Born about the year 1170, Domingo Guzman was the youngest of four children of the warden of Calaruega in the kingdom of Castile. He received his education from his uncle, the archpriest of Gumiel d’Izan, and later at Palencia. During this time he became an Augustinian canon of the cathedral church of Osma. As a priest he led an outwardly uneventful life for seven years, devoting himself to prayer and penance. In 1201 he became prior of the community of canons at Osma.
In 1204, returning from an embassy to Denmark, Dominic and his bishop began a mission to convert the Albigensian heretics at Toulouse. The Albigensians, or Cathars, were a medieval gnostic sect who taught that the material world was evil, and that Jesus had come only in spirit, not in the flesh. They were divided into two groups: the auditores, or hearers, who undertook only part of the rigorous and austere lifestyle for which the sect was known; and the perfecti, or perfect, who lived completely according to the sect’s rigorously anti-materialist teachings, including the avoidance of sexual intercourse and the eating of any foods that were the result of sexual intercourse, such as meat and eggs. The austerity and devotion of the Albigensians was in stark contrast to the laxity and voluptuousness of some of the Catholic clergy of the time, and the sect became popular in the Languedoc and in Provence. The conversion of the Albigensians and their reconciliation to the Church was to become a primary element of Dominic’s ministry. Three times he refused a bishopric, believing that God had called him to this work instead. He began by training women in religious communities who lived lives as austere and devoted as those of the Albigensian perfecti. The first such house was the nunnery at Prouille, founded in 1206, near which he founded a house for preachers who by persuasion, poverty, and learning would convert the Albigensians and would silently reprove the standards of the Cistericans sent to preach against them. In 1208 the murder of the papal legate, Peter of Castelnau, led to the declaration of a crusade against the Albigensians. Dominic and his preachers had no share in the violence and the massacres perpetrated in the name of this crusade, but used only the peaceful instruments of teaching and prayer.
These communities of preachers were the foundation of the Friars Preachers, the Ordo Praedicatorum, or Order of Preachers, known after their founder as the Dominicans. Dominic’s plan was to provide communities which were centers of sacred learning, whose members would be devoted to study, teaching, and preaching as well as to prayer. He retained the Divine Office, but it was chanted more simply and expeditiously by the Friars Preachers than by monks. The Dominican ideal was the training of men whose contemplation would bear fruit in the communication of the Word of God. They would be mobile and would be specially devoted to poverty, but in a less thoroughgoing way than the followers of Francis of Assisi, whom Dominic knew and respected. Dominic excelled as an organizer, and he was a pioneer in representative government. His Order was the first formally to abandon manual labor in order to concentrate on study and teaching. Papal approval was obtained for the Order, but only on condition that it should follow one of the existing rules. Dominic chose the brief and flexible rule of Saint Augustine, and was able to add detailed Constitutions to ensure efficient day-to-day functioning. The Order of Preachers soon spread all over western Europe and became a pioneering missionary force in Asia and (much later) in the Americas.
Dominic spent the years from 1216 to 1220 in continual travels to Italy, Spain, and Paris. In 1220 the first General Chapter of the Order was held at Bologna, where Doninic died the following year after attempting a preaching tour in Hungary. At the time of his death the Order was organized into five provinces: Spain, Provence, France, Lombardy, and Rome. In six other countries, including England (where because of their black mantles worn over white habits they were known as the Blackfriars), there were already smaller groups of Dominican friars at work.
Dominic’s preaching against the Albigensian heresy seems to have met with only limited success, but his foundation of communities dedicated to sacred learning and sound teaching fulfilled an acutely felt need in the medieval Church. The subsequent work of Albert Magnus and especially of Thomas Aquinas represented the fulfillment of Dominic’s ideals.
prepared from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
O God of the prophets, you opened the eyes of your servant Dominic to perceive a famine of hearing the word of the Lord, and moved him, and those he drew about him, to satisfy that hunger with sound preaching and fervent devotion: Make your church, dear Lord, in this and every age, attentive to the hungers of the world, and quick to respond in love to those who are perishing; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The image of Saint Dominic is taken from a painting by Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro da Mariano di Vanni di Amedeo Filipepi), now in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.