There is so much one can say about Saint Dominic but today I’d like to concentrate on just two aspects of his life and story.
The first sets him in his historical context and it’s perhaps the main reason he came to prominence in the Church. Dominic was compelled to oppose the Albigensian heresy which had taken firm root in southern France. The Albigensians were also known as Cathars and they flourished in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
The Cathars believed that there are two principles at work in the world, one good, the other evil: one could argue that they actually believed in two gods. The good god was responsible for the spiritual realm and the evil god for the material world. In fact, the Cathars believed that everything physical was evil, and they saw human beings as eternal souls imprisoned within finite, physical bodies. They considered the earth as a place of punishment, quite literally hell, and so it is only in death that our eternal souls can be released from this torment.
Seeing the physical world as evil, you won’t be surprised to learn that the Cathars had a pretty low opinion about marriage and the family. They were in favour of complete chastity, not wanting to produce children and so perpetuate the suffering of more souls trapped in filthy human bodies. And yet if they sat down and thought about what they believed one would have thought they would come to their senses, but Catharism became a very popular heresy and it led so many people away from the truth of the Gospel.
Back in the early thirteenth century, heresy was opposed and punished by the state and Saint Dominic distanced himself from this, even though after his death, the Inquisition was controlled by the Dominicans. Dominic believed that his mission from God was to preach and teach the truth, and he did this by travelling on foot, without funds or retinue, begging bread from door to door and hoping in this way to preach the Gospel effectively. And it was this way of life that led to Saint Dominic’s permanent legacy, the founding of the Order of Preachers.
It’s interesting that the Dominicans came into being around the same time that Saint Francis of Assisi founded his Order. Both Francis and Dominic were inspired by Our Lord’s command to his apostles to go out to preach and teach. Saint Dominic was determined to set up a movement that would be defined by its job. And that job was preaching and teaching, everything else was considered secondary. One early Master of the Order said that those who have the grace to be preachers should prefer preaching to all other spiritual exercises, including prayer, reading, liturgy and the sacraments.
While Saint Dominic was known to have a personal love of poverty, the Order recognised that poverty should also be secondary to the task of preaching: Dominicans should neither be so rich that managing their wealth was a distraction, but neither should they be so poor that this also kept them from their principal task.
The early Dominicans had a pragmatic attitude to piety – poverty, chastity and obedience are means to an end, not values in their own right. Saint Thomas Aquinas held that prowess in prayer should never be regarded as the touchstone of spiritual progress. He also said that nothing is to be gained by forcing ourselves to pray for long periods of time when we are simply getting bored.
Saint Thomas considered contemplation as the goal of human life; in that our final fulfilment will be the vision of God and that the most perfect occupation is that of the preacher who communicates to others what he or she has learnt in their contemplation. Dominican spirituality is dominated by concern for what might be useful to the souls of our neighbours.
And so today we thank God for the life and the influence of Saint Dominic. May the Church continue to be blessed by men and women drawn to follow his example.
Holy Father Dominic, pray for us.