Saint Dominic and the Order of Friars Preachers

Diplomats and Heretics

The Dominican Order, i.e., the Order of Friars Preachers, was founded by St. Dominic de Guzman (c.1170-1221), a canon of the Cathedral of Osma in Spain, when he and his Bishop, Diego, were on a diplomatic mission for the King of Castile and passed through the south of France in 1206. There they saw first-hand to what a great extent the lay people of the area had abandon the Christian faith to follow dualistic and heretical beliefs.

The laity of the late 12th and early 13th centuries were generally uneducated, receiving little instruction from the clergy, and they had become disaffected by the official Church which was seen as corrupt and part of the ruling establishment. They were, however, eager to follow the Gospel, and so there arose in the 12th century, more or less spontaneously, poor itinerant preachers who claimed to be imitating the poverty of Jesus. Despite being on the whole faithful to the Church, they were looked upon with suspicion by ecclesial authorities. These preachers, often acting without the permission of, and even against the directives of such authorities, began to drift away also from the Christian truth. The preachers and their followers which Dominic and Diego encountered (called Albigensians because they were centered in the town of Albi), for instance, taught that everything good is from God who is Spirit and Goodness, and that whatever is opposed to such goodness (such as the Church authorities who opposed their preaching) must have its source apart from God. They believed that matter, too, being opposed to Spirit, is evil and must be from the source of evil, i.e., from the Devil. Likewise, the Catholic Sacraments, since they make use of material things like water, wine, bread and oil, could not be from God. They also viewed the human body as either worthless, or as evil and a prison for the immortal soul. The sincerity of these austere, but misguided, preachers was turned to political ends by local secular authorities, who, in order to thwart their ecclesiastical rivals, gave support to these heretics.

Poverty and Preaching

Dominic and Diego also encountered Cistercian monks which the pope had sent as missionaries to convert the heretics back to the Catholic faith. These monks, however, traveling in the pomp and style expected of papal delegates, were having little success. They were about to give up when Diego and Dominic met them and suggested that they imitate the poverty of the heretical preachers. Sending home the rest of his retinue, Bishop Diego and St. Dominic adopted extreme austerity and began preaching the truth that all things, even material things, are good and are created by the only source of creation, God. (One finds this traditional Dominican opposition to dualism in Thomas’ teaching on God as sole source of creation (On the Power of God, q. 3, a. 5) and in his use of Aristotle’s views on body and soul.) Their success was much greater than the Cistercians had been, and so they totally committed themselves the task of converting the heretics. Although Bishop Diego died in 1207, Dominic and the rest of the missionaries continued their preaching.

Dominicans and Universities

Dominic continued to preach the Christian Gospel despite the fact that civil war broke out in the area. Under pressure from the pope, the King of France sent a crusade against the Albigensians who, with the support of the Count of Toulouse, had murdered the papal legate. From 1206 until 1215, Dominic toiled in the south of France in relative obscurity, attracting followers to assist him in his preaching task. In 1215, Dominic received official recognition from the Pope Honorius III for his community as the Order of Friars Preachers. No sooner was his institutional base established, however, than St. Dominic sent his brothers in small groups to various centers of learning throughout Europe, even to the center of learning in the medieval world, the University of Paris. Dominic believed that sound preaching must arise out of a firm foundation in Theology, and so he sent his brothers to be educated in Christian doctrine and to recruit others so educated. Quickly, the Order of Preachers spread throughout Europe, becoming well established in every institution of higher education.

Saint Dominic was a man who drew his strength and his wisdom from a profound prayer life; he was said to have always been either talking to God or talking about God. Likewise, he sought to impress upon the Friars of his Order that their preaching should begin in the quiet solitude of prayer and study. Thus, a motto of the Order of Preachers is “Give to others the fruits of your contemplation.” This spirit of contemplation and preaching, humility, poverty and service embodied by Holy Father Dominic formed the character and found expression in one of his greatest sons, Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Learn more about St. Dominic and the Dominican Order by following the links below:

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