The Order of Preachers

BEGINNINGS

In 1203, after almost ten years of life as a cathedral canon, St Dominic was chosen by his bishop, Diego d’Acabes, as companion for an embassy to Denmark. The purpose of the trip was to arrange a marriage for the son of King Alfsono VIII of Castile. Passing through southern France, Diego, Dominic and those who accompanied them, came to know the Albigensian heretics. It is said that an innkeeper who lodged the grouping in Toulouse was converted by St Dominic during an all night debate.

In spite of the successful negotiation of marriage, the purpose of the trip was defeated when the princess either died or entered a monastery. While in Denmark, Diego and Dominic were impressed by the intense missionary activity of the Danish clergy among the Baltic peoples. They both wished to join them as missionaries, so they went to Rome so that Diego could tender his resignation as bishop of Osma to the Pope. The resignation was refused, however, and neither ever made it to the Baltic regions. Instead of simply sending Bishop Diego back to his diocese immediately, Pope Innocent III (pope from 1198-1216) sent him to work among the Albigensians.

Dominic and Diego went to Montpellier on the French Mediterranean coast. They found the papal legates who had previously been sent to convert the Albigensians from their heresy. Among them was Abbot Arnauld of Citeaux. Despite all their efforts, the legates had made no headway. After listening attentively, the bishop sized up the situation and gave solid advice. The leaders of the Albigensian heretics lived an austere life, kept long fasts, travelled on foot, and preached in apostolic simplicity. Those trying to convert them would have to do likewise.

Diego invited the legates to send their retinues home, to travel by foot two by two like the apostles. The bishop's zeal and arguments convinced the legates. They dismissed their retinues after Diego had set the example. They kept only books and other necessities. Areas for evangelisation were assigned to the new groups of apostolic preachers and they set out to preach. During the following weeks and months they crisscrossed the countryside, preaching and debating with the Albigensians. After each debate, each side presented a written summary of its arguments to its opponents. The Albigensians subjected one of Dominic's summaries to a trial by fire. Three times they threw it into the fire but each time the flames cast it forth untouched.

One of the successes of Diego and Dominic was the conversion of a number of women from Albigensianism. They established a monastery for them at Prouilhe, near Fanjeaux, their own headquarters. This became the first monastery of Dominican nuns.

Bishop Diego returned to his diocese late in 1207 to recruit preachers, raise funds for the apostolate, and to regulate his diocese. He died in December soon after his return to Spain, however.

In January 1208 the Albigensians assassinated Legate Peter of Castelnau, a fiery, impatient man, who constantly antagonised them. Innocent III responded by proclaiming a crusade against the heretics. When hostilities broke out, a peaceful apostolate became extremely difficult, but Dominic and a handful of companions persevered with their preaching despite every discouragement.

Dominic realised that the Church needed a continuous, dependable supply of competent preachers. Volunteer preachers had come and gone in insufficient numbers. He also realised that the type of preacher that was needed would have to be like the Cathars, i.e. educated, well versed in the Scriptures (the Bible), who preached convincingly. On founding the Order of Preachers Dominic laid great emphasis upon the study. Within a month of the foundation he had enrolled six members in the lecture course of Alexander Stavensby at the cathedral school of Toulouse. He had had himself, of course, a good education and a deep love of the Word of God, always carrying Matthew’s Gospel and Paul’s Epistles with him.

This explains Dominic’s sending seven friars to Paris in August, 1217. He preferred to found houses in university cities, at Bologna, Palencia, Montpellier, and Oxford. By design he sought to enroll university students in the Order.

 

THE FOUNDING OF THE ORDER

Dominic and his companions first discussed the founding of an Order seriously during 1213 and 1214 at Fanjeaux. In the spring of 1215 Bishop Fulk of Toulouse established them as a preaching brotherhood for his diocese and Dominic received the vows of Thomas and Peter Seila, citizens of Toulouse. Seila deeded some houses he owned to the Order, one of which (the larger) became the Order's first priory when Dominic and the brethren took up their residence there. Soon afterwards the bishop gave the church of St. Romanus to the brothers.

The next step was to obtain papal confirmation of the foundation. The opportunity came when Bishop Fulk set out for Rome in 1215, with Dominic in his company, to attend the Fourth Lateran Council (November 1215).

Pope Innocent was petitioned to confirm the new foundation as a religious Order. On the agenda for the fourth Lateran Council was a proposal to prohibit the founding of new religious Orders. To surmount it, Innocent advised Dominic to choose one of the existing religious Rules. He promised that when this had been done, he would confirm the Order.

In the spring of 1216, Dominic and the friars chose the Rule of St. Augustine and framed statutes to supplement it. These became the first half of the permanent Constitutions of the Order. Adapted from the Constitutions of Premontre, they regulated the religious life of the friars. Nothing was legislated to govern the Order's apostolate until four years later. Dominic waited to learn from experience what laws and organisation would best suit an Order of Preachers.

In October 1216 the friars added to the property of St. Romanus’ church and began to build a cloister with cells above it suitable for study and sleeping. Returning to Rome, Dominic obtained both the confirmation of his Order as he conceived it as well as the other things he desired for the work of the Order. On 22nd December, Honorius III (Innocent III had died in July) granted a bull of confirmation, approving the Order as a body of Canons Regular. A second bull, issued on 21st January 1217, recognised the newness of Dominic's ideas and approved the foundation as an Order of Preachers.

 

THE EARLY YEARS

Dominic’s Order was a new kind of religious Order. For the first time a religious Order incorporated, as an integral part of its religious life, a ministry sharing in the bishop's fundamental duty to preach the word of God. This mission was conferred by the Apostolic See. The Order of Preachers seeks to place at the service of the bishops a body of educated and trained preachers prepared to assist them in the laborious duty of preaching. The fourth Lateran Council called on bishops to appoint just such co-operators with themselves to remedy the long-standing need of the Church for regular and competent preaching, especially in the towns and cities. While the preaching ministry was, in time, opened to other Orders, it has remained the vocation of the Order of Preachers to be concerned that the preaching needs of the Church be met.

Shortly before or after the bull of 21st January 1217, which granted this mission, Dominic had a vision of the apostles Peter and Paul while he was praying in the old basilica of St. Peter. Peter handed him a preacher's staff and while Paul handed him the book of the Gospels, saying to him, “Go and preach; for this you have been sent.” Then he saw the brothers of the new Order going two by two through the world preaching.

The bull of 21st January, the vision of Peter and Paul, and perhaps the discouraging conditions in southern France made Dominic determined to scatter the brothers to the four winds. Both the brothers and his friends tried to dissuade him. “It seemed to their worldly prudence,” wrote Jordan of Saxony, “that he was tearing down rather than raising up the building that he had started.” Dominic answered “Seed when scattered fructifies, when hoarded, rots.” He urged the brothers to go without fear, promising that he would pray for them and they would succeed.

On 15th August 1217, the feast of Our Lady's Assumption, he sent seven brothers to the university city of Paris “to study, preach, and found a priory,” and four to Spain. Three stayed in Toulouse and two at Prouilhe to help the sisters. Dominic himself remained in the area until 13th December, when he left for Rome. While passing through Milan and Bologna, he prepared for future foundations.

 

GROWTH AND ORGANISATION

From December 1217 until mid-May 1218 Dominic was in Rome, consulting about his Order, preaching and obtaining a series of letters of recommendation for presentation to bishops when the friars arrived in a city to make a foundation. The letters show Dominic's reliance on the Holy See, help historians trace the opening of priories in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy, and reaffirm the Order's name, mission, and voluntary poverty.

In Rome, Dominic received Reginald of Orléans, a professor of Canon law in Paris, into the Order. A magnetic man, powerful preacher, teacher and administrator, Reginald had a distinguished career as professor and diocesan official behind him when he became a Dominican friar. Soon afterwards he became seriously ill with a burning fever, but Dominic's intercession gained his recovery. The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared, anointed Reginald, and approved his new vocation by showing him the Dominican habit. Later that year after having returned from his pilgrimage to the Holy Land (which is why he was in Rome), his leadership and preaching made the community at Bologna, founded at this time by Dominic, the equal of Paris in strength and influence.

When Dominic left Rome in May 1218, he began a visitation of the Dominican communities that occupied him until July of the following year, and brought him through Italy, southern France, Spain and Paris to Bologna. As he visited the communities, he admitted new members to the Order and founded new priories: Bologna, Lyons, Segovia, Montpellier, Bayonne, Limoges, and perhaps Reims and Metz. In Paris he discovered the community had expanded to count thirty brothers who were taking full advantage of the educational and preaching opportunities presented by the university city. Jordan of Saxony, a bachelor of theology who would subsequently replace him as head of the Order, declared his intention of joining the Order. In that year of visiting the brothers, the number of members and communities increased, and Dominic had amassed a wealth of data and experience about the Order: how the friars lived the religious life and implemented their mission, how they observed poverty, and what kind of laws were needed to establish good government and guide the ministry.

In Bologna Dominic found that the fledgling community he had founded a year before had, under Reginald of Orléans’ guidance, become a vigorous group of students and scholars of reputation. Among them was Roland of Cremona. Dominic took personal charge at Bologna and sent Reginald as superior to Paris. However, within only a few months of his arrival Reginald died. He had received only about 30 new brothers for the Order. Jordan of Saxony was one of those received by him. He would himself recruit a thousand or more men during the years he was master general of the Order (1222- 1237).

Dominic now took steps that gave his Order stability and a sense of identity, rooted in a definite mission and a clear understanding of the means to achieve it. The formation of an excellent set of laws and an efficient government were major means to the end. Several visits to the papal court at Viterbo were carried out initially, a new series of papal letters of recommendation were obtained and he stayed several months in Rome. This activity last from late October 1219 until the following May. Meanwhile, Dominic sent letters calling representatives of the priories to meet in general chapter at Bologna in May 1220.

The time was ripe for this step. In 1216, when there were only one or two houses and a handful of brothers, none had the experience and knowledge to devise laws for an Order that for the first time in history combined the contemplative life with a general active ministry. Now Dominic’s ideas had been tested by experience and his visits of the communities had prepared him to devise a government for a world-wide Order incorporating laws for preaching, formation of new members, studies, and poverty. In summoning a chapter of brethren, he declared his intention to proceed democratically through representation and consultation.

 

GENERAL CHAPTER OF 1220

At the opening of the first general chapter on Pentecost Sunday 17th May 1220, the two major elements of Dominican government were in existence, those of the office of Master General and the Chapter.

When the Chapter began Dominic surprised the delegates by tendering his resignation: “I deserve to be removed from office, as I am unfit for the post and remiss.” This was a mixture of humility and fact. After the Chapter was over, his personal guidance would no longer be essential. The Order would be able to stand alone. In any case, his health was failing. Years of exhausting labour, severe asceticism, and constant travelling had left their mark. The brothers refused to hear of his resignation. He deferred to their will but stipulated that while in session the chapter would be in charge, and not he who would then be subject to it.

The 1220 chapter added a prologue to the Constitutions, granting superiors the important power of dispensation:

“The prelate shall have power to dispense the brethren in his priory when it shall seem expedient to him, especially in those things that are seen to impede study, preaching, or the good of souls, since it is known that our Order was especially founded from the beginning for preaching and the salvation of souls. Our study ought to tend principally, ardently, and with the highest endeavour to the end that we might be useful to the souls of our neighbours.”

This text crystallizes the Dominican mission and spirit. It aims to facilitate the Order's ministry and reconcile its demands with those of the religious life. Dominic did not set up an impossible standard when he coupled the consecrated life of prayer and the ministry. He himself harmonised both and a realistic view of his life does much to relieve the tension. Dominic prayed at night and during the day. He preached, worked, and travelled, but took the time to pray. Always he was “thoughtful before God.”

Dominic was aware that there would be tensions between competing demands in apostolic religious life. To take care of this, he created the functional dispensation (an innovation in the religious life), given to facilitate study, the ministry, and the salvation of souls. Dispensation gives the brothers the assurance that when they study, preach, or do any work of the ministry, they are serving God and keeping the Constitutions as well as when they stand in chapel. Dispensation gives them flexibility, mobility, and the liberty of the sons of God, free to do his work. To increase this freedom, Dominic made it clear that the Order's laws of themselves do not bind under sin.

The Church gave the Order the mission to proclaim God's word, and Dominic knew from experience that this word can be proclaimed rightly only when it has been prayerfully pondered before God. Though he prescribed systematic study of the Scriptures, he understood that God's word is a heavenly reality that cannot be fathomed by a purely intellectual process; its proclamation must be the fruit of prayerful savouring that becomes love when it matures.

The chapter of 1220 completed its work by passing laws for preaching, study, poverty, visitation and organisation of the priories, and the procedure of general chapters themselves. By requiring that each priory have a professor of theology, it laid the foundation for the Order's schools. It also tightened the Order's poverty. In 1216 the men had decided “not to own possessions lest concerns for temporal things impede the preaching ministry . . . for the time being the Order would retain only revenues.” The chapter ruled that “possessions and revenues are not to be accepted under any circumstances.” The Order would trust in God's providence and the offerings of the faithful. Preachers would go out in pairs, travelling on foot, and “neither accepting nor carrying gold, silver, money, or gifts, except for food, and books.”

After the chapter ended, Dominic plunged into a preaching campaign as head of a papal mission sent to preach in northern Italy. Being in Lombardy allowed him to visit the priories at Milan and Bergamo, and perhaps prepare for one in Piacenza. Upon returning to Bologna, he decided to found a monastery for Diana d'Andalo and her companions. Under his guidance, she had vowed in 1219 to enter the religious life. Although he entrusted the project to four friars before he left for Rome in December, the monastery could not be founded until after his death.

Dominic stayed in Rome until mid May 1221. He reported to the Pope on his preaching in Lombardy. He preached in the churches, talked with recluses, and instructed the nuns at San Sisto and the friars at Santa Sabina, the friars who had gone there in February, 1221. Dominic also sent two brothers to Siena in March, planned foundations in Metz, Spires, and Lund, and received papal letters of recommendation to the bishops of Amiens and Piacenza and the people of Sigtuna (Sweden) and obtained for the Order the privilege of using a portable altar. Now the friars could set up a temporary chapel while awaiting the completion of their church and need not hold their liturgies in the local parish church.

 

GENERAL CHAPTER OF 1221

The second general chapter convened under Dominic's presidency at Bologna on 30th May 1221. A detailed account of its work is not available to us, but we do know that it created the institution known as a “province” and its chapter as an intermediate form of government and ministry. The Order's government now embodied its principles of collegiality and subsidiarity.

During the sessions of the chapter Dominic made another innovation in monastic practice, declaring that the Order's laws do not bind under sin. Some years later, when brothers who had not known him began to doubt this, the general chapter of 1235 put it in writing. Dominic respected the freedom of the brothers as children of God, expecting them to act responsibly under the prompting of the Holy Spirit and not through fear of sin. In these matters the Dominican was a man of his time. The thirteenth century (in Europe) is a period noted for the introduction of representative procedures into state and municipal governments and the proliferation of voluntary and local associations-guilds, charitable organisations, confraternities, and universities. All of them employed elective and representative methods of government.

The general chapters after 1221 completed the Constitutions of the Order so that by the year 1228, the Order possessed a completely developed system of government. It was well integrated and well balanced between monarchical elements of the administration and democratic elements of community control. Collegiality, subsidiarity, and representation were among its prominent features. When functioning properly, the Dominican Constitutions promote the Order's work, pay due regard to the ideas and desires of the friars, and impart a flexibility that enables the Order to expand its membership, territory, and kinds of work. It adjusts itself to new times and new societies by its own legislative action.

 

THE DEATH OF DOMINIC

Dominic filled the last six weeks of his life, following the second general chapter, with intense preaching throughout Lombardy.

When he returned to Bologna at the end of July, he was burning with fever. He died on the feast of the Transfiguration, 6th August, 1221.

He had planned so wisely, governed so prudently, and structured the Order's government so well, that the Order could survive without him. He was laid to rest under the feet of his brethren in the chapel at Bologna.

Pope Gregory IX canonized him on July 3, 1234, comparing him as he did so to the apostles and to the great founders, Benedict, Bernard, Francis. His flame has never gone out.

 

THE DOMINICAN IN THE MODERN WORLD

Fr Vivian Boland OP

The Dominican has always lived in the modern world. That may sound a bit too clever. Let me explain what I mean.

The Dominican Order was established in response to the modern world of the thirteenth century. Great social and cultural changes were taking place. Towns and cities were growing in a way not known before. Universities were being established at Paris, Oxford and many other centres in Europe. Important books on science and philosophy were being translated into Latin from Greek and Arabic, and were challenging the received understanding and presentation of the Christian Gospel.The Church, seen as wealthy and worldly-minded, was largely ineffective against various cults and sects, small religious groups which were at once more serious and more enthusiastic than the institutional religion.

New ways to the truth were needed if people living in radically changed circumstances were to hear the ancient Gospel truth in a way that was fresh and relevant to their changing lives. Saint Dominic responded to this challenge. He gave up his life as a cathedral canon in Spain and became a travelling preacher in the south of France. He saw that a life of poverty and simplicity had to accompany any preaching he might do if his message were to be credible. He sent his first followers to the university towns to become acquainted with the intellectual debates of the time and to bring the Gospel light to bear on them. He devised a style of religious life which combined priory-life with freedom to travel, monastic prayer with freedom to study, devotion with preaching, the old with the new.

In the system of government which Dominic left to his Order there is a built-in openness to constant change. It is a structure which is constantly revising itself. This democratic and constitutional organisation ensures that the Dominican Order is responsive to whatever ‘modern world’ it finds itself in, whether penal-times in Ireland, sixteenth-century Spain, nineteenth-century France, or twentieth-century Taiwan, or Trinidad, or Canada. The wise system of government left by Saint Dominic ensures the Dominican Order’s flexibility and adaptability to changing circumstances. It has also ensured that the order has strained but never cracked, has suffered stress but has never split.

The Dominican, faced with the modern world of the twenty-first century, thus has a lot going for him, or her. Behind him is a ‘tradition of adapting’, a constant encouragement to work out ‘new ways to the truth’ as the Dominican constitutions put.

Like his contemporaries, the Dominican will be a little bit dazzled by the speed of change in the modern world, a rate of change which marks if off from all previous ages. All the time there are new developments in technology, in communications, in artificial intelligence, in weaponry, in social conditions, in ideas and styles of living. He has no quick or easy solution to coping with such a rate of change since he is himself a participant in the process, a man of this time.

He has, however, a few clues in the response of Saint Dominic to the ‘modern world’ which he faced. One is to stay with the people: to live where they live, to be where they are, to experience the social land cultural changes which the people are experiencing.

Another clue from Dominic is that the Dominican should go to the places of learning, the places where ideas are being processed, where new ideas are being considered. This is not necessarily in order to ‘take on board’ all new ideas. Nor is it so as to reject all new ideas. It is in order to listen and to understand them, to see whether they do justice to human dignity, whether they are ideas worthy jof the human being. These places certainly include the universities and other academic institutions, but also today it means understanding and using the ‘mass media’ – journalism, radio, television – the places where ideas are processed, wherever thought is being pursued.

The connection between ‘poverty’ and ‘preaching’ takes the form, today, of an essential link between ‘justice’ and ‘preaching’. Dominic saw that authentic preaching had to come out of a life of poverty and simplicity. Today, authentic preaching must be ‘justice-making preaching’. It is not enough to talk about justice: it must be worked out in Dominican communities, in the institutions we work in, in the Church, in society. Dominicans are ‘with the Church’ in its call for a preferential love for the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed.

Questions like a proper understanding and living out of human sexuality, the education of new generations in accordance with human dignity and the destiny of the human person with God, the coming together of Christian churches in understanding and unity, the changing experience of women in society and in the Church, the question of nuclear power and the arms race, the spiritual riches of other great world religions with their ancient traditions of meditation, respect for life and compassion: all these questions, and many more are of concern to the Dominican today. He grows through facing these questions. He shares the struggles of others who are trying to understand what is right and to live for what is good.

An essential ‘moment’ in the Dominican’s experience, perhaps the essential moment today, is the time spent in listening. He must listen to the ancient Word of God, in scripture and in the Church’s life, a word ‘ancient and ever new’, a creative, saving, healing, encouraging freedom-giving work. He must pray. But he must listen equally to the world as it takes form in him and around him, an exciting, fast-moving, stimulating but, perhaps, slightly giddy, largely lonely kind of world to which the Word of God must be spoken.

Of the Dominican this demands skill, a skill which can be termed understanding.Involvement in this understanding are: openness to the truth of things, compassions for the human reality he encounters in himself and in others, patience and gentleness in nurturing new ways of expressing and living the Gospel, humility and trust in God.

In the bull of his canonisation, Saint Dominic is described by Pope Gregory IX as the prophetic instrument of a God who constantly does new things for His people in response to their changing needs. The Dominican today is not to be a curator of a museum, however impressive. He is to be in his time what Saint Dominic was in the thirteenth century – a prophetic instrument of our God, who is taking care of us, and who constantly does new things for His people in response to their changing needs.

Order of Preachers