St. Dominic: Truth in a Troubled World

COMMENTARY: The assiduous study of sacred truth is our only hope in a jaded, dangerous and relativistic age.

(photo: Public domain)

In the 12th canto of the Paradiso, the poet Dante speaks of the legacy of St. Dominic to the Catholic Church: “Then with both learning and zeal and with the apostolic office, he went forth like a torrent driven from a high spring.”

Aug. 3 marked the 50th anniversary of my receiving the habit of the order founded by St. Dominic (whose feast day is Aug. 8), known formally as the Order of Preachers and more popularly as the Dominican Order. Coincidentally, 2016 is also the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Dominicans, which were formally approved as an order by Pope Honorius III, on Dec. 22, 1216. In approving the order, he said we should be pugiles fidei (literally, boxers of the faith).

For 800 years the friars, nuns and sisters of this order have been serving the Church in a multitude of capacities, ranging from teachers, preachers and missionaries to caregivers for the sick — all the while, trying to pursue their active works motivated by a spirit of contemplation. In this they reflect the temperament and life of the founder.

Born from Spanish nobility, Dominic committed himself early on to prayer, learning and charity. He used to stay up all night in prayer. He is said to have spoken only to or about God. Though he was intensely committed to learning, he sold his valuable books as a student during a famine to feed the hungry. He longed also to sacrifice his own life to convert heretics and pagans.

As a member of the Augustinian order in Osma, Spain, he was considered such a valuable and talented individual that he was sent with his bishop on a diplomatic mission to Denmark by the king. While on this trip, he encountered the Albigensian heresy in southern France, which taught that matter was evil and only spirit was good. He was so distressed by the obvious destructive results of this teaching that he and his bishop both decided to preach to the Albigensians in order to convert them.

The Catholic preachers sent by the Pope hadn’t been successful to this point, partially because of their lavish lifestyle and also their lack of learning. Dominic and his bishop chose to remedy this by following the life of the apostles: going two by two, begging their bread and basing their preaching on sound doctrine. Eventually the bishop returned to Spain and died, but Dominic remained with the preachers who had come to join them.

The mission was not a success, and Dominic succeeded in only converting a few unmarried women, whom he quartered in a convent and for whom he wrote religious constitutions that were eventually adopted with needed changes by the friars. The nuns he founded were so much a part of the original order that we owe our only description of Dominic’s personality to one especially devoted to him, Sister Cecilia. She testified that he was a joyful man and “a kind of radiance shown from his brow, inspiring love and reverence in all.” She also testified that he said there was only one beauty, “beauty of soul.”

This beauty of soul was demonstrated in his decision, because of the failure of the Albigensian mission, to disperse his little community to large cities and universities throughout Europe. He so recognized the importance of education and sound philosophy for the formation of good itinerant preachers that study was a religious observance equal to the choral office in Dominican houses, and the friars sought chairs of theology in the budding European universities. This emphasis on education culminated in Sts. Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas.

The Dominican order has striven through plague, reformation, revolution, war and persecution to carry the spirit of this unique and wonderful man to the whole world. His was a spirit born of grace and prayer, and so the order has a number of characteristics: the spirit and life of the apostles, regular life and fraternal charity and openness to expressing the truth to the people of every age and culture in a way that takes account of their openness to receiving it.

The first quality has always entailed a respect for and defense of the pope, whose direct intervention led to the founding of the order. Apostolic spirit also means not only a commitment for the truth of the Catholic faith, but a kind of itinerancy and pursuit of holy poverty. Regular life incorporates certain religious observances common to monastic communities since the early days of the Church: habit, cloister, community life and common prayer centered on the Mass and the Divine Office chanted in choir.

Though the order has pursued a rigorous formation, a unique element is that each member has always been encouraged to develop his or her individual personality. When one has met one Dominican, one doesn’t necessarily have a clue what the next one will be like. This makes it much easier to meet people where they are and not where we would like them to be. Dominicans, together with the Franciscans, were zealous to encourage frequent Confession in mass settings, and so were accomplished confessors.

Some believe that the Dominican constitutions — which emphasize a more participatory government than most religious orders and intentionally don’t bind the members under sin (if one breaks a vow of the order) — were influential in forming the constitution of the United States. The Pope’s personal theologian has been a Dominican since the Middle Ages. All of the Dominican men and women throughout the centuries have taken very seriously the mandate of the founder to become contemplative apostles characterized by careful thought, coupled with a freedom born of joyful restraint, always motivated by divine grace.

Every historical period and culture stands in need of clear, doctrinal teaching about the Catholic faith taught in a human and joyful way. The witness of the Dominican contemplative apostle is as urgent now as it was in the 13th century, indeed in any century. Dominic and his sons and daughters have always exhibited a knack for what Gilbert and Sullivan call: “gilding the philosophic pill.”

On a personal note, I have been privileged to try to live the Dominican adventure for 50 years now. The order in some ways has changed greatly from the time I entered. But I can say for my poor part that I have increased mentally and spiritually as a man from sharing the journey with so many deep and high-minded souls. Dominic was convinced — and we should be too — that one cannot check one’s brain at the door when one is baptized. Further, the assiduous study of sacred truth is our only hope in a jaded, dangerous and relativistic age.

The story goes that St. Dominic had a vision of St. Peter, who gave him a staff for guiding others, and St. Paul, who gave him a book to do so by truth. When they did this, they said, expressing the aspirations of all of the friars, nuns and sisters in the order: “Go and preach, for you are chosen by God to do that occupation and ministry.”

Dominican Father Brian Mullady is a mission preacher and adjunct

professor at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.