St. Dominic

The Spanish churchman St. Dominic (ca. 1170-1221) founded the Dominican order, a religious community officially called the Order of Preachers.

Dominic was born to the well-to-do Guzmán family in the town of Caleruega in northern Spain. As a young man, he studied the liberal arts and theology at Palencia. After he was ordained a priest, he joined the cathedral canons of the city of Osma, who lived a community life under the rule of St. Augustine.

When he was about 30, Dominic accompanied his bishop on several diplomatic missions in northern Europe. In the course of these travels he became aware of the religious ideas of the Albigensians, a Manichaean movement in southern France. This sect believed that the soul is good and the body is evil and that man must be purified and must not indulge in any physical pleasures. The Pope had sent legates to counteract the movement, but with their sumptuous clothes, fine horses, and numerous attendants they only succeeded in reinforcing the Albigensians' beliefs. Dominic saw that the only way to preach orthodox doctrine effectively to these people was to be as poor as they were and to be thoroughly knowledgable in Christian theology. He stayed in southern France for several years and, together with a small group of like-minded men, tried to put his ideas into practice by preaching, studying, praying, and living in poverty.

After a papal crusade crushed the heretics, in 1215 Dominic and his group of 16 were welcomed by the bishop of Toulouse and established as the official preachers of that diocese. Dominic then went to Rome, where he obtained Pope Innocent III's approval for the establishment of a religious order dedicated to preaching and based on a deep knowledge of the Scriptures and Christian truth. Until this time religious orders had been associated with monasteries, where men lived apart from the world and spent their time in prayer and physical work. But Dominic conceived of a group of men who would be dedicated primarily to preaching and thus to helping people in the mainstream of life. Living together in a city house, where they would pray and study, these men would be able to go wherever they were needed and would substitute study for the traditional manual labor of monks.

In 1217 Dominic showed his confidence in the men who shared his ideal and scattered the little group of 16 around Europe. He sent some to Paris to study theology, some to Bologna to study law, and others to Rome and Madrid. Two stayed behind in Toulouse and two more in nearby Prouille. Wherever they went, these men attracted others, and soon there were hundreds of followers of Dominic's ideal, many of them students and masters at universities.

During the next 2 years Dominic traveled over 3,000 miles on foot, visiting and encouraging his men in Toulouse, Paris, Milan, Rome and in Spain. In 1220 the first meeting or general chapter of the friars took place in Bologna, and there it was decided that the order would have a representational system of government, with the friars in each house electing their superiors for fixed terms. These representatives met again in 1221 and divided the order geographically into provinces. Shortly after this meeting Dominic died in Bologna in 1221; he was canonized in 1234.

Dominic's genius had several ingredients. He was a charismatic leader, able to evaluate a situation and act decisively. He had confidence in his own ideals and in the people who shared them. His mind was sharpened by study, but before he wrote, lectured, or preached, he turned to God in prayer. It was said of Dominic that "he loved everyone, so everyone loved him." By 1256 the group he had founded had over 13,000 members, and it continues to flourish today.

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Further Reading on St. Dominic

Marie Humbert Vicaire, Saint Dominic and His Times (2 vols., 1957; trans., 1 vol., 1964), is the most complete and accurate biography of St. Dominic in English. Pierre Mandonnet, Saint Dominic and His Work (2 vols., 1938; trans., 1 vol., 1944), contains a thorough study of the historical and religious background of Dominic's life. Bede Jarrett, Life of Saint Dominic (1924; 2d ed. 1934), presents the personal warmth and genius of the saint.

Additional Biography Sources

Monshau, Michael, Praying with Dominic, Winona, Minn.: Saint Mary's Press, 1993.

Bedouelle, Guy, Saint Dominic: the grace of the word, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987.