Who was this saint? This man of God? How did he become Preacher? Founder? Why is his Order the Order of Preachers, not the Order of St. Dominic? According to legend, his mother’s pregnancy already revealed his destiny. Praying to the eleventh century Benedictine saint, Santo Domingo de Silos, she had a vision or dream of giving birth to a dog with a torch in his mouth, interpreted for her as giving birth to a son who would set the world on fire by his preaching. She thus named her son Dominic, after the Benedictine saint who was patron of pregnant women, and presumably “pondered these things in her heart,” as Our Blessed Mother had done before.
Caleruega is a small village in Old Castile, what is modern day Spain. Felix and Jane, his parents, entrusted him early in life to an uncle, a priest, for his education, after which he went to the university town of Palencia to study liberal arts, philosophy, and theology. He had been called by God already in his mother’s womb. When Dominic himself became aware of his call we do not know, but at Palencia he enjoyed theology above all the other disciplines. It was in Palencia that another characteristic of the young man showed itself: his compassion for the poor. During a famine, he could not bear to see the suffering and sold his own precious manuscripts in order to feed the hungry, saying, “How can I keep these dead skins when living skins are dying of hunger?” His deepest desire, however, was to feed the spiritually hungry.
The opportunity presented itself before long. After Palencia, he was received into the chapter of canons, diocesan priests living a community life according to the Rule of St. Augustine, at the cathedral in Osma, where before long he became subprior. The bishop, Diego, asked Dominic to join him on a journey to Denmark on behalf of the king of Castile, to help arrange a marriage for the king’s son. The trip took them through southern France, Albigensian country, where the ancient Manichean heresy had taken root. While staying at an inn in Toulouse, Dominic became aware that the innkeeper was a convert to the Albigensian or Cathar heresy which saw the material world as evil, the work of an evil God, not the work of the good God. The material creation itself was evil. Dominic stayed up all night to bring the man back to the truth of the Catholic faith, seeing creation as good. His gift for conversion was being made manifest.
A later return journey home took them through Montpellier where they met three Cistercian monks who had been entrusted by Pope Innocent III with a holy preaching mission among the heretics, the pope’s hope filled strategy to bring them back to the faith. Dominic and Diego recognized that their lack of success was not due to the content of their message but the style of their preaching. The heretical Albigensian preachers were more effective because their lives resembled more that of the gospel. Catholic preachers had a retinue and traveled on horseback. Diego and Dominic suggested a new approach, to preach the truth in the imitation of the apostles going about on foot and begging their way. A new way of preaching was born, what later came to be known as a mendicant and itinerant life. Dominic’s Order, as was that of St. Francis, came to be known as mendicant (beggars), in contrast to monastic, although the Dominican way of life remained rooted in many monastic traditions and a regular way of life.
Dominic was now probably about thirty-three years old. This was 1206. He had been born around 1173. There were now converts from among the Cathars, particularly women, for whom Diego and Dominic had to provide a home. A community was established at Prouilhe, in southwestern France, near Fanjeaux, a heretical stronghold, where Dominic later spent many years as “a humble servant of the preaching,” the way he often signed letters. But Bishop Diego, having returned to attend to business in his diocese, died, leaving the entrusted preaching mission in Dominic’s hands.
In 1215 two companions in the preaching made profession to Dominic, although there was as yet no Order. This was in Toulouse where Dominic had been invited by Bishop Fulk to establish a diocesan preaching institute. When the two together visited Pope Innocent in Rome in 1215 on the occasion of the Fourth Lateran Council, the pope encouraged Dominic to think big, to adopt a rule, and envision extending his vision beyond the diocese. Dominic, exhilarated and burdened with the idea, did so. The Rule of St. Augustine was chosen. In the meantime the pope had died. But Pope Honorius III approved the new venture in December of 1216, and explicitly acknowledged that it was to be an order of preachers in early 1217. Later that same year, in the summer, to the chagrin of his companions, Dominic dispersed some of the brethren to Spain and Paris. Dominic took care of further business in Rome but in 1218 we find him sending friars to Bologna and visiting the communities in Spain and Paris which had already grown in size, after which he returns to Bologna. Dominic had chosen university centers in particular since his preachers were not only to be preachers, but men learned in the faith, an order of students if you will as well as an order of preachers.
Dominic the preaching friar had now been forced to be a founder as well. In 1220 and 1221 the first general chapters of the Order were held in Bologna formulating the primitive constitutions of the Order. Dominic died on August 6, 1221.
What was important to this saintly man? Truth for sure, which later became one of the mottos of the Order. He was deeply contemplative, as another motto of the Order expresses it, to contemplate and hand on to others the fruits of one’s contemplation. It was a ‘mixed’ Order. Dominic became an itinerant, mendicant contemplative with his vision set on preaching the gospel. It was the preaching that was always at the core of his life. Prayer, study, and the regular life were all integral but also geared to the preaching, as were the constitutions of the Order. Nothing was to detract from that purpose. It was to be an order of preaching friars whose way of life as well as their proclamation of the truths of the Catholic faith constituted what was and remains a holy preaching – the sacra praedicatio.