Saint Dominic

The priests at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Newman Center are Dominican friars.

Saint Dominic de Guzman, a famously joyful friar and preacher, founded what was to become a ground-breaking religious order on a global scale: an order of religious men whose lives innovatively balanced monastic life and active preaching. Religious orders nearly always appear in response to some crisis in the Church, and that was no different for Saint Dominic’s Order of Preachers. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, a Christian dualist heresy known as Catharism spread throughout much of Southern Europe. Catharists taught that all of reality was the result of a conflict between a good god and an evil god. The good god was seen as having created the spiritual realm, and the bad god as having created all physical matter. Consequently, according to the Catharists, all physical matter was evil, including the human body, which was thought of as a prison for the spiritual human soul. This was in direct contradiction to the true Christian faith in one God who created all things and “saw that it was good.”

During the early 13th century, Dominic, then a Spanish canon regular, encountered the Catharists in Languedoc, France while he was on an embassy accompanying Diego d’Azevado, the Bishop of Osma. Upon engaging the heretics, Dominic became enflamed with zeal to convert the Catharists back to the Catholic faith through an itinerant priestly life singularly driven by the task of preaching the truth. In 1206, Dominic, joined by the Bishop of Osma and a small group of clerics, received a mandate from Pope Innocent III to devote themselves to this very endeavor. By the end of 1215, Dominic and roughly 15 brother clerics had received lodgings at a city church in Toulouse, France called Saint Romain. The brethren there professed themselves to the Rule of Saint Augustine and committed their lives to preaching the Word of God, supported by prayer, study, and contemplation. Essential to the brethren’s success was their vowed religious life based on the evangelical counsels of poverty and chastity, both of which were subsumed under a single vow of obedience.

During this time, Dominic and his brothers held public debates with Catharists throughout Toulouse. As told by Blessed Jordan of Saxony (one of Dominic’s later recruits and second Master of the Order), the first of many miracles associated with Dominic occurred. The story is that a group of judges presiding over a dispute between Dominic and a Catharist were unable to determine a winner. As a solution, they sought recourse to the judgment of God by throwing both Dominic’s sacred text and the text of the Catharist into an open fire. Dominic’s book never caught fire even after being tossed into the flames three times, while the Catharist’s book was burned immediately.

Pope Honorius III confirmed the foundation of the Order of Preachers with two bulls on December 22, 1216 and January 21, 1217. Wasting little time, in 1217, Dominic began sending his brothers out in groups of two throughout Spain, France, and Italy to preach and to establish new convents that would attract more brothers to his preaching mission. At the end of Dominic’s life in 1221, the Order of Preachers had established five provinces and at least 20 convents.

The brethren who knew Dominic reported that while he was virtually always joyful and sociable with others, he lived a life mostly immersed in the scriptures when he wasn’t preaching. He was known as a man who spoke only to God or about God. His brethren reported that he slept little, preferring to spend his nights praying in the chapel. At the time of his death, Dominic wished to be buried under the feet of his brothers at the convent of Saint Nicholas in Bologna. Numerous miracles are reported to have occurred in connection to his burial site. Saint Dominic’s order spread even wider after his death and is credited with extinguishing the Catharist heresy from Medieval Europe. Nearly 800 years later, Dominicans imitate their Holy Father Dominic by preaching the true Catholic faith for the salvation of souls.