St Dominic was born in Caleruega, Spain, in 1170 into a family of saints. His parents and brothers are all renowned for their sanctity as “Blessed” or “Venerable”. From this small village he was sent to his uncle to study and eventually became a canon in the Cathedral of Osma. He soon became the subprior and was known for his prudence and wisdom. His bishop asked him to accompany him to Scandanavia to arrange for the marriage of the king and on his way he encountered the reality of the Church of his time in southern France. The country was rife with heresy. Of particular interest was a group known as the Albigensians. Everything material was seen as evil and only the spiritual was good. Dominic spent much of his energy in bringing back these straying people and converting the pagans. Everything created by God was good and beautiful, he said.
There were, however, papal legates who were sent to the region to deal with these heretics but they lacked an important component in which the heretics excelled – apostolic simplicity of lifestyle. Dominic soon crystalised his mission. He challenged these legates to get off their horses and walk in apostolic simplicity among the people. He himself did this and spent much of his time and energies in dialoguing with these people and leading them to conversion.
Unlike St Francis, Dominic did not develop a cult around his person. We know very little about his personality, how he looked etc. His contribution to the Church was to be sensitive to the situation at the time and respond appropriately. Mindful of the mission given by Jesus, Dominic gathered disciples and walked around on foot, being of service to the Church by living in apostolic simplicity, encouraging his followers to equip themselves with solid doctrine and theology and being schooled in good communication skills. They had no properties like the monks at the time and depended for their work and survival on begging – hence they were known as mendicants.
Before launching his preaching mission with his brothers (friars), Dominic established a community of nuns who supported the friars through their prayer. Dominic always loved to return to them and had a loving relationship with them. From this time the Order of Preachers has always been composed of both men and women.
Dominic obtained from the Pope at the time the permission for his disciples to preach, something reserved only to the bishops. Hence the title Order of Preachers. It was only much later that the Order became known as the Dominicans.
From these beginnings the Order of Preachers has always produced great preachers, theologians, scholars and communicators. Foremost among Dominic’s followers was St Thomas Aquinas whose teachings have formed the basis for the training of clergy for many centuries. The Order also had many artists whose works have decorated halls and cathedrals down through the ages. One thinks of Fra Angelico, amongst many. St Catherine of Siena is well known for her mysticism and dedication to the truth, being prepared to confront and challenge even the Pope at the time. In Latin America Bartolome de las Casas was a champion for justice and peace in defending the rights of the Indians. In our present time, many Dominicans have been outstanding for their contribution to theology, writings, justice and peace, art and communication skills.
The Order of Preachers is characterized by brothers and sisters being prepared to be constantly on the move and free. Of all religious Orders and congregations, the Dominicans were the first to be and still are, truly democratic in their way of life. All superiors are elected. Even the Master of the Order is democratically elected after which Rome is informed of the election. No one is forced into a mould but each is encouraged to develop his or her talents and to be at the service of the Church and its needs. And so Dominic urged his followers to become devoted to the study of doctrine and theology and to become experts in communicating this.
Dominicans today continue to live in the spirit of St Dominic. They continue to respond to the needs of the Church while living in community and devoting themselves to study and preaching. Dominicans work in parishes, teach in universities, write books, work in TV and radio (as in South Africa). Many are artists and craftspeople. The Pope’s personal theologian has for centuries been a Dominican.
A well known author has written very appropriately that “his legacy was not in the example of his personal holiness but in the apostolic movement he initiated and inspired” (R Ellsberg).
As Dominic lay dying in 1221, surrounded by his friars, he left them with these sentiments: “Have charity, guard humility and make your treasure out of voluntary poverty”.