If we hear someone speaking about the “Dominicans”, we immediate think of the Inquisition and the ‘black legend’ of the 18th century, when the Enlightenment proposed an image of the Middle Ages as a dark age of superstition and religious fanaticism. Those with fewer prejudices – and better educated – immediately associate the Dominicans with St Thomas Aquinas, with praying the Rosary, with the paintings of Fra Angelico. It is a rare person who thinks at once of their founder, whose name was the basis for the usual designation of his followers. To this day Dominic of Caleruega (previously called “de Guzmán”, from the name of the aristocratic family whose most famous son he was, according to a historiographic tradition within the Order) is on the whole little known, certainly not a popular saint like so many others, much more famous than he: Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Vincent Ferrer, Martin de Porres. This may be because his life – at least apparently – was not marked by extraordinary facts, unexpected developments, astounding miracles. Indeed, the foundation of the Order was the outcome of a gradual realisation: Dominic understood the need for a renewed proclamation of the Gospel, and acquiesced with the inspiration of the Spirit, who guided him in making his project a reality.
Now, on the 800th anniversary of his death, or – as liturgical and theological language would have it – his dies natalis, the day on which he was “born” into eternal life, we want not only to remember him, but to work to make his holiness better known and emphasise his role in the history of the Church.
The exact date of Dominic’s birth is uncertain: the most recent historical research suggests that he was born around 1174 in Caleruega, a small town in Old Castile in Spain. According to the old sources on his life, his parents were Felix and Jane; he also had two brothers, one of whom became a priest and the other, Mannes, followed him into the Order. His mother, a very prayerful woman, was known for her compassion and for her charitable zeal towards the poor of the region, to the point that she is said to have performed a number of miracles to the benefit of the disinherited. Before Dominic was born, she dreamed of a little dog with a blazing torch. This dream was interpreted as a heavenly portent that the child would be “destined to be a light to the gentiles” (Jordan of Saxony, Libellus de principiis Ordinis Praedicatorum, 9 – hereafter Libellus plus paragraph number). Dominic’s godmother saw a star on his brow: “God, who knows future things in advance, wishing to show that something great would come of the child, as a woman who was to hold the baby Dominic at the baptismal font was sleeping, showed her the following vision. In fact it seemed to his spiritual mother that the baby Dominic had a star on his brow, which lit the whole world with its light. This was to make it understood that he would be destined one day [to be] the light of the peoples, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. Like the morning star, in fact, he shone in the world and it seemed that with him a new light was born in our days, a light whose splendour is now spread throughout the world. It was this noble lady who, stunned by the greatness of the vision, with great joy told Dominic’s mother what she had seen.” (Humbert of Romans, Legenda Maior, 3 – hereafter LM plus paragraph number). In the Middle Ages such signs accompanying the birth of certain individuals were interpreted as a supernatural announcement of future holiness. Later these images were to be a regular feature of the iconography of Dominic, often represented with a star, as a shining metaphor for his heavenly wisdom.
From his earliest years the child seemed to confirm these high expectations. Indeed, the hagiographic sources, taking up the idea of the puer senex, a recurrent topos found from ancient times in the Lives of the Saints, relate that as a child Dominic had “a very good personality”, young in years but old “in the maturity of his life and the steadfastness of his habits”, and that he immediately began to “walk in the perfect way” and “to the end he kept the bright ornament of his virginity unspotted” (Libellus 8). His parents had him taught church disciplines by an uncle who was an archpriest “so that he was from his earliest years pervaded with an odour of holiness” (Libellus 5). He was subsequently sent to the University of Palencia, where, after completing the course of liberal sciences, he began to study theology. The story is told that in this period, during a famine that struck the city of Palencia, Dominic sold his valuable parchment texts in order to feed the population:
“While he was a student at Palencia, a famine arose and almost all Spain was stricken. Being moved with pity for the poor at the sight of their misery, he resolved at once to put into practice our Lord’s counsel and do all he could to relieve the wants of the dying poor. He sold all his belongings, even his books, which he very much needed in that city. Establishing a centre for almsgiving, he distributed his goods and gave them to the poor.” (Libellus 10).
This episode, which the witnesses at his canonisation process recalled, is highly significant: study has always been of primary importance for the Dominicans, and the intellectual vocation is a specific mark of their identity, almost a charism of the Order. But what this story made very clear was that not even books and culture could be given precedence over compassion and love for one’s neighbour.
This charitable gesture, as rare as it is exemplary, caught the attention of Bishop Martin of Osma (and of his prior Diego), and as a result in 1197 or 1198 he persuaded Dominic to become a regular canon in the Cathedral: by 1201, he was already sub-prior of the canonical community. His time in Osma was characterised by liturgical and personal prayer, study and community life: “He prayed without ceasing and, making use of the leisure afforded for contemplation, he scarcely ever left the monastery grounds”; here he began his lifelong custom of “spend[ing] his night-watches in prayer and, having shut the door, pray[ing] to the Father in secret”(Matt.6:6). He had the gift of tears: he wept “for sinners, the wretched and the afflicted” (Libellus 12-13), and in his prayers he asked God for the charity to devote himself to the salvation of men and women, in imitation of the Lord Jesus who had offered his entire self for this end. The apostle was already taking shape in Dominic.
The death of Bishop Martin was an important turning point in the life of the young canon: Martin’s successor was Diego, prior of the canonical Chapter and a great admirer of Dominic’s. As the new bishop was much to the taste of the king of Castile, he was charged soon after his appointment in 1203/4 to go on a diplomatic mission to Denmark to arrange the marriage of the king’s son to an aristocratic young Danish woman. Diego decided to take Dominic with him. As they were crossing southern France, the two Spaniards came into contact with the heresy of the Albigensians (so called after the famous Occitan city of Albi, where there were many Cathars, as the Albigensians were often called). One night, near Toulouse, the bishop’s party stopped for the night in an inn whose keeper was a heretic. The journey was exhausting, but Dominic chose not to rest but to talk to the innkeeper, and after a lengthy discussion, “by God’s grace” the man was converted: this first apostolic effort was the fruit of Dominic’s being “moved to pity at the great number of souls being so wretchedly deluded” (Libellus 15).
After retuning to Osma, Diego and Dominic set out once again for Denmark with the royal mandate to settle the marriage and bring the betrothed to her bridegroom. It appears, however, that the young woman had died, so no marriage could be contracted. On their way back, in the summer of 1205, Diego and Dominic made a detour to Rome to meet with Pope Innocent III and ask his permission to go to the Cumans, still pagans, in order to convert them; but the pope did not consent, and sent them back to their Spanish diocese. Humbert of Romans interprets this refusal of the pope’s as prophetic:
But the Pope did not grant these petitions, or even the further request that he be allowed to remain a bishop while permitted to enter Cuman territory and preach. Thus, on his way back, he visited Citeaux and then hastened back to Spain. But divine Providence, which had already several times held him back from what he had in mind, by God’s hidden design, in view of something more important, was now preparing yet another obstacle on this path. (LM 7)
In Montpelier, they met a papal legation who were preaching the conversion of the heretics, and Diego, seeing how richly they were attired, exclaimed:
“This is not the way, my brethren, this is not the way for you to proceed. I do not think it possible, by words alone, to lead back to the faith such men as are better attracted by example. Look at the heretics! While they make a pretence at piety, while they give counterfeit examples of evangelical poverty and austerity, they win the simple people to their ways. Therefore, if you come with less poverty and austerity, you will give hardly any edification, you will cause much harm, and You will fail utterly of your objective. Match steel with steel, rout false holiness with the true religion, because the arrogance of these false apostles must be overthrown by genuine humility. […] So they asked him, “What is your advice, then, good Father?” and he answered, “Do what I am about to do.” And the spirit of the Lord entering into him, he called the men he had with him and sent them and his carriages and furnishings back to Osma, and kept only a few clerics as his companions. After that he announced that his present intention was to spend some time in that region to spread the faith. (Libellus 20)
This journey was to be of prime importance for the canons of Osma, who changed the objectives of their mission, realising that there was a serious problem of evangelisation within Christianity itself, a problem demanding urgent attention, because in southern France heresy had spread to an alarming degree.
Catharism was a dualist heresy, which was supposed to offer an answer to the problem of evil. Cathar doctrine explained the origins of the world in terms of a split in divine unity: Creation was the work of a lesser God or even, for the most radical tendencies, of Satan. This gave rise to the idea that Christ had not really been incarnated, but was an angel sent by the Father to proclaim the truth to humanity, to free their spirit, a gleaming spark of the divine, from the imprisonment and darkness of the flesh. Behind Catharism were ancient, fairly complex legends that went back to the origins of Christianity, to warped Gnostic tendencies. It is likely that this doctrinal nucleus was hardly accessible to most of its followers, but they did understand the practical, ethical implications of this radical rejection of matter, and assumed a severe discipline, abstaining from meat and from sexual relations. The final aim was to hinder the continuation of the human race. At the extreme fringes, it appears that those considered perfect actually practised ritual suicide, known as the “endura”. Despite its pessimistic message and extreme asceticism, Catharism – which had made its appearance in Europe in the previous century – had spread frighteningly in north Italy and in the Languedoc, to the point where it gave rise to a Church with a hierarchy parallel to Rome’s. The Cathar movement developed a powerful endeavour of proselytism which was underground but effective, and had a strong hold on the ordinary people: it laid emphasis on the contrast between the heroism of these “good Christians” and the opulence and power of the institutional Church. The courage of men and women who were ready to witness to their faith even with martyrdom won the admiration of all social classes. Meanwhile, the Church’s response to the spread of the phenomenon was slow and, initially, wholly inadequate.
Bishop Diego hit the mark perfectly when he identified the reasons for this failure: it was a problem of credibility and consistency. It is probable that he knew from experience that popular anticlericalism could not be overcome without ensuring that he and those like him could not be suspected of worldliness: they must present themselves as authentic viri evangelici. So he set out to preach and engage in discussion with the heretics. After his return to Osma (before29 April 1206) Dominic resigned from his post as sub-prior, and in July went back to the south of France. With a number of others he joined Bishop Fulk of Toulouse (or of Marseille) for a campaign of anti-heretical preaching in the Aquitaine region, following the new strategy suggested by Diego: poor preaching, carried out with the sole weapons of the word and testimony.
Before a year had passed – hence before 25 March 1207 – Bishop Fulk, urged by Dominic, gave Diego a small church in the village of Prouilhe, to allow a number of Cathar women who, converted by Dominic and his companions, had returned to the Catholic faith, to live together “religiously”. Humbert of Romans relates:
There were aristocrats in those places who, compelled by poverty, entrusted their daughters to the heretics to be fed and instructed, or rather, in reality, to be misled by their lethal errors. Taking pity on their pernicious disgrace, the servant of God, Bishop Diego, established a monastery to take them in, in a place called Prouilhe, where the handmaids of Christ, submitting to perpetual enclosure, extraordinary observances and rigorous silence, working with their own hands, in the purity of their consciences carried out a service pleasing to their Creator. Increasing greatly in number and in merit, spreading their perfume far and wide, they inspired many faithful followers of God to build coenobie similar [to theirs], in holy imitation of them. (LM 10)
In time the group of preachers broke up and Diego had to return to Osma, where he died on 30 December 1207. Dominic, however, decided to stay in the area of Toulouse, where he remained, preaching, for almost ten years.
When most of those who had remained in Toulouse learned that this man of God had died, they returned to their monasteries. Only Brother Dominic remained and continued preaching, and, although some of the others remained with him for a while, they were not yet bound to him by any ties of obedience. (Libellus 31)
At long last Diego’s dream of having a group of preachers committed, in total poverty, to preaching the Gospel, had come true! But the field to be sown was still too limited – it was solely the Diocese of Toulouse. In fact, according to the rules, Fulk as the local bishop had neither the power nor the possibility to transform the previous pontifical mission to preach against the heretics into a diocesan institution without the provisional consent of the pope’s legate; it was therefore necessary to have confirmation from Rome and thus ensure the continuity of the praedicatio outside the Diocese of Toulouse. And so in 1215 Dominic accompanied Fulk to Rome, where a great event of the mediaeval Church, the Fourth Lateran Council, was being held.
Pope Innocent III had realised that armed suppression was not enough, and that to snatch the faithful from the grip of the great heresies it was essential to work on persuasion and on the widespread re-Catholicisation of the territories. The main instruments identified were, first, strengthening of the practice of the sacraments, giving a central place to the Eucharist and Penitence, and secondly, preaching, a task that in the last centuries of the Middle Ages was to be guaranteed by the new mendicant Orders. It was the sons of Dominic and Francis who were to renew the language of faith and take the message of the Gospel to the peoples of the cities.
The two pilgrims had an audience with Pope Innocent III to explain their project to him and ask for his approval. However, the Pope did not immediately confirm the praedicatio of Toulouse, but advised Dominic to go back, talk to his companions, and carry out a discernment to choose a Rule that had already been approved: only then would he confirm what Dominic was hoping for. It is probable that the Pope wanted to protect the Toulouse preachers from the problems encountered by other recently formed groups, such as the ‘Pauperes catholici’, a religious Order set up, under the auspices of Innocent III, by a group of Waldensians in Spain, who had returned to the Church under the guidance of Durando of Osca). But there was something still more decisive and important at stake: Dominic and his companions would be more readily able to settle in the rest of the territory of the old mission against heresy and contribute to the renewal of preaching in the whole Church, as the Council mandated in Constitution 10.
Humbert of Romans saw this episode as providential:
Then, when the Bishop of Toulouse Fulk, of fond memory, left for Rome for the general council, he was joined by the man of God Dominic, of whom the bishop himself was very fond; with him he also went to the Supreme Pontiff Innocent and asked him to confirm for him and for all those who followed him an Order to be called and to be [an Order] of Preachers. But [the Pope], to a request of this kind, seemed to be a little inflexible, something which however does not occur without the will of God, so that the Vicar of Jesus Christ certainly knew how necessary to the universal Church over which he presided was what the man of God Dominic desired by divine inspiration. As in fact was made known by many trustworthy [witnesses], one night the Supreme Pontiff himself, by a revelation given him by God, saw in a dream that the Lateran Church was suddenly at risk of a grave collapse, almost as though its very structure had disintegrated. As he was looking at this scene, trembling and lamenting at the same time, from the opposite side came hastening the man of God Dominic, and supported the whole building on the point of falling, placing himself under [it] with his shoulders. Amazed at the novelty of the vision and, with his prudence, understanding its significance, without any delay hindering him, he praised the project of the man of God and joyfully accepted his request, exhorting him, once he had returned to the friars and carefully reflected with them, to choose by common accord an already approved rule on which soundly to base the progress of the Order that he was to begin; thus, in the end, returning to the Pope, he took back his confirmation, according to his wish. (LM 20)
Dominic, knowing that there were too few of his companions to respond to this broadened vision of their role, was consoled, according to the account of Gerard de Frachet in the Vitae fratrum, by a dream in which he saw his friars going to preach, two by two, all over the world.
On his return to Toulouse, Dominic told his companions of his conversation with the Pope. Canon 13 of the Council had instructed that all new religious groups or formations were to adopt one of the approved Rules, that of Benedict, of Basil or of Augustine. For the new community, whose roots were in the experience of a group of canons, the choice fell naturally on the “Rule of St Augustine”, complemented with several chapters from the Customs of the Premonstratensian Canons Regular, an Order founded in the 12th century by St Norbert of Xanten. The transformation of the diocesan preachers’ ‘équipe’ into a religious community had by now taken place: nothing prevented Dominic from going back to Rome to ask for the confirmation he had been promised.
Meanwhile, however, Innocent III had died, and the new pope, Honorius III, appears to have known nothing either about the praedicatio in Toulouse or about the relevant project nurtured by his predecessor. Thus on 22 December 1216 Dominic obtained only the “confirmation” of the religious community known as St Roman – from the name of the church in Toulouse where the community was living and to which it had been appointed (“The friars received the church, built inside the city walls, […] in the year of the Lord 1216. There were approximately 16 friars in number, and they built a cloister alongside the church, cells for study, and also a suitable dormitory. In the other two churches no friar ever lived”, specifies Humbert of Romans in LM 22) – something which is not the confirmation of the Order of Preachers, as traditionally has always been supposed.
Back in St Roman, partly because of unfavourable local events, Dominic decided prophetically to send the friars, two by two, to preach in other cities of what was then Europe. Jordan of Saxony, Dominic’s successor as Master of the Order, tells us:
After invoking the Holy Spirit, [Dominic] assembled the brethren and announced that, in spite of their small number, his heart’s desire was to send them throughout the whole world and that they would no longer live together in their present abode. Although they were all surprised at the announcement of this unexpected plan, yet, because his evident authority of holiness animated them, they easily agreed to it in the hope that it would result in a good purpose. (Libellus 47)
This was the beginning of the growth of the Order. In his testimony at the process of canonisation in Bologna (1233), Br John of Spain recalled that Dominic, perhaps for the only time in his life, peremptorily imposed his authority on those friars who were opposed to his decision or failed to understand it: “Do not contradict me: I know what I am doing”. Still on the subject of Dominic’s longing to preach, this same brother, who was one of the first of his companions, related that
[Dominic] was full of concern for his neighbour, whose salvation he ardently wished for. He personally preached very often, but tried in every way to persuade the other friars too to go forth and preach; and when he sent them, he would pray and implore them to be attentive to the salvation of souls. Full of confidence in the help of God, he sent even the uninstructed to preach, reassuring them with these words: “Go in certainty, because the Lord will give you the words to say and will be with you and you will want for nothing” (Process of canonisation, Bologna, 26)
It is all too easy to imagine that the founders of religious Orders were brilliant, original men and charismatic leaders. This does not seem to be the case with Dominic: he was in essence a wise man, rich in discernment, who knew how to appreciate his companions, trust them and if necessary submit to their decisions with great humility and perspicacity.
Thus the mark of his figure is most evident in “teamwork”, especially in the Constitutions, which the friars had to adopt, working on them in the Bologna Chapters of 1220 and 1221 and in the Paris Chapter of 1228. Although not all the texts are his own, in the primitive Constitutions is the whole of Dominic, the true Dominic.
The basic declaration with which the Constitutions of the Order begin is characterised by a certain solemnity and clarity of expression: “our Order was founded, from the beginning, especially for preaching and the salvation of souls” (Prologue). In a framework of traditional observances (such as fasting, abstinence, silence, divine office etc.), new elements emerge in view of study and preaching: “All the hours are to be said in church briefly and succinctly lest the brethren lose devotion and their study be in any way impeded”(I, III); “by day and by night, at home or on a journey, they should be reading or reflecting on something” (I, XII); the new post of Master of the students is to be instituted (II, XXVIII); “No convent shall be founded with fewer than twelve members and without a prior and a doctor of theology” (II, XXIII); preference is to be given to friars who have the “grace of preaching” and norms are issued for the preachers (II, XX.XXXI); no law is definitive until it has been approved by three Chapters at which the diffinitors have full power (II, VI-VIII), etc. Above all, the election of the superiors and the major decisions “by majority” are in harmony with the emerging democracy of the municipalities. Dominic would have preferred that administration be entrusted to the lay brothers – not priests – in order to leave the others free to study and preach, but the friars did not accept this and Dominic let the matter drop:
[…] in order that the brethren might devote themselves more to study and preaching, the aforesaid Br Dominic would have liked the lay members of his Order, though unfamiliar with study, to be given precedence in the administration and government of temporal matters over the brethren who had studied; but the clerics among the friars did not accept that the lay brothers should command them, for fear that what happened to the monks of Grandmont might happen to them (Process of canonisation, Bologna, 26).
By way of compensation, he wanted the friars always to “speak with God or about God”, and this was inserted in the Constitutions (II, XXXI).
It is to the recollections of a Roman nun that we owe a picture of Dominic in person: she was Sr Cecilia, and belonged to the Cesarini family. It was in Rome, when she was between 17 and 20 years of age, that she met Dominic – who was on the point of ending quarantine – from whom she had received the monastic habit:
He was slender and of medium height. His face was handsome and somewhat ruddy. His hair and beard were reddish and his eyes beautiful. From his brow and eyes emanated a kind of radiance which drew everyone to revere and love him. He was always cheerful and gay, except when he was moved to compassion at the sight of someone’s affliction. His hands were long and well-formed and his voice was of a pleasing resonance. He was never bald, although he wore the full corona, which was sprinkled with a few grey hairs. (The Miracles of Blessed Dominic, 15)
Appointed by Pope Honorius III, from 1219 to 1221 Dominic gathered together the nuns of monasteries in decline at San Sisto in Rome, giving them a rule and a new stimulus. Cecilia belonged to one of these groups of nuns and in 1223, after Dominic’s death, was transferred to Bologna to bring to life the new monastery of St Agnes, where she died in 1290, not before dictating to one of her sisters her memories of Dominic’s Roman ministry. In addition to his miracles, we learn from her account that after working all day, Dominic would come to the nuns “and, in the presence of the brethren, instruct them about the Order, for as yet they had no master but him” (Miracles, 6). And he even made gestures of great sensitivity, as for instance when “he returned from a trip to Spain bringing each of the sisters a wooden spoon as a gift” (Miracles 10).
Mention has already been made of the Monastery of St Agnes in Bologna, founded at the wish of Diana degli Andalò, who had made her vow as a contemplative nun in 1219 in the hands of Dominic, after having persuaded her relatives to permit the purchase of land for the friars’ convent. From the start of his ministry in the area of Toulouse, at Prouilhe, from 1206 on, Dominic had already converted a number of so-called “perfect” Cathar women, as we have seen; under his guidance they continued their ascetic life as nuns.
In 1218, he also founded a monastery in Madrid, and one of the few of his writings that have remained is a letter of 1221, to the Spanish sisters:
We are very glad, and give thanks to God, for your commitment to living a holy life and because God has freed you from the corruption of this world. Fight tirelessly, daughters, with fasting and prayer against the old adversary, because only one who has fought according to the rules will win the crown of victory. From now on I want silence to be observed in those places where it is prescribed. Do not spare yourselves in acts of penance and in vigils. Be obedient to your prioress. Do not be distracted by chatter and let your time not be wasted in gossip. (St Dominic, Letter to the nuns in Madrid)
During his ministry in Toulouse, Dominic had been given hospitality in various houses where women looked after him, testifying at a later date to their admiration, affection and tenderness. It is said that a certain Wilhelmine “believed him to be a virgin” and wove “the cloth of his cilice”; she also said that “having been with him at table more than 200 times, she never saw him eat more than a quarter of a fish or more than two egg yolks”. Similar testimonies were given by Nogueza and by Beceda, who added that Dominic did not sleep in the bed prepared for him, so that “often she found him sleeping on the floor, without covers. So she would cover him, but when she came back she found him praying”. (Process of Canonisation, Toulouse, 15-17)
On his deathbed, Dominic advised the friars to avoid “any questionable association with women, especially the young,”; he told them he had always remained chaste, but ended with a note that reveals his profound humanity: “yet I confess to not escaping the fault that talks with young women affected my heart more than conversations with those who were older”.
If, then, the lengthy process of foundation of the Order began in Prouilhe in 1206, the history of the definitive incorporation of the nuns in the Order underwent a lengthy, difficult development in the 13th century. At first the friars put up great resistance against the proposal to take on the care of the nuns (curia monialium). They felt that this fraternal yoke was too heavy. It was thanks to the authority of the popes and the constancy of the nuns themselves that the situation was resolved. Like the friars, the nuns are under the authority of the Master of the Order: they are members of the Order in the same way. They are not a Second Order (as used to be said) or a female Order parallel to the Friars Preachers. When Blessed Diana degli Andalò fearlessly asked him if a female foundation could be made in Bologna at the very time when the friars were beginning to set up their convent there, Dominic answered that “the home of the future nuns” had to be built “even at the cost of making the construction of our convent wait”.
While he was in Rome, Dominic made the acquaintance of the man who was to be the first prior of the Bologna convent: Blessed Reginald. He was Dean of the Collegiate of Saint-Aignan in Orleans, and while waiting to continue a pilgrimage with his bishop to the Holy Land, he had stopped for a time in Rome. He was truly in search of Christ. His dream was a life consecrated to preaching and to poverty. Cardinal Ugolino told him that there was a Spaniard in Rome who would be able to make his dream come true. Thus it was that, after speaking with Dominic, Reginald decided to enter the Order. Falling gravely ill, he was healed by the Madonna who appeared to him, showing him the Dominican habit:
In Rome he fell gravely ill and was visited a number of times by Master Dominic, who persuaded him to imitate the poverty of Christ and join the Order. The result was that he freely and fully bound himself by vow to enter this religious state.
After that, he recovered from his serious illness, but only in virtue of a miracle occurring after his condition had become desperate. For during the height of one of his fevers the Queen of Heaven and Mother of Mercy, the Virgin Mary, visibly appeared to him and anointed his eyes, nose, ears, mouth, chest, hands, and feet with a soothing ointment and said these words, ‘I anoint your feet with a holy oil in preparation for the gospel of peace.” Then she showed him the complete habit of this Order. At once he became well and so sudden was his cure that the physicians, who had almost given up all hope, were at a loss to explain his evident recovery. (Libellus, 56-57)
Reginald made his profession to Dominic, who sent him to Bologna as his vicar, though he first permitted him to make his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Meanwhile, Dominic received the first bull of recommendation of the friars, dated 11 February 1218, addressed to all the bishops and prelates of the Church: for the first time, in a papal document, there appears the expression “fraters ordinis praedicatorum”. The new Order had finally been born. There was still work to be done to make it more solid and to make it universally known. This was the task to which the founder was to devote the last three years of his life. After a journey to France and to Spain (where he founded, respectively, the Convents of Narbonne and Seville), he went first to Toulouse and then to Paris (in July 1219), where he exhorted the friars of the brand new, promising convent of Saint Jacques not only to adopt the simple lifestyle they had practised in Toulouse, but also to give up their income.
In mid-August that year, Dominic arrived in Bologna, where he found a convent that was flourishing thanks to recruits of very high quality whom Reginald had attracted to the Order with his personal charm, his evangelical life and his preaching. It must be noted that from the very beginning the Bologna community had a decidedly international identity, and above all had been formed by Reginald’s wise guidance – he had insisted on the values of austerity and poverty as fundamental marks of evangelical life. It was in this already mature community that Dominic believed it was possible to fulfil his ideal of conventual mendacity, which meant giving up not only properties (as in Toulouse in 1216), but also income and revenue. Hoping, however, that Reginald could achieve the same end in Paris, he decided to send him to Saint Jacques. Appointed prior there, he fired professors and students with his preaching, winning new members for the Order, among whom was Jordan of Saxony, a German aristocrat of the Oberstein family, who was to be Dominic’s first successor as leader of the Order. In Paris Reginald fell gravely ill and died:
Accordingly, Brother Reginald, of happy memory, reached Paris and, by word and example, applied himself with unremitting zeal to preaching Jesus Christ and Him Crucified. But God soon took him from this life after a brief period of great accomplishment. He was suddenly laid low by a sickness which proved fatal, and he died in the Lord. While he lived, he showed himself a champion of poverty and lowliness, which he exchanged for the glorious riches of the house of God. He was buried in the Church of St. Mary of the Fields, since the brethren had not yet acquired a burial place of their own.
Even now I recall how Brother Matthew, who had known him as a renowned, but fastidious person in the world, once asked him, “Have you ever regretted putting on this habit, Master Reginald?” To this he gave the modest reply, “I do not consider myself worthy of anything in this Order, for I have been nothing but pleased with it.” (Libellus, 63-64)
Meanwhile, the Order had spread more rapidly in North Italy than in France or Spain: foundations came one after another in Florence, Bergamo, Milan and Verona. Towards the end of October Dominic went to Viterbo for a meeting with the Pope and asked him for copies of the bull of endorsement for the foundations he was setting up, but also to present his plan for a mission among the pagans of North Europe. Br William of Monferrato declared at the canonisation process that Dominic had never abandoned this old plan of his, which was postponed only to allow him to complete the organisation of the Order. But the Pope had other work for him to do, and once again Dominic obeyed. Meanwhile the foundations were multiplying: in 1220, during the first General Chapter, held in Bologna, the decision was made to found a convent in Palencia, and two Scandinavian friars were sent to Sweden to preach the Gospel in these northern parts, though for the moment the hope of founding a convent there was not to be fulfilled.
On 25 March 1221 the Pope asked all the metropolitan bishops in Europe to put at his disposal at least two religious who could go and preach to the unbelievers, and a few days later, on 29 March, Dominic received a personal bull of endorsement. It is clear that he was preparing to take on something new, and in all probability he was to participate in the Pope’s missionary project, perhaps even as its guide. So, surprisingly, in a copy of the bull of endorsement addressed to the king of Denmark, and dated 6 May 1221, the pope stated that the Dominicans would not limit themselves to being preachers of the Gospel, but would be “evangelisers of the pagans”: finally, when by now he was at death’s door, the dream Dominic had had as a young canon was beginning to come true. The times and plans of God are not those of human beings, but it is in discernment of and obedience to these designs that His salvific will is fulfilled. So it was that a Danish friar was sent to Denmark with letters from the pope and from Dominic to the king and to the Archbishop of Lund. It may be concluded that Dominic’s missionary objective had meanwhile been clarified: he wanted to evangelise the pagans in Estonia, where the Danes were taking up residence. At the General Chapter, which began in Bologna on 2 June 1221, various Provinces were born: friars were sent to England, Hungary, Denmark, Poland, perhaps also Greece, and the word province took on the technical meaning that it was to adopt later to designate the administrative districts of the religious Orders.
At the Chapter in 1220 – the first gathering of the friars’ representatives to consolidate the apostolate and structure of the Order – Dominic had begged: “I deserve to be deposed, because I am useless and negligent”: he was already tired and sick, but the friars asked him to continue. After the Chapter of the following year, Dominic undertook a journey with Br Paul of Venice in the environs of Treviso, where Cardinal Ugolino of the Counts of Segni, the future Pope Gregory IX, was to organise a mission to oppose the heretics of northern Italy; but “towards the end of the month of July he went back [to Bologna], exhausted by the great heat” and fell gravely ill. During his death throes, after reciting Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer (John 17), he continued: “I shall be more useful to you after my death and I shall help you then more effectively than during my life” (Process of Canonisation, Bologna, 8) and when asked where he should be buried, he answered: “Under the friars’ feet”. He died as the friars were praying: “Saints of God, come to his aid, come to meet him, Angels of the Lord, receive his soul and present him to God the Most High” (Bologna Process, 33). It was 6 August 1221. Cardinal Uglino presided at the funeral service.
Jordan narrates the death of “Master Dominic” in the following words:
Meanwhile, at Bologna, Master Dominic’s pilgrimage on this earth was drawing to a close and he became seriously ill. On his deathbed he summoned twelve of the more prudent brethren and, after exhorting them to be zealous in promoting the Order and persevering in holiness… Before his death he also assured his brethren that he would be of more benefit to them after death than in life, for he knew the one to whom he had entrusted the treasure of his labours and fruitful life. As for the rest, he was certain that there was laid up for him a crown of justice which would increase his power to obtain requests the more firmly it rooted him in the Lord’s power.
As a result of fever and dysentery, he grew weaker and weaker, until, at last, that pious soul departed from its body and returned to the Lord, Who had given it. In return for a mournful dwelling, he received the eternal consolation of a home in heaven. (Libellus, 48)
It is Jordan, too, who tells us of a vision that came to Blessed Guala of Bergamo, when he was prior in Brescia, in a dream: she saw Dominic going up into Heaven, where he was awaited by Jesus and the Virgin Mary:
On the very day and hour that Master Dominic died, Brother Guala, prior of Brescia and later its bishop, was resting in the bell-tower of his convent. As he was about to doze off he saw what appeared to be an opening in the heavens through which two shining ladders had been let down. Christ was standing above one and His Mother above the other. Angels could be seen ascending and descending. Between the two ladders at the very bottom, was a seat upon which someone was sitting who seemed to be one of the brethren, for his face was covered with a capuce, just as we do for burial. Our Lord and His Mother were slowly raising the ladder until the person on the seat reached them. Thereupon he was received into heaven in great splendour amidst a choir of angels. Then the bright opening in the heavens suddenly closed and no more could be seen. Then the friar who had seen this regained his strength, for he had previously been ill and weak, and hurried to Bologna, where he discovered that his vision, which he related to us, had occurred at the very time when the servant of Christ, Dominic, had died. (Libellus, 95)
On 24 May 1233 Dominic’s body was translated to a more appropriate place and when the sepulchre was opened, A powerful, pleasing, delightful odour issued from it, of unknown variety”. (Bologna Process, 34)
St Dominic was not and is not a “saint of miracles”.
Certainly, contemporary and later sources tell us of his miracles; the resurrection of a young man and of a child in Rome, violent rainfall sent away with the sign of the Cross, the appearance of heavenly figures to feed the hungry friars after he had prayed, various healings, etc.
“But more splendid than the miracles were his sublime character and burning zeal” (Libellus, 103), that is to say his charisma, his virtues, his life.
Cardinal Ugolino of Anagni knew both Francis and Dominic in person, and after becoming pope with the name of Gregory IX (1227-1241), he canonised both men. The Bull of Canonisation of St Dominic (Rieti, 3 July 1234) states that God gave him “the strength of faith and the fervour of divine preaching”.
“Not leaving the tabernacle of the Lord even for a moment, he did not abandon his role as teacher and minister in the militant Church” and “dedicated himself to spreading God’s word by becoming, through Christ’s Gospel, the father of many children”. Those who met him saw that “So steadfastly did he adhere to a decision reached before God that he seldom, if ever, changed a resolve born of due reflection”. Dominic “manifested the peaceful harmony within his soul by his cordial manner and his pleasant countenance” (Libellus 103).
“During the day, none was more affable, none more pleasant to his brethren or associates” while “At night none was more instant in prayer or watching” (Libellus, 104, 105).
St Dominic “extended his charity and compassion not only to the faithful but also to unbelievers and even those condemned to hell, and he wept bitterly for them” (Bologna Canonisation Process, 11). “From this sprang his apostolate and the nocturnal prayer expressed in the cry: ‘Lord, what will become of sinners?’” (Ibid., 18). Meanwhile he was maintaining his assiduous contact with the Scriptures, his fidelity to sound doctrine and a good relationship with the institutional Church.
St Dominic was above all a “humble minister of preaching, Predicationis humilis minister” as he described himself at the beginning of 1215.
The Second Vatican Council reminds us that “the People of God are joined together primarily by the word of the living God” (Presbyterorum ordinis, 4). Preaching had become less frequent, and Dominic had the gift of bringing it back into the light. He began preaching against the heretics and longed to evangelise pagan peoples (Bologna Canonisation Process, 12, 32), and his ministry spread to all the faithful people, as in Bologna, when he preached “to the students and to other good people” (Ibid., 36).
In St Dominic the Word came to fruition in the Sacraments.
“Preaching/Confession” (Ibid., 33): St Dominic made his own confession and confessed others consoling them and strengthening them (Ibid., 5, 39, 46, 48, 36-37). St Dominic celebrated – sang – Mass every day and even, when he could, while travelling, weeping copiously during the Canon and the Our Father (Libellus 105; Bologna Canonisation Process, 3, 21, 38, 42, 46). This was because the Word is fulfilled and is included in the Eucharist, as the story of the two disciples of Emmaus teaches (Luke 24:27-31).
The Belleville Breviary is an illuminated manuscript dating back to 1323-1326, held by the National Library of France.
The first mention of the Breviary dates to 1380, when it is mentioned by this name in the inventory of Charles V. It was undoubtedly made for Jeanne de Belleville, wife of Olivier IV of Clisson. Accused of treason, Olivier was executed in Paris in 1343 and all his possessions were confiscated in favour of the king of France. Charles VI gave this valuable breviary to his son-in-law Richard II of England, and Richard’s successor, Henry IV, gave it to his brother Jean, Duc de Berry, probably at Berry’s own request. In his turn, Jean left it in his will to his niece Marie of France, who had become a nun in the Dominican convent of Poissy; as the manuscript was for the use of the Dominicans, the gift was appropriate. The manuscript remained in the possession of the convent until the French Revolution, when it was transferred to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
Below are listed a number of miniatures which illustrate the Liturgical Office of Holy Father Dominic:
Innocent III’s dream: St Dominic holds up the crumbling Lateran Basilica.
St Dominic preaches to the heretics.
Sts Peter and Paul, in a vision, entrust the mission of preaching to St Dominic (note the staff and the book of the Gospels).
The Translation of the body of St Dominic: Bologna, 24 May 1233.
Two friars carry the reliquary with the saint’s remains in procession, while, below, two invalids beg for healing.
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