Saint Dominic, Priest

Dominic Guzman was born in 1170 at Calaruega in Castile, Spain. He was the youngest of four children of the warden of the town. He was educated by his uncle, the archpriest of Gumiel d’Izan, and later at Palencia. He became an Augustinian canon of Osma Cathedral and led the normal life of a priest for seven years, marked by a devotion to prayer and penance.

In 1201, he was made prior of his community. In 1204, on his way to Denmark, Dominic first encountered Albigensian heretics at Toulouse, in the south of France. Albigensianism (also known as Catharism) was a form of gnosticism. It believed in two mutually exclusive powers – one purely spiritual and the other materialistic and evil. The reconciliation of the Albigensians with the Church would become the principal aim of Dominic’s apostolic work. For this he formed religious women in communities who lived lives as austere and devoted as those of the perfecti of the Cathars.

The first house was the convent at Prouille, founded in 1206. Nearby was another for preachers who by persuasion, simplicity of life and learning would win over the Cathars, while silently reproving the standards of the Cistercians sent to preach against them.

In 1208, the murder of the papal Legate, Peter of Castelnau, led to the declaration of a ‘crusade’ or holy war against the Albigensians. Dominic took no part in the violence and widespread killing, relying only on peaceful instruments of preaching and prayer. Three times he refused a bishopric, believing himself to be called to other work.

This work would be the foundation of the Friars Preachers (popularly called ‘Dominicans’), which occupied the last seven years of his life. Dominic’s plan was to set up communities which would be centres of sacred learning, whose members would be devoted to study, teaching, and preaching as well as prayer. He retained the monastic Divine Office, but it was chanted in a simpler form than the traditional mode of the monks. These members would be trained men whose contemplation would bear fruit in the communication of the Gospel. They would be able to move around and lead a simple life, but in a less total and idealistic way than the Franciscans, although Dominic knew and had a deep respect for Francis. Unlike Francis, Dominic was an excellent organiser and a pioneer in shared responsibility.

His Order was also the first formally to abandon manual work, a major part of monastic life. Papal approval was given for the new congregation, but only on condition that it would follow an existing rule of life. Dominic chose the Augustinian rule which was short and left room for adjustments. He then made some additions for greater effectiveness and efficiency. The new Order spread all over Europe and was one of the leading missionary groups in Asia (especially in the Philippines, but also in China). Later, it would spread to North, Central and South America.

Dominic spent the last years of his life travelling between Italy, Spain and France. The first General Chapter was held at Bologna in Italy in 1220. Dominic died in the following year, 1221, after attempting to go on a preaching journey to Hungary. At his death the Order included five provinces: Spain, Provence (France), Lombardy (Italy) and Rome.

Although the Dominicans’ preaching against the Albigensians met with limited success, their communities dedicated to theological learning and teaching filled a much-felt need in medieval Europe. Among the outstanding Dominican theologians were Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, whose influence has lasted into modern times. Popular devotion to Dominic sprang up soon after his death, and he was canonized in 1234.

His usual attributes in art are a lily and a black and white dog, a pun on the name of Dominic and the Dominicans (Domini canis, the Lord’s dog). The dog is shown holding a torch in his mouth as herald of the truth. There are also the well-known cycles of his life by Fra Angelico at Fiesole and Florence, based closely on the tomb-sculpture at Bologna. Later artists depicted him with a rosary, under the mistaken understanding that he was the originator of the devotion.

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