During his general audience on Feb. 3, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the life and work of St. Dominic Guzman, founder of the Dominican order and yet another outstanding figure in the history of medieval Christian culture.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Last week, I spoke about Francis of Assisi, a truly outstanding figure. Today, I would like to speak to you about another saint from his era who also made an essential contribution to the renewal of the Church of their time: St. Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers — also known as the Dominican Friars.
Blessed Jordan of Saxony, who succeeded St. Dominic as leader of the order, offers us a complete portrait of St. Dominic in a famous prayer he wrote: “Burning with zeal for God and supernatural ardor, out of your boundless charity and the fervor of your passionate spirit, you consecrated yourself wholly by the vow of perpetual poverty to living the apostolic life and to preaching the Gospel.”
Blessed Jordan emphasizes precisely this essential feature of Dominic’s testimony: He always spoke with God and about God.
In the lives of the saints, love for the Lord and for one’s neighbor — the quest for the glory of God and the salvation of souls — always go hand in hand.
His Early Years
Dominic was born in Caleruega, Spain, around 1170. He belonged to a noble family of Old Castile, and, supported by an uncle who was a priest, he was educated in the famous school at Palencia. He quickly stood out for his interest in studying sacred Scripture as well as his love for the poor — to the point of selling his books, at the time an asset of considerable value, in order to use the proceeds to help victims of a famine.
Once ordained a priest, he was elected a canon of the cathedral chapter of Osma, the diocese where he was born. Although this title would have given him a certain prestige in the Church and in society, he did not consider this a personal privilege or the first step in a brilliant ecclesiastical career, but rather a service to be carried out with dedication and humility.
Indeed, are not career and power a temptation to which even those with roles of leadership and authority in the Church are not immune?
A few months ago, during the consecration of some bishops, I gave the following reminder: “We do not seek power, prestige or esteem for ourselves. We know how in civil society and often also in the Church things go badly because many people on whom responsibility has been conferred work for themselves rather than for the community” (Homily on the occasion of the episcopal ordination of five prelates, Sept. 12, 2009).
Diego, the bishop of Osma who was truly a zealous pastor, quickly took note of Dominic’s spiritual qualities and sought to avail himself of his collaboration. Together they traveled to northern Europe to carry out diplomatic missions that the king of Castile had entrusted to them.
During his travels, Dominic became aware of two enormous challenges facing the Church of his time: the existence of peoples still not evangelized at the northern edge of Europe and the religious divisions that had weakened Christian living in southern France, where the activities of certain heretical groups were creating disturbances and alienating people from the truth of the faith.
Called to Mission
Dominic decided, therefore, to pursue two apostolic goals: missionary work among those who were ignorant of the light of the Gospel and the re-evangelization of existing Christian communities.
The pope, whom Bishop Diego and Dominic visited to seek his advice, was the one who asked Dominic to dedicate himself to preaching to the Albigensians, a heretical group that believed in a dualistic concept of reality — that is, a universe having two creative principles that were equal in power: good and evil.
This group, as a result, despised material things as having their origin in the principle of evil, to the point of rejecting marriage and even denying Christ’s incarnation, the sacraments through which Christ “touches” us through material things, and the resurrection of the body.
The Albigensians held a poor and austere lifestyle in high esteem — in this sense, they were even exemplary — and criticized the wealth of the clergy in those days.
Dominic enthusiastically accepted this mission, which he undertook through the example of his own life of poverty and austerity, through preaching the Gospel and through public debates. He dedicated the rest of his life to this mission of preaching the good news.
St. Dominic’s spiritual sons would fulfill his other dreams: the missio ad gentes, that is, the mission to those who did not yet know Jesus, and the mission to people of the cities, especially the university cities, where new intellectual currents were challenging the faith of the educated.
This great saint reminds us that the flame for missionary work should always be burning at the heart of the Church, constantly urging us either to proclaim the Gospel for the first time or, where necessary, to evangelize anew.
Indeed, Christ is the most precious treasure that men and women of all times and places have the right to know and love!
It is comforting to see that in today’s Church there are also so many — pastors and laypeople, members of old religious orders and new ecclesial movements — who joyfully give their lives to this supreme ideal of proclaiming the Gospel and bearing witness to it!
The Dominican Order
Soon, other men, attracted by the same ideal, joined Dominic Guzman. As a result, gradually — from the first foundation in Tolosa, Spain — the Order of Preachers was born. Dominic, fully obedient to the directives of the popes of his time, Innocent III and Honorius III, adopted the ancient Rule of St. Augustine, adapting it to the requirements of an itinerant apostolic life in which he and his companions would move from one place to another preaching, yet always returning to the friaries where they lived, which were places of study, prayer and community life.
Dominic especially delighted to highlight two values that he considered indispensable for the success of any mission of evangelization — a community life marked by poverty and study.
Dominic and his Friars Preachers considered themselves to be, first of all, mendicants; that is, they did not have extensive lands to administer. This gave them more opportunity for study and for itinerant preaching and was a tangible witness to the people.
The internal government of Dominican friaries and provinces was structured on a system of chapters that elected their own superiors, who were then confirmed by the major superiors. Thus, it was an organization that fostered fraternal life and responsibility among all the members of the community and required each member to have strong convictions.
The choice of such a system derived from the fact that the Dominicans, as preachers of God’s truth, had to be consistent with what they preached.
Truth, studied and shared in charity with one’s brothers, is the deepest reason for joy. Speaking of St. Dominic, Blessed Jordan of Saxony said: “All men were swept into the embrace of his charity, and, in loving all, he was beloved by all. He claimed it his right to rejoice with the joyful and to weep with the sorrowful” (Libellus de principiis Ordinis Praedicatorum autore Iordano de Saxonia, ed. H.C. Scheeben, [Monumenta Historica Sancti Patris Nostri Dominici, Romae, 1935]).
Secondly, Dominic, taking a bold step, decided that his followers should acquire a solid theological formation and did not hesitate to send them to the universities of his time, even though not a few Churchmen regarded these cultural institutions with distrust.
The Constitutions of the Order of Preachers give great importance to study as a preparation for the apostolate. Dominic decided his friars should devote themselves unsparingly to study, with diligence and devotion. Their study was to be based on the soul of all theological knowledge, namely on sacred Scripture, and to respect the questions raised by reason.
Cultural Dimension of Faith
The development of culture requires that those who are involved in the ministry of the word, at the various levels of competence, be properly qualified. Therefore, I exhort everyone — pastors and laypeople alike — to cultivate this “cultural dimension” of the faith so that the beauty of Christian truth can be better understood and the faith can be truly nourished, strengthened and also defended.
In this Year for Priests, I invite seminarians and priests to appreciate the spiritual value of study. The quality of priestly ministry depends also on the generosity with which we apply ourselves to studying revealed truths.
Dominic, who decided to found a religious order of theologian-preachers, reminds us that theology has a spiritual and pastoral dimension that enriches our souls and our lives. Priests and consecrated men and women — as well as all the faithful — can find deep “interior joy” by contemplating the beauty of truth that comes from God, a truth that is always relevant and always alive.
The motto of the Friars Preachers — contemplata aliis tradere [to hand on the fruits of contemplation to others] — helps us to discover in the study and contemplation of this truth a pastoral longing springing from the need to communicate to others the fruit of our contemplation.
When Dominic died in 1221 in Bologna — the city that later declared him its patron saint — his work had already achieved great success. The Order of Preachers, with the support of the Holy See, had spread throughout Europe to the benefit of the entire Church. Dominic was canonized in 1234.
Dominic himself is the one who, through his holiness, points out to us two means that are indispensable for apostolic activity to have an incisive effect. The first is Marian devotion, which Dominic tenderly cultivated and left as a precious legacy for his spiritual sons and daughters who, in the history of the Church, are credited with popularizing the Rosary, a prayer dearly beloved by the Christian people that is steeped in Gospel values — a true school of faith and devotion.
Secondly, Dominic, who looked after some contemplative women’s monasteries in France and in Rome, firmly believed in the value of intercessory prayer for the success of any apostolic work.
Only in paradise will we understand how effectively the prayers of cloistered nuns accompany apostolic activity! To each of them I send a thought of gratitude and affection.
Dear brothers and sisters, may the life of Dominic Guzman spur us all to be fervent in prayer, courageous in living the faith, deeply in love with Jesus Christ.
Through his intercession, let us ask God to always enrich the Church with genuine preachers of the Gospel.