The Word Among Us

Lent 2024 Issue

Preacher of God’s Grace

St. Dominic’s Bold Vision for Renewal

By: Jennie Weiss Block

Preacher of God’s Grace: St. Dominic’s Bold Vision for Renewal by Jennie Weiss Block

During 2016, more than 160,000 men and women the world over gathered at events to celebrate the eight-hundredth anniversary of the founding of their religious congregation, the Order of Preachers. Often referred to as the Dominicans, in honor of their founder, St. Dominic de Guzmán, these celebrations were a time to give praise to God for giving St. Dominic the vision for a religious order whose mission would be to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ for the salvation of souls.

Dominic’s vision was an inclusive one. For more than eight centuries, the order he founded has given millions of men and women, from every culture and walk of life, a place in the Church. His vision was generous enough to accommodate women and men seeking widely different expressions of the vowed life. Today the Dominican family is comprised of priests, cloistered nuns, religious brothers and sisters, and lay women and men, all of whom follow in St. Dominic’s footsteps by dedicating their lives to preaching the gospel in word and deed.

A Mother’s Prophetic Dream. There is a legend that many believe is a foretelling of St. Dominic’s calling to the life of a preacher. When his mother, Blessed Jane of Aza, was pregnant with him, she traveled to the nearby Benedictine abbey to ask its patron, St. Dominic of Silos, to bless her child. While she was there, she dreamt that a dog was leaping from her womb carrying a burning torch in his mouth. When her child was born, his parents named him Dominic in gratitude to St. Dominic of Silos. From that time on, her dream came to signify—first for herself, then ultimately for millions of others—that her child would set the world on fire with his preaching.

And so Dominic was born around the year 1172 in Caleruega, a small town in Spain. His parents were devout Catholics of noble lineage. His uncle was a priest, and from a very early age, he took responsibility for his young nephew’s spiritual and educational formation. Dominic was intellectually gifted and excelled at his university studies. In his early twenties, he was ordained a priest and joined the cathedral in Osma, Spain. He intended to spend his life in Osma serving the local church. But as we all know from personal experience, God often has other plans. This was true for Dominic as well; he surely did not set out to found a religious order! However, he was open to wherever God was calling him, even if it meant going in an entirely different direction.

A Crooked Yet Straight Path. Around 1203, Bishop Diego of Osma invited Dominic to accompany him to Denmark on a mission for the king of Castile. While passing through the south of France, they encountered members of the widespread and rapidly growing Cathar movement. Anti-Catholic, the Cathars (sometimes called Albigensians) were a heretical group that saw the material world as evil and denied the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. The leaders of this popular and well-organized movement had adopted an austere lifestyle that gave them credence. Consequently, the group was gaining strength as more and more people abandoned Catholicism to join them.

Pope Innocent III was greatly concerned about this situation and sent many clergy to the area to address the problem, but with little success. In early 1206, three papal legates asked Bishop Diego and Dominic—who by this time had gained a reputation as a talented preacher—to undertake a preaching mission in the southern region of France. Their charge was to bring large numbers of Albigensians back into the Church.

Dominic and Diego saw that the problem was the contrast between the comfortable lifestyle and sometimes “bad conduct” of the clergy and the simple and ascetical way of the Albigensian leaders. So they decided to adopt a similar austere lifestyle. With only the clothes on their backs, witnessing to the gospel by their simplicity, they traveled by foot and begged for their needs while preaching the good news with passion and clarity. This approach—which Dominic would later adopt when he founded the Order of Preachers —led to many conversions.

Among the converted was a group of about a dozen Cathar women who were without a home or any means of support. In response, Dominic and Diego established a religious community for these women in Prouilhe, France. The monastery, which is still in existence today, is known as the first Dominican foundation.

Near the end of that first year, Dominic experienced two terrible losses. First, his longtime companion, Bishop Diego, died while on a trip back to Osma. Less than a month later, his preaching partner, Peter of Castelnau, was assassinated by a group of Albigensian zealots. One can imagine how hard these losses were for Dominic. But in the midst of his grief, he remained open to the Spirit’s direction and followed the “crooked yet straight” path to establish the Order of Preachers.

Holy Preaching. In the years following Bishop Diego’s death, Dominic’s reputation as an exceptional preacher grew, and Peter of Benevento, the papal legate, officially appointed him head of preaching in southern France. In time, a band of men came to pledge themselves to him and the preaching mission. In 1215, Dominic attended the Fourth Lateran Council in Rome, where Pope Innocent III encouraged him to form a religious community dedicated to preaching. When Innocent died later that year, his successor, Pope Honorius III, continued to support Dominic’s mission, and on December 22, 1216, he issued a papal bull that formally brought the Order of Preachers into existence.

St. Dominic left his followers a beautiful legacy, which over the centuries has become known as the “Holy Preaching.” Dominicans do not understand preaching as something confined to the pulpit for a few minutes each week. Rather, it is a way of life organized around the four pillars of Dominican life: prayer, study, community, and preaching. These pillars support them as, together, they seek to respond to God’s presence in their lives and in the world.

From the earliest days of the order, Dominic created a culture where friendship was valued, encouraged, and given an important place in daily life. That culture lives on in the holy preaching and in the relationships among the members of the Dominican family.

A Visionary and Humble Founder. Dominic lived only six years after the order was founded, and yet in this short time, he put in place an organizational structure that enabled it to grow and flourish. He traveled extensively during this time, crisscrossing Italy, Spain, and France—mostly on foot—preaching and building relationships. As a result, the order grew rapidly and has stood the test of time over eight centuries.

St. Dominic—along with his contemporary, St. Francis of Assisi—created a new form of religious life that responded to the needs of their time and place. Known as the “mendicant” orders, their members chose to live in urban areas instead of monastic enclosures. Embracing a life of poverty, they dedicated themselves to evangelization and ministry, especially to the poor. From its earliest days, the Order of Preachers has placed great emphasis on scholarship and the intellectual life. Believing that theological education was essential to preaching, Dominic took the bold move of sending young friars to universities for advanced study.

A man of deep prayer, St. Dominic often spent the night in the chapel praying for sinners. But he also liked to have a good time. Returning home from a long trip late at night, he would often stop at the convent to bring gifts to all and share a glass of wine with the nuns. While he could be quite strict and had high expectations for his followers, he was also known for his open and generous heart. He didn’t like to draw attention to himself. He left no letters and insisted on being buried in a humble crypt “under the feet of the brothers.” And yet he was so effective that when he died on August 6, 1222, at the age of fifty-one, there were already hundreds of men and women living out his vision for the “Holy Preaching.”

The “Holy Preaching” as a Way of Life. Along with its founder, the Order of Preachers counts among its members more than seventy canonized saints. These include Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Martin de Porres, and Rose of Lima. In addition, more than two hundred Dominicans have been named by the Church as “Blessed.” These saints and so many other holy men and women have brought honor to St. Dominic’s vision by preaching the gospel, in and out of season, with their words and their lives.

St. Dominic was known to say that we should always be “talking to God or talking about God.” May he inspire each of us to preach the gospel in word and deed!

Jennie Weiss Block, OP, DMin., is a Dominican laywoman and a practical theologian. She is the author of Paul Farmer: Servant to the Poor.

A Thirteenth-Century Dominican Blessing

May God the Father bless us.
May God the Son heal us.
May God the Holy Spirit enlighten us,
and give us eyes to see with,
ears to hear with,
hands to do the work of God with,
feet to walk with,
a mouth to preach the word of salvation with,
and the angel of peace to watch over us and lead us at last,
by our Lord’s gift, to the Kingdom.