Eight hundred years ago, the religious order now known as the Dominicans was established in Spain, and today, celebrations are being held throughout the world to mark the occasion, and to examine ways to move forward in the 21st century.
The Dominicans, officially the Order of Preachers (OP) are also known as the Black Friars, because of the black cloak worn over white habits.
The order was established by St Dominic de Guzman (c.1170–1221). Just as new religious communities are set up today to meet specific religious needs, the foundation of the order gives us an insight into the challenges the Church faced at that time.
Most of what we know of the founder of the order comes from a biography written by his successor as Master General in the Order of Preachers.
St Dominic was born into a family of minor nobility in the town of Caleruega in Castile, northern Spain. At the time, Spain was divided between the Christian north and the Muslim south, and a century before, Madrid – now capital of Spain – was reconquered from the Moors, after having been a Muslim fortress for 300 years.
During Dominic’s life, the king of Castile, Alfonso VIII, won one of the decisive battles of the Reconquista, defeating the Almohad Caliphate in 1212 in Andalusia, southern Spain.
At the time, the vocation of young men of the nobility was to become a knight or a priest. Dominic’s family decided that he should study to be a priest.
When Dominic was seven his education was put in charge of his uncle, a priest, and when he was 14 he entered the school in the nearby city of Palencia, one of the few higher schools in Spain at that time and soon to become a university, where he studied liberal arts and theology for 10 years.
He lived a rather bookish life but during a time of famine sold his books to assist the poor. In 1196, when he was about 24, he joined the cathedral chapter of Osma, a small town in northern Spain, and was ordained a priest.
The canons of the cathedral were priests associated with the bishop who had recently reformed their community life to live strictly in poverty according to the Rule of St Augustine.
Not long after he joined the cathedral chapter, King Alfonso asked the bishop of Osma, Bishop Diego, to travel to Denmark to arrange the marriage of his son to a Danish princess. The bishop chose the young Fr Dominic to be his companion on the long and arduous journey.
The journey proved the turning point in Dominic’s life, opening his eyes to a wider world and its problems.
As they passed through the prosperous regions of southern France they encountered a shocking situation. While Dominic knew of the Moors in Spain, here he met former Christians who had become alienated from the Church and converted to the religion of the Cathars (Pure Ones), often called Albigensians from their stronghold at Albi.
This cult had its remote origins in the Gnosticism over which the Church had triumphed in the second century but had never entirely disappeared, until finally it was achieving its greatest success among the nobility of southern France. There it took the form of a radical dualism according to which the visible world was attributed to an evil god.
The Cathars, who called themselves Christians, were a religious group who appeared in Europe in the 11th century, their origins something of a mystery though there is reason to believe that their ideas came from Persia or the Byzantine Empire, by way of the Balkans and Northern Italy.
The Cathars maintained a church and practised a range of ceremonies, but rejected the idea of the priesthood. They were divided into ordinary believers, who led the usual medieval lives, and an inner Elect of Parfaits (men) and Parfaites (women), who led extremely ascetic lives yet still worked for their living – generally in itinerant manual trades like weaving.
Cathars believed in reincarnation and refused to eat meat or other animal products. They were strict about biblical injunctions – notably those about living in poverty, not telling lies, not killing and not swearing oaths.
The Cathars’ success owed much to the fact that the Catholic clergy of the time were poorly educated and to the scandalous conduct of many priests and bishops that resulted in the lost of respect for the Church by both ordinary people and the nobility. According to one source, the epithets, “Viler than a priest” and “I would as much be a priest” became popular local expressions.
One night at an inn in Toulouse, Dominic engaged in a discussion about these doctrines with an innkeeper (who was probably a deacon of the Catharist church).
Dominic was so moved by meeting this man deluded by the myth of two gods, one good but remote and hidden, and the other evil but creative, that he sat up all night talking with him and by dawn had won him back to the true God revealed in Jesus Christ.
From Denmark, Bishop Diego and Dominic returned to Spain with news of their mission accomplished, only to be sent back two years later to fetch the princess, and then to find that she would not return with them.
Their time in Scandinavia, however, taught them that to the east there were vast pagan territories waiting for the Gospel. Consequently, on their return journey they went first to Rome to beg the great Pope Innocent III to let them go on the missions together. He refused, saying the bishop was needed back home.
Bishop Diego, however, decided to return by way of the famous abbey at Citeaux in France and there received the Cistercian habit, probably in order to induce some of the monks to work in his diocese.
On the way back to Osma in June 1206, Bishop Diego and Dominic met the Abbot of Citeaux and two of his monks who had been sent by Pope Innocent to preach against the Cathars.
These three complained to Diego that they had had no success in their preaching, chiefly because of the reputation for holiness that the Cathars enjoyed among the people.
Bishop Diego gave them a straight answer. They must not abandon their mission but must counter the Catholic clergy’s bad example, by preaching as the Apostles had done, barefoot and begging.
The Cistercians replied that they did not have the courage for this unless the bishop would show them how – which he, with Dominic, proceeded to do. For four years, the band of preachers travelled about southern France preaching and holding public disputes with the Cathars.
In 1207 the preachers were joined by no less than 12 other Cistercian abbots and they separated into smaller bands.
Bishop Diego and Fr Dominic, along with a companion, William of Claret, centred their preaching on the town of Prouille. Here Dominic soon gathered a group of about 12 ladies converted from the cult who wished to continue their ascetic life as Catholic nuns, but needed to be protected from their families.
Even after his bishop had returned to Spain and the Cistercians had returned to their abbey, Dominic went on preaching.
Dominic was not only a capable theologian and controversialist, but he had a very strong devotion to Mary, the Mother of God. In 1208 in the church of Prouille the Virgin Mary appeared to Dominic and gave the Rosary to him. Thus this apparition is known as Our Lady of the Rosary. For centuries, Dominicans have been instrumental in spreading the Rosary devotion and emphasising the power of the Rosary.
At about this time, Pope Innocent III authorised a crusade against the Cathars that, over a period of some 20 years, conquered their territory but not their minds.
Dominic’s work was spiritual rather than military, and he needed to set up a structure to carry on his work of prayer and preaching. He gathered around himself a group of men who formed the foundation of his order, and sought Rome’s approval for the establishment of the Order of Preachers.
He attended the Fourth Lateran Council, called the “Great Council” because it inaugurated a great program of reform of abuses in the Church, and was attended by 71 patriarchs and metropolitan bishops, 412 bishops, and 900 abbots and priors, together with representatives of several monarchs.
At the same time, the Pope approved the rules of two new religious orders, the Franciscans founded by St Francis of Assisi and the Order of Preachers (Dominicans). Dominic was elected head of the Order of Preachers then based in Toulouse, over his protests, and immediately dispersed his small community to cities throughout Europe, including Paris, Bologna, Segovia and Madrid.
The first General Chapter of the order was held in Bologna in 1220. It had about 30 delegates, including two from Scandinavia.
Dominic first attempted to resign and was refused, but a system of four “definitors” was set up to assist him. At this Chapter it was established that the Rule and Constitutions were not to bind under sin, and that all provisions were dispensable for the sake of the preaching mission.
The Constitutions was written in two parts: the first covering liturgy and asceticism borrowed from the Premonstratensians but with appropriate modifications; the second, original, covering the government of the order. The supreme power of the General Chapter to legislate and the office of the Master of the Order were established.
Strict poverty was adopted and immediately put into practice, with the order giving up all revenue-producing properties.
A year later, a second General Chapter was held in Bologna, setting up eight provinces: Spain, Provence, France, Lombardy, Rome, and probably Hungary, Teutonia, and England.
Dominic continued to conduct preaching missions in Italy, but died later in 1221. His fame and holiness led to his canonisation in 1234.
The Order of Preachers quickly became one of the great teaching orders of the Church, founding universities, colleges and seminaries.
St Thomas Aquinas, known as the Angelic Doctor and the author of the greatest work of theology, the Summa Theologiae, was one of the order’s greatest gifts to the Church. Thomas was a theologian and a Scholastic philosopher.
St Thomas’ influence on Western thought is considerable, and much of modern philosophy developed or opposed his ideas, particularly in the areas of ethics, natural law, metaphysics, and political theory.
The Church regards him as the model for those studying for the priesthood, and indeed the highest expression of both natural reason and speculative theology.
In modern times, under papal directives, the study of St Thomas’ works was used as a core of the required program of study for those seeking ordination as priests or deacons, as well as for those in religious formation and for other students of the sacred disciplines – philosophy, Catholic theology, church history, liturgy, and canon law.
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP of Sydney is a Dominican.