounds. Please check out his music at https://generativesoundsjjm.bandcamp.com/
Let us end this hymn, which is sung during the Novena prayers for Saint Dominic, which are prayed during his feast day:
Thou who hero-like has striven
For the cause of God and heaven,
St. Dominic, whose life was given
Sinners to recall.
Saint of high and dauntless spirit,
By thy vast unmeasured merit,
By thy name which we inherit
Hear us when we call.
Flower of chastity the fairest
Of her lily buds thou bearest,
Snow white as the robe thou wearest,
Gift of hands divine.
With thy brow of starry splendor
With thine eyes so mild and tender
Mary’s client, Truth’s defender,
To our prayers incline.