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St. Dominic and the Dominican Tradition

The Dominican Tradition has its origin in the life and ministry of St. Dominic de Guzman (1172 – 1221), the son of a Spanish noble, who founded one of the largest religious Orders in the Catholic Church.  His charismatic vision of a way of responding to the needs of the Church in the thirteenth century led to the establishment of the Order of Preachers –popularly known as  the Dominicans.

The Thirteenth Century World of St. Dominic

The growth of an increasingly literate laity within the urban centers of thirteenth century Italy and Southern France posed a serious pastoral problem for the Medieval Church.  These urbanized men and women experienced a strong dichotomy between the New Testament values of Christian life and the institutional Church.  The simplicity of Gospel living portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles, with its emphasis upon shared common life and the preaching of the Good News of Jesus Christ in poverty, appealed to the hearts and minds of many and seemed to stand in stark contrast to the opulent lifestyle and moral laxity that often marked the clergy.

Because parish priests and the monks of the great abbeys seemed unable or unwilling to respond to their people’s needs for forms of Christian life and spirituality more in accord with the apostolic life presented in the New Testament, the laity of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries in parts of France and Italy turned away from the institutional Church in increasing numbers.  Lay movements, such as the Poor Men of Lyons organized by Peter Valdes (+1218), who came to be called the Waldensians, offered an alternative form of Christian living that sought to imitate the simple life of the early Church by an exact following of the Gospel narratives on poverty and preaching.

At the same time, the dualist doctrine of the Persian religious thinker Mani (216-276) began to resurface in Western Europe.  His medieval followers were called Manichees, Cathars or Albigensians (from the town of Albi in southern France).  Rejecting most of the doctrines of the Medieval Church, the Albigensians taught that salvation was achieved by freeing oneself from everything that was material through a life of asceticism. The teachers of the movement, the Perfect, lived austere moral lives with special emphasis on fasting, chastity, poverty and preaching.

The simultaneous emergence of the Waldensians and the Albigensians created the need for forms of Christian life and spirituality that provided patterns of Gospel living that were in accord with the traditional teachings of Christianity.  St. Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226) in Italy and St. Dominic de Guzman (1170 -1221) in Spain provided charismatic visions that would capture the ideals of the Gospel in new ways and draw many of the reform-minded men and women of the urban lay movements away from the Waldensians and the Albigensians and back into the Medieval Catholic Church.

St. Dominic, Canon Regular and Itinerant Preacher

Dominic de Guzman completed his theological studies at Palencia in 1196, and became a Canon Regular, a member of a community of priests following the Rule of St. Augustine, of the cathedral of Osma in Spain.  In 1203, Dominic first encountered the Albigensians of southern France while on a diplomatic mission with his bishop, Diego de Acebes, to arrange a marriage between the son of King Alfonso VIII of Castile and the daughter of the King of Denmark.  After the marriage negotiations had failed in 1205, Dominic and Diego stopped at the papal court in Rome on their way back to Spain. Pope Innocent III (1198 – 1216) enlisted the services of Dominic and Diego and sent them to be part of the preaching mission against the Albigensians in Languedoc, the south of France.  The nine years between 1206 and 1215 that he spent preaching among the Albigensians taught Dominic a great deal about the impact of the Perfect on their followers. These years also served as the germinating period for the development of a charismatic vision of a way of living the Gospel in accord with the Christian faith that would appeal to the deepest ideals and needs of the men and women of his time.

Dominic’s Vision of the Family of Contemplative Preachers

Dominic was guided by the image of the early Christian community in Jerusalem in the opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, which was at the heart of the spirituality he had known as a Canon Regular. He believed that the renewal of Christian society necessitated communities of men and women committed to living the apostolic life.  The major component of that apostolic life was to be the preaching of the Gospel by members of communities that lived in evangelical poverty, who were devoted to contemplative prayer and engaged in constant study of the word of God.  In Dominic’s understanding, preachers were called to be the living reflection of the Gospel they proclaimed.  Hence for him, the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience were meant to recreate and transform the preacher into an apostle, a living witness to the crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ.

During his early years of preaching in Languedoc, Dominic gathered a group of Albigensian women whom he had converted to form the nucleus of the first community of Dominican nuns.  Through a life of contemplative prayer lived in a community dedicated to poverty and mutual service, these Dominican women would incarnate the apostolic life and preach the Gospel by their witness to prayer and service.  Although the Order of Preachers did not yet have official status, the first community of Dominican women at Prouille in the south of France, the preaching nuns, initiated an evolutionary development in which countless women in the centuries to come in collaboration with their Dominican brothers would fully participate in and help to develop the life and ministry of the Order of Preachers, the Dominican Family.

The Foundation of the Order of Friars Preachers

After the establishment of the Dominican nuns at Prouille, Dominic continued the implementation of his vision of communities of contemplative preachers living the apostolic life. In the spring of 1215 at the invitation of Bishop Fulk of Toulouse in southern France, Dominic brought the men who were his preaching companions in Languedoc to this important city so they could establish a formal religious community there under the direction of the bishop.  Later in 1215 when Bishop Fulk set out to attend the Fourth Lateran Council in Rome, Dominic accompanied him, hoping to obtain papal approval for his new community of contemplative preachers.  In accord with the legislation of the Council, Pope Innocent III promised Dominic that he would approve the founding of the new Order of Preachers after Dominic had chosen one of the already existing Rules of religious life.

As a Canon Regular of Osma, Dominic was already following the Rule of St. Augustine.  He supplemented this rule with legislation and customs borrowed from the Premonstratensians, an order of Canons Regular founded by St. Norbert at Premontre in 1120, who supported his own vision of the apostolic life by liturgical prayer. The spirituality of the Canons Regular was that of a community of religious priests who dedicated themselves to carrying out the daily liturgy of the Church through the solemn celebration of Mass and the Divine Office and to caring for the sacramental needs of the faithful.  St. Dominic joined these priestly ideals of the Canons Regular to a ministry of preaching in poverty (mendicancy) that flowed from a life of contemplation and study.

In December 1216, Pope Honorius III (1216 – 1227), the successor of Innocent III, approved Dominic’s plan for an order of contemplative preachers exercising the priestly ministry and living in mendicant poverty. They owned no property except for the land on which their religious houses (priories) were built and they were to work or beg for their daily needs.  In the final four and a half years of his life, Dominic transformed the sixteen friars living in community at Toulouse into the international Order of Preachers whose lives and ministry would impact history until the present.

The Development of the Order of Preachers

In August 1217 Dominic sent seven friars to Paris to study, to teach and to found a priory, and four to Spain to preach and establish priories.  Three friars remained in Toulouse to continue the ministry they had begun under Bishop Fulk, and two friars went to Prouille to preach in Languedoc and to minister to the spiritual and temporal needs of the preaching nuns.  Dominic himself set out for Rome to gain further support from Pope Honorius and to prepare the way for foundations in Italy.  The years from 1217 to 1220 saw the growth of the Order through the reception of new members, the establishment of new priories and the development of the preaching mission of the Order throughout Europe.

Under St. Dominic’s direction, thirty representatives from the twelve priories in Europe gathered for General Chapters at Bologna in 1220 and 1221.  The General Chapter of 1220 enacted legislation for preaching, formation of new members, studies, the observance of poverty, and the procedures for General chapters. St. Dominic insisted that the Order’s laws were not to bind under sin, and that the Priors had the power to dispense from the Order’s laws when necessary for the sake of preaching or study.

The General Chapter of 1221 created Provinces as subdivisions of the Order, which would gather the priories of a certain geographic area under the authority of a Provincial, who was responsible to the Master of the Order.  The twelve Provinces established by St. Dominic and the General Chapter were Spain, Provence, France, Lombardy, Tuscany, Germany, Hungary, England, Greece, Scandinavia, Poland and the Holy Land.  However, the most significant work of the Chapter, which ended six weeks before Dominic’s death, was the formulation of the basic constitutional legislation that would concretize his vision and provide the flexibility for the subsequent development of the preaching mission of the Order.

The Preaching Mission of the Order and the Means to Attain it

The mission or purpose of the Order of Preachers is preaching and the eternal salvation of our brothers and sisters in the human family.  The four means of attaining that end are: 1) the three vows of obedience, chastity and poverty; 2) community life with the monastic observances; 3) the solemn recitation of the Divine Office; and 4) the study of sacred truth.

The Vows of Obedience, Chastity and Poverty

The purpose of the three vows within religious life is to free the individual to follow Jesus Christ.  From the Dominican perspective, the vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty free a man or woman to live the mystery of Jesus Christ the preacher.  Dominican friars promise obedience to the Master of the Order who is the chosen by the brothers to hold the place of universal leadership once held by St. Dominic.  The Order of Preachers views obedience as a relationship of mutual service between brothers committed to the common mission of preaching the Gospel.  The Prior is the superior at the local level; the Provincial is the superior at the regional level, and the Master of the Order is the superior at the international level.  Each serves as a focal point unity and direction in the shared mission of preaching.  Dominican obedience is the free choice of placing one’s gifts at the disposal of the community, symbolized by the superior, for the sake of fulfilling the common preaching mission of the Order.

In the Dominican tradition, the vow of chastity, like the vows of obedience and poverty, is related to the preaching mission of the Order.  A Dominican man or woman chooses to live a celibate life within a community of contemplative preachers in order to share the family life of the Gospel community formed by the Holy Spirit through the proclamation and hearing of the word of God.  A Dominican lives both in the family of other Dominican men and women committed to preaching and in the family of God’s people which he or she helps to create and sustain through the preaching of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Since the lay movements of the thirteenth century saw evangelical poverty lived in apostolic simplicity as the guarantor of authentic preaching, the vow of poverty assumed special meaning within the Dominican tradition.  Dominican friars were to be itinerant preachers living in mendicant poverty, were to give up all possessions and fixed income, and to rely completely on the free will offerings of the faithful.  Each day the friars went out as mendicants begging for alms and their daily bread.

Community Life and the Monastic Observances

As the three vows of obedience, chastity and poverty were understood as the first means of fulfilling the preaching mission of the Order, so community life with the monastic observances was seen to be the second means.  The monastic observances within religious life, which Dominic received from the tradition of Benedictine monasticism, were silence, fasting, abstinence from meat, night vigils, the chapter of faults, acts of penance and simplicity in religious attire and community life.  Within the Dominican tradition, the monastic observances provided a disciplined milieu in which contemplative preachers keep the word of God clearly focused in their minds and hearts as they prepare to engage in their ministry of preaching.

The Solemn Recitation of the Divine Office

The solemn recitation of the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours, the third means of facilitating the preaching of the Gospel, centered the worship life of the community around the word of God.  As a Canon Regular St. Dominic had known the solemn celebration of the eight hours of the Divine Office: 1) Matins; 2) Lauds; 3) Prime; 4) Terce; 5) Sext; 6) None; 7) Vespers and 8) Compline.  With its patterns of hymns, psalms, scripture readings and prayers, the Office provided the place where a religious community daily encountered the word of God as it proclaimed the mysteries of salvation in the unfolding of the liturgical year.  Daily Mass and the Divine Office constituted the common prayer of the community of contemplative preachers.  Gathered together for prayer in common, they experienced the life-giving water of the word of God and the living bread of the Holy Eucharist.  This daily nourishment of word and sacrament strengthened and renewed the community of contemplative preachers so that they could share the same living water and bread of life with the people to whom they preached and ministered. The common praise of God and the hearing of the Good News were meant to be joyous occasions of new life and empowerment for ministry, which also would be strengthened by the fourth means of facilitating the preaching mission of the Order, the life of study.

The Study of Sacred Truth

The renewal of Christian life in the thirteenth century with its developing urban centers and its nascent universities not only required preachers who practiced poverty but also preachers who were learned in scripture and the teachings of the Church.  For St. Dominic, study was essential to insure the doctrinal preaching that was necessary to deal adequately with intellectual challenge to the Catholic faith offered by the Waldensians and the Albigensians.  The integral place of study in the Dominican tradition would give the preaching friars a profound role in the development of the great universities of Medieval Europe.  Every Dominican priory was a school for training contemplative preachers in scripture and theology.  The Dominican Order would provide the Church with some of its greatest theologians and speculative thinkers such as St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart and St. Antoninus.

The vows of obedience, chastity and poverty; community life with the monastic observances; the celebration of the Divine Office and continuous study of scripture and the truths of faith were meant to provide the contemplative basis for Dominican preaching.  The fulfillment of St. Dominic’s vision of a community of contemplative preachers requires a careful balancing so that both the active-preaching dimension and the contemplative-prayer-study dimension are held in creative tension.

The Dominican Family

The breadth and universality of Dominic’s vision made it possible to incorporate a variety of men and women into the Dominican Family. Traditionally the Order of Preachers has been divided into the First Order, the Second Order and the Third Order.

The First Order, the Friars, is composed of clerical brothers and lay brothers.  Clerical brothers are friars who are either priests engaged in ministry or students preparing for the priesthood.  Lay brothers (now called co-operator brothers) are friars who once cared for the temporal needs of the community but who now also serve in a variety of other ministries, including the diaconate.

The Second Order is composed of contemplative nuns living in cloistered monasteries. They are usually under the jurisdiction of the local bishop, but the Master of the Order also provides oversight and support for the nuns in their contemplative life.

The Third Order, which came into existence at the end of the thirteenth century, is divided into the Third Order Regular and the Third Order Secular.   The Third Order Regular was initially composed of women who chose to live Dominican religious life but not under the strict rules of a cloistered monastery.  In the nineteenth century the Third Order Regular also came to include Papal and Diocesan Congregations of Dominican Sisters established to engage in active ministries of service such as education and health care.  Members of the Third Order Secular, originally called Tertiaries and now called the Dominican laity, are lay men and women living in the world. Their Rule states that “As members of the Order, they participate in its apostolic mission through prayer, study and preaching according to the state of the laity.”

Remarkable and dedicated Dominicans over eight centuries have continued to be faithful to St. Dominic’s vision by striving in a variety of ways to be contemplative preachers at the service of the Church in the proclamation of the Gospel.