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Saint Dominic

A challenging world    /   Who was St. Dominic?    /   Spiritual portrait

A challenging world

It is not easy to summarize in few words the portrait of St. Dominic of Guzman, or of Caleruega, as he is called in history. St. Dominic(1170-1221) is a great spiritual figure who appeared in Europe at a time of profound political and economic change as well as new Church movements during the 12th and 13th centuries.

Looking at the following facts we see a Christian world in turmoil. In the East in 1187 under Saladins hordes Jerusalem fell in Sarracens hands. Likewise in the West there were new attempts to conquer the whole Iberian peninsula. This menace ceased only after the Christian armies won the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212.

In 1204 deceived Western Christian crusaders instead of liberating Jerusalem from the Muslims, fought their Orthodox Christian brethren and sacked Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, broadening the division between the Latin and the Oriental Churches.

Similarly, inside the Catholic Church heresies spread throughout France and Italy, and like a cancer emperiled the very existence of the Church. In the midst of such a world in turmoil St. Dominic and his organization (The Order of Preachers or Dominicans) proved to be a providential tool for the revitalization of the Catholic Church and helping her in dealing with these problems.

A challenging world    /   Who was St. Dominic?    /   Spiritual portrait

Who was St. Dominic ?

St.Dominic was born around 1170 into a noble Castilian family related to the royal family. He was born in Caleruega(Burgos), in the Spanish Old Castile, at that time still an small fort-colony on the Christian border. Tradition identifies Dominic as the third son of a pious Christian family formed by Juana de Aza and his father Felix de Guzman, a knight to whom the small territory was entrusted. From early age, his parents imbued him with a deep experience of faith. After studies with an uncle who was a priest, Dominic pursued his education at the university of Palencia. There while advancing in the knowledge of Sciences, he felt Gods call to serve His peoples needs and became a priest. Around 1196 Dominic became a canon regular at the cathedral of Osma, close to his native place. In this manner he spent his first years as a priest studying, praying and occasionally helping out in pastoral activities. His talents did not pass unnoticed, and by 1201 he became the subprior of the Chapter of Canons. A contemporary description says of him:

Straight way he began to appear among his brother canons as a bright ray of sunshine, in humbleness of heart the least, in holiness the first, shedding around him the fragrance of quickening life, like the scent of pinewoods in the heat of a summers day. And advancing from strength to strength as does the wide-growing olive and the slender, lofty cypress, day and night he frequented the church, ceaselessly devoted to prayer, scarcely venturing beyond the cloister walls, the more to find leisure for his lone thoughts with God

In 1203 his cloistered peace was disturbed by his bishop Diego de Acebes, who summoned him to go on a diplomatic mission to Northern Europe. As he traveled through Southern France he saw the terrible situation of the Catholic Church devastated by the dualist Albigensian heresy. Moved by compassion and convinced that someone should preach the truth to those benighted people, he discussed with his bishop the project of giving missions among them. In 1205 when his second diplomatic journey was over, requested the Pope to be sent to preach the faith to the Tartars. However, the Pope sent them on a more needed mission, to assist Cistercians Abbots in preaching the true Catholic faith to the albigensians. Imitating the apostles, traveling about on foot, in poverty and humility, begging their bread from door to door, spreading the true gospel Diego and Dominic began their work around Prouille (southern France), where Diego established a community for women converted from heresy. Few months later the bishop died and the Cistercians went home discouraged by lack of results. Dominic was left with a handful of followers on his own. He continued to preach peacefully the true faith, until it was possible for him. Since Dominic accompanied his words with his example of true evangelical poverty and constant prayer, his preaching proved efficient. His constant desire was to bring to everybody the truth of the faith, which would set them free and save their souls. Dominic was concerned that he and his preachers should know their faith thoroughly and be able to expound it competently.

Although others had already attached themselves to Dominic and his work, it was only in 1215 that Peter Selhan, a rich burgher of Toulouse gave Dominic a house and together with another man named Thomas, bound himself to Dominic by religious profession. This was the institutional beginning of the religious community which became the Order of Preachers. Fulk, the bishop of Toulouse welcomed the new group and gave them official status as preachers. But St. Dominic wanted more. He asked the Pope his blessing to the new community and to approve it as an Order of Preachers for the whole Church. In 1216 Pope Honorius III granted Dominic his request, formally establishing his group as an institution in the Church.

Dominic spent the five last years of his life preaching and organizing the Order. In that brief period he attracted to the Order so many of the saintly and talented men of the times that his death did not in the least menace the carrying out of his ideal; men who had heard him preaching went off joyfully to die in Tartary, or to debate with heretics, or to teach in the universities, or to teach catechism to the young. Five years of his magnetic presence was enough to magnetize the whole Order, so to speak, so that in the first hundred years of its existence it would draw nearly 30,000 members from all the countries of Europe, and start on its way around the world.

Dominic died in Bologna on August the sixth, 1221. He had lived long enough to see his Order established so firmly that no persecution or trouble would shake it. When dying, he promised his weeping brethren that he would be of more use to them in heaven than he was on earth - a promise which he has since kept in abundant measure.

The burial of St. Dominic took place, according to his wishes, in extreme simplicity. He was buried in a modest grave, "under the feet of his brethren." Here he remained until the urging of Pope Gregory IX - who was a personal friend of his - gave rise to the first translation of the relics. This translation took place in 1233, 'at the time of a general chapter or general assembly of the representatives of the whole Order. Blessed Jordan, his successor, presided over the ceremony and all were filled with great emotion as the relics were exposed after twelve years' burial. Testimonials were given in writing of the sanctity of Dominic by those who had worked with him and knew him best. Pope Gregory IX had the evidence carefully preserved, and in the following year (1234) he proclaimed that Dominic was a saint of God and entitled to the highest honors of the Church.

A challenging world    /   Who was St. Dominic?    /   Spiritual portrait

Spiritual portrait of St. Dominic

The man revealed to us by history is a man who is eminently approachable and lovable, frank in his dealings with others, but also firm in taking decisions, passionately devoted to the Church and to the truth of the Gospel, but also sensitive to the real values which could be found in movements on or beyond the fringe of the official Church. He was evidently a man of considerable courage, but he does not seem to have scared off the weak and the timid.

I never knew anyone, declares one of his companions, whose service of God I liked so much. And he was more zealous for the salvation of souls than any man I ever saw. He was loved by everyone, rich and poor, Jew and pagan, as another witness says.

Witnesses to the Process for his canonization portray St.Dominic as very humble, loving, kind, compassionate, patient, joyful, sober, chaste, zealous for poverty and for the salvation of souls. A witness would summoned St. Dominics life as a true servant of God who spoke only with God or about God.

Taking from authentic sources, the Roman Breviary describes the spiritual profile of Saint Dominic as follows :

Dominic possessed such great integrity and was so strongly motivated by divine love, that without a doubt he proved to be a bearer of honor and grace. He was a man of great equanimity, except when moved to compassion and mercy. And since a joyful heart animates the face, he displayed the peaceful composure of a spiritual man in the kindness he manifested outwardly and by the cheerfulness of his countenance.

Wherever he went he showed himself in word and deed to be a man of the Gospel. During the day no one was more community minded or pleasant toward his brothers and associates. During the night hours no one was more persistent in every kind of vigil and supplication. He seldom spoke unless it was with God. That is, in prayer, or about God; and in this matter he instructed his brothers.

Frequently he made a special personal petition that God would deign to grant him a genuine charity, effective in caring for and obtaining the salvation of men. For he believed that only then would he be truly a member of Christ, when he had given himself totally for the salvation of men, just as the Lord Jesus, the Savior of all, had offered himself completely for our salvation. So, for this work, after a lengthy period of careful and provident planning, he founded the Order of Friars Preachers.

In his conversations and letters he often urged the brothers of the Order to study constantly the Old and New Testaments. He always carried with him the gospel according to Matthew and the epistles of Paul, and so well did he study them that he almost knew them from memory.

Two or three times he was chosen bishop, but he always refused, preferring to live with his brothers in poverty. Throughout his life, he preserved the honor of his virginity. He desired to be scourged and cut to pieces, and so die for the faith of Christ. Pope Gregory IX declared of him: I knew him as a steadfast follower of the apostolic way of life. There is no doubt that he is in heaven, sharing in the glory of the apostles themselves.