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Feast of Saint Dominic
Sr. Patricia Bruno, OP
August 2022 277th Edition
Feast of Saint Dominic — August 8
As we look around the world, we hear of many different religious congregations and societies of women and men. Each of them has its particular spirit and ministry. Even though sometimes we refer to a religious congregation or society (such as the Society of Jesus, SJ) as an Order, there are only four major Orders in the church: the Carmelite, Benedictine, Franciscan, and Dominican. There are many unique characteristics of these Orders. One characteristic that often attracts and surprises people is that these Orders have both lay and ordained members. Their membership includes cloistered nuns; religious sisters; religious brothers; ordained priests and married and singles lay women and men (1).
Since this is the month, we, Dominican sisters, brothers, lay women and men, nuns and ordained priests celebrate the Feast of St. Dominic, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell his story. It is one of those “Stories Seldom Heard.” Dominic was born in about 1170. He died on August 6, 1221. Dominic was a man who listened to the Word of God, was formed by it, and followed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. When he was a young man, he, like us, had no idea what God was going to ask of him. He had no inkling that he would found an Order of Preachers that was first known as the “Holy Preaching.”
Dominic de Guzman was born in Caleruega, a small village in the region of Castile in Spain. His mother was Blessed Jane D’Aza, and his father was Felix. A few years after Dominic was ordained, Bishop Diego asked Dominic to travel with him to what is now Denmark to find a wife for the son of the King of Castile. At least that’s what Bishop Diego and Dominic thought the goal of their journey was, but, as is in our lives, the project they embarked on became more complex. As they traveled into southern France, Dominic was shocked. Barbarians were pillaging small villages. The land was stolen from those who did not have armies to protect themselves. Poverty was stripping people of their humanity. The countryside was seeded with heresy. The religious institutions were divided and the laity was disillusioned by the scandalous lifestyle of the clergy and the paucity of good preaching.
Faced with these realities, Dominic and Diego decided to extend their mission and began preaching in southern France in the Land of Languedoc, the country of the Cathars. (Even today there are modern signs posted on the roadsides saying, “Entering the Land of the Cathars.”) Sadly, Bishop Diego died soon after they began their preaching mission. Even though this was a tremendous loss to Dominic, it did not deter him. He continued his preaching ministry in the area of Toulouse and Prouilhe where the Cathar heresy was spreading rapidly. The Cathar movement was led by local Cathar clergy who were not well educated in theology. The heresy is rather complex because it has both political and religious aspects. Stated simply, those who followed the teaching of the Cathars believed in a god of evil and a god of good. They taught that everything that was of matter, even our own bodies, was considered evil. On the other hand, they taught that everything spiritual was good. Thus, the less a person relied on the matter and things of the flesh, the holier the person.
The Cathars lived very austere lives. No one could fault them for having anything that was unnecessary or frivolous. They promised to live by the simplicity of the gospel and they lived it to the letter of the law. Dominic matched their simplicity of life and austerity, but he preached a different, truer interpretation of the gospel. He preached that all of God’s creation is sacred and holy. This theme is a major thread that runs through Dominican spirituality and preaching even to this day. Dominic’s love and appreciation of the created world were derived from his meditation and study of scripture. He read the world with biblical eyes that enabled him to see in the world what was already there: the sacredness of creation. What he heard in scripture influenced both his preaching and the way he lived his everyday life.
This insight concerning the goodness of creation and its power to reveal God’s self continued to influence Dominic’s followers. While reflecting on the revelatory power of creation, Meister Eckhart, a 13th c. Dominican theologian, professor, author, and mystic said, “Every creature is a word of God.” At another time he reminds us that, “If we could have known God without the created world God would never have created the universe.” Following this same line of thinking, another Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas, said, “There are two books of revelation: the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature.” This theological perspective is especially important to us in our modern time because it reminds us that our ecological crisis is not just a secular concern. It is also a theological/religious issue. Pope Francis’ Laudato Si not only expands our understanding of this issue but also helps us recognize that our ecological crisis deeply affects our understanding of God, our faith, and our prayer life.
As Dominic preached many people heard the Word of God in a new way and were converted. This, however, caused serious practical problems. Because of their new religious beliefs, many converts were rejected by their families. It was during this time that nine Cathar women converts came to Dominic because they had nowhere else to go. It must have been a time of great fear and confusion for all of them. Yet, this first group of nine women, whom Dominic named the “Holy Preaching” helped Dominic understand what God was asking of him. As Dominic prayed and listened to the Word of God in community with the women, Dominic found a place of strength and grace. Through their presence and prayer together, Dominic began envisioning a new way of living his life as a priest and preacher. Slowly out of the hard work and chaos of each day Dominic’s plan for a band of preachers began to take shape.
Dominic realized that he didn’t have all of the answers. For Dominic, this realization was a grace. Listening to and respecting other people’s insights became a way of life for Dominic and later for the Order. Each person, whether lay or ordained, woman or man, had gifts to contribute to the mission of preaching. For Dominic and his followers, the preaching began at home. Community life, common prayer, meditation, the study of scripture, and the needs of the world fueled Dominic’s passion for preaching the truth of God’s love.
The politics of the early 13th century influenced Dominic’s decisions in a variety of ways. Even though Dominic and a small group of friars took up residence in Toulouse, he dispersed the preachers from Toulouse for fear that the city might once again come under the control of the Cathars. The brethren were sent to the great universities and cities of Europe: Paris, Madrid, and Bologna. As the number of preachers grew, Dominic continued sending the preachers forth two by two scattering the seeds of truth throughout Europe.
Throughout the centuries, trusting and appreciating the gifts of each person has continued to be an essential element of Dominican life. We hear this underscored by our Dominican sister Catherine of Siena. In her Dialogue, God is speaking to Catherine and says, “For I could have well supplied each of you with all your needs, both spiritual and material. But I wanted to make you dependent on one another so that each of you would be my minister, dispensing the graces and gifts you have received from God to one another.” This appreciation is not just for vowed Dominicans. The gospel reminds us that this is a practice that extends far beyond the church doors. Acknowledging and promoting the gifts of others is an essential aspect of our Christian life. It recognizes the unique gifts God has given each person so that the common good of all will be served and strengthened.
Another characteristic of Dominic’s preaching is his extraordinary compassion for those who suffered. Because of this Dominic became known as the preacher of Gospel Mercy: a mercy that reflects the motherly tenderness of God’s concern for us. In scripture God says I am a “God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in mercy and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6). God’s kindness lasts for a thousand generations (Deut 5:9). Meister Eckhart, reflecting on the importance of mercy in our lives put it this way, “The end of all prayer is compassion.” (2)
By 1216 Dominic’s unique vision of an Order of Preachers had received approval from Pope Honorius III. Dominic’s vision was a huge shift from what religious life looked like at that time. The Dominicans did not live in monasteries. They were not monks. They were itinerant preachers. They were mendicants who traveled without money and begged for their food. In 1217 Pope Honorius confirmed that preaching was the reason for the Order. In 1218 Pope Honorius not only reinforced the understanding that bishops were to preach but also instructed the bishops to accept the Order of Preachers. (3) To this day, we Dominicans identify ourselves with “O.P.” after our names: Order of Preachers.
From the very beginning, Dominican life has had four formative values: common life, prayer, study, and preaching. Common life is marked by a simplicity of lifestyle. It implies a willingness to share one’s faith and doubts with other community members. Listening to the Word in meditation and common and personal prayer are essential daily practices. Assiduous study of scripture, theology and of the cultural milieus in which one lives is a priority. It helps the preacher contemporize the truth of the gospel.
Along with study, silence is the time that preachers use to craft the words and wisdom that have come to them as a result of their common life, prayer, and study. Preaching takes many forms: pulpit preaching, as well as preaching from the pulpit of our daily lives. Another aspect of Dominican life that identify the Order of Preachers is our style of government. Dominic supported a democratic style of governance. Each person’s voice was important and respected. The Rule that Dominic chose did not bind under sin as some of the other Rules did at his time. Dispensations were not viewed as a weakness. Rather they were given according to each person’s need and the sake of the mission.
There is certainly much more that could be said about Dominic and the Order of Preachers. As a Dominican preacher, I echo the sentiments of the Fourth Gospel author. The last line of the Fourth Gospel says, “There were many other things that Jesus did; if all were written down, the world itself, I suppose would not hold all of the books that would have to be written” (John 21:25). Many of those books would include our Dominican Saints and Blesseds, both recognized by the church and those thousands of women and men who have lived Dominic’s vision throughout the centuries. The church has many fine religious women’s and men’s congregations and societies. Each has its primary charism. Centuries after the founding of the Dominican Order, St. Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus, commonly called the Jesuits, said, “Suppose that I should do what St. Francis did, what St. Dominic did?” (4) Ignatius recognized that his men were called to a different style of religious life.
Most of the great saints did not perform miracles or offer their bodies to be burned. Most of them were ordinary people like us. They were people who prayed, meditated, shared their wisdom with others, and preached the gospel through their everyday actions. The month of August is the last month of the summer. It’s a good time to take advantage of the slower pace of these “school-less” days and reflect on our lives because as Jesus’ disciples we, too, are called to preach the gospel. As St Dominic reminds us, we, too, are the “Holy Preaching.”
- Many people refer to religious sisters who are engaged in active apostolic ministry in society as “nuns.” However, a “nun” is a woman who is cloistered.
- Pope Francis is also known for his compassion. His book, The Name of God is Mercy, and Walter Kasper’s book Mercy offer extraordinary insights into God’s mercy and how we can live it out in our daily lives.
- Donald Goergen , O.P., Dominic: The Story of a Preaching Friar, Paulist Press, New York, 2016. P. 61,62
- Ibid, p. 75
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green and Maria Hetherton who have helped in editing this article.