800 Years After His Death, St. Dominic Remains a Bright Light in the Church

The Dominican victory over Catharism inspires hope in our own battle against the culture of death and the forces of moral relativism.

A statue of St. Dominic at Blessed Sacrament Church in Seattle
A statue of St. Dominic at Blessed Sacrament Church in Seattle (photo: Jennifer Sokol)

I first noticed the star as I took a prayerful walk around the vaulted, red-brick interior of Blessed Sacrament parish in Seattle, run by Dominican friars, and stopped before the statue of St. Dominic in a side niche of the sanctuary. There, like a badge of honor, the small star was affixed to Dominic’s forehead and prompted immediate questions within me: Is it a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem, or a sign of his virtue? Or a symbol of the Order of Preachers that he founded? 

This year, on Aug. 6, the Church celebrates the 800th anniversary of the death of St. Dominic. But the star, I now understand, is based upon a moment of grace received shortly after his birth that foretold his calling and the far-reaching influence he would have in the Church for the rest of his life and into eternity.

Information found on the Dominican Friars Foundation website recounts the story. At his baptism in Caleruega, Spain, in 1170, as newborn Dominic’s godmother held him over the font, praying as holy water was poured and the words of baptism were pronounced, she received a vision of a brilliant star shining on his forehead. Earlier, while still pregnant, his mother, Joan of Aza (beatified in 1828), had also received a luminous sign of her unborn son’s destiny through a vision in a dream. Dominican Father Bede Jarrett recalled her experience in his book, The Life of St. Dominic, as described by early writers of St. Dominic’s life: “She thought that she bore in her womb a dog and that it broke away from her, a burning torch in its mouth, wherewith it set the world aflame.”

Although Joan knew the vision was a sign of God’s favor upon her son, still, it must have been with both joy and sorrow that she watched as he indeed “broke away from” her at the tender age of 7 to follow his call to the priesthood. He went to live with his uncle, a parish priest, and received a classic education in the arts and sciences and especially excelled in music. He loved to read, his favorite pastime, but was still sociable and sensitive to the needs of others. As Father Jarrett said, “Joyous always on his own account, only gloomy out of sympathy with the gloom of others.” At age 14, he entered the monastery of the Canons Regular in Osma and was ordained in 1195. For the next nine years he lived a cloistered life of prayer and sacrifice with his community and eventually assumed a role in leadership.

Recognizing his gifts, in 1203, the bishop of Osma invited Dominic to accompany him on a journey to negotiate a marriage between a French prince and a Spanish princess. Although the meeting never transpired due to the unexpected death of the princess, the journey provided both men with their first exposure to a dangerous new movement ravaging the Church. 

The heresy, known as Catharism, had taken root in the region of southern France and was destroying the souls of Catholics. The sect’s clerical leaders had devised a doctrine of two Gods — one good, the other evil — and declared that all matter was evil, including the body of Jesus Christ “made flesh.” Those unwilling to follow the extreme dictates of fasting, lifelong virginity and marital abstinence were required to deny the Roman faith and the sacraments of baptism, confession, Eucharist and marriage. As Father Jarrett summarized the toxic ideal, “The only real act of goodness was getting rid of life.”

To restore God’s life within souls, “in the strength of the Spirit,” one by one, Dominic began to win lapsed Catholics back to the faith by engaging them in private and public debates. At the same time, he felt a call to establish a new apostolic order dedicated to preaching God’s word, but hesitated, realizing the monumental challenge. Even the Cistercians, he knew, had tried but failed to break up through the well-organized stronghold of the Catharists.

In need of encouragement, on the evening of the feast of St. Mary Magdalen in 1206, while sitting on a hillside above Prouille, France, and gazing out over the valley, he turned to Mary in prayer and asked for a mark of her guidance. Then, as he continued to watch, her luminous response emerged from above. Father Jarrett described the event in his book: “Out of the heavens descended a globe of flame, with a trail of glory following, coming down over the forlorn church of Prouille.” As if a confirmation of the visions seen by others in his infancy, Dominic realized he had seen the full import. Strengthened, he moved forward and established the first community of the Order of Preachers in Prouille and received the blessing of Pope Honorius III in 1216. The Dominicans are now credited with extinguishing the heresy of Catharism.

For me, the Dominican victory inspires hope. Hope as we daily battle against the culture of death and the forces of moral relativism and hope in the Light of Christ that “shines on in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). From now on, as I look upon St. Dominic’s star, I will remember his heroic example and pray, asking his intercession: Good servant of the Word, please help me to bear my torch and to radiate the charity of Christ as you did.