WILLIAM DI MONFERRATO
Because of the connection between the two men, William di Monferrato is always mentioned more than once in any life of Saint Dominic. William got the last part of his name from his birthplace, the old Italian duchy or province of Monferrato, whose capital was Casale, an episcopal city situated on the beautiful Po' west of the Duchy of Milan. He certainly belonged to the best class of people in Monferrato, while his name might indicate that he Was of the ruling family. Between Count Ugolino di Segni, cardinal bishop of Ostia and Velletri, who was a nephew of Innocent III, and afterwards ascended the papal throne under the name of Gregory IX, and the family of di Monferrato there evidently existed an intimate friendship.(1)
William was certainly well trained, as well as thoroughly educated from his youth. For this reason, when he went to spend the lent of 1217 in Rome, Cardinal Ugolino di Segni bad him stay at his palace. As the cardinal and Saint Dominic, who was then in the Eternal City, were close and trustful friends, this circumstance brought young di Monferrato into frequent contact with the founder of the Friars Preacher; for the two illustrious churchmen often met for consultation in the cardinalitial residence. No doubt, as the report of his preaching and miracles was broadcast throughout Italy (especially in Rome), William knew of Dominic before by reputation. But the young man's religious vocation dates from the home of the future Gregory IX, who held the Order of Preachers in the highest esteem.
Here di Monferrato learned the man of God at firsthand, no less than saw the workings of divine grace in his pure soul. We do not know if William was then in priest's orders. Be that as it may, his conversations with Dominic showed him clearly the vanity of the world and the futility of earthly honors. While, on the one band, the young man's birth and splendid qualities won him the esteem of his cardinal friend; on the other, he felt himself drawn towards the apostolic ambassador of Christ, whose example inspired him with a lively desire for his own personal sanctification and a longing to labor for the spiritual welfare of his fellow man.
Thus filled with love and reverence for the founder of the Friars Preacher, di Monferrato determined not only to make him the model for his own life, but also to join the new Order. This resolve he made known to Dominic. At the same time, for the blessed man had told him of this design, he expressed a hope that he would be allowed to accompany the patriarch on the missionary labors which he proposed to undertake in the orient. It was Dominic's custom to receive any young man of promise at once. That he did not do so in this case leads one to suspect that some family or other influence rendered it more prudent that William should defer his entrance into the Order for a while longer.(2)
It was probably this that caused di Monferrato to propose to the saint, whom he already considered his superior, that he should go to the University of Paris. There he would be able to round out his studies in a way that would be helpful in the apostolic life to which he felt himself called. Dominic praised the idea. Absence from home would perhaps accustom the parents to being without their son, and render them more disposed to consent to his entering the new religious institute. It is quite possible that a part of the plan was that di Monferrato should take up the oriental languages.
During his two years of study at Paris, for he felt that the more he knew the better he would be able to fulfill his vocation, William made as much progress as one could expect even from a student with his fine mind and studious disposition. God blessed him in many ways. With his studies he combined a habit of prayer and the practice of virtue which were a source of edification to all. Doubtless they were of no little aid in helping him to remain true to his holy design, no less than in avoiding contamination by the wayward lives led by many of his fellow students.
To nearly all the above Father di Monferrato himself gave sworn testimony, in his own modest way, when he was called to witness to Saint Dominic's sanctity and miracles at the time his cause was up for canonization. Father Touron does not reproduce this. Yet it is too beautiful and too much to the point for us to pass it over. As given in the Scriptores Ordinis Praedicatorum, and copied from that work in the Acta Sanctorum, it reads:
Father William di Monferrato, a priest of the Order of Preachers, declared under oath that sixteen years ago, or thereabouts, he came to Rome to spend the lent. The present Pope, then Bishop of Ostia, kept him at his house. At that time Father Dominic, the founder and first Master General of the Order of Preachers, was at the Roman Court, and often visited the Bishop of Ostia. This gave the witness an opportunity of knowing said Dominic, whose conversation pleased the witness so much that he began to love him. The two often spoke together of their own souls, and those of other men.
It seemed to the witness that the said Father Dominic was by far the most holy man that he (the witness) had ever seen, although he had been conversant with many saintly and religious men. It also appeared to the witness that he had never met any man so zealous as said Dominic for the salvation of mankind. That same year the witness went to Paris to study theology. This he did, because it had been agreed between him and Dominic that he (the witness) should join the Order of Preachers, which he promised to do after two years given to the study of theology. It was also agreed between them that, after Dominic had established the future discipline of his brethren, he and William should go together to convert, first, the pagans of Persia, and then those who live in the countries that lie to the north . . . .(3)
When Dominic reached Paris, on a return from Spain, in 1219, be found his cherished young friend in the same mind and good disposition as when he left Rome two years before. Di Monferrato then received the habit from the patriarch, and the two set out together for Bologna. This first journey with the saint was for William at once a part of his novitiate and an introduction to the apostolic life. He had frequent opportunities to admire the gift of miracles which God conferred on the holy man. At Chatillon-sur- Seine, at Avignon, during the passage over the Alps, and in a number of Italian cities our novice was edified by his master's preaching, no less than by his virtue. Dominic's example (as William himself tells us in his testimony to the saint's holiness) taught his disciple the irresistible eloquence of the mouth that is accustomed to speak only to God, or of God, when it strives to teach men the truth, or to show them the way to heaven.(4)
One may easily fancy the progress made by such a pupil under such a guide. In fact, we soon find di Monferrato well trained in the interior life, and thoroughly prepared for the apostolic ministry. In this also he bad the advantage of, being associated with Dominic. God did not permit them to carry out their design of becoming co-missionaries among pagans in the orient. Yet the saint often took William with him on his journeys during the last two years of his life. Through their sermons they converted many sinners, Jews, and heretics. This was particularly the case in Lombardy, which was the last scene of Dominic's active life, and the first of that of William di Monferrato.
After the death of the Order's founder, his faithful disciple continued to be guided by his principles, as well as to walk in his footsteps. He toiled ceaselessly for the salvation of souls. At the general chapter, held at Bologna in 1233, he acted as one of the definitors, and thus was present at the translation of Saint Dominic's relics, which took place at that time. A few months later, William was the second Friar-Preacher witness called to give testimony, before the papal examiners, to the sanctity, virtue, and miracles of his spiritual father in the process of his canonization.
Dominic was now gone to his reward; the cause of his honor safely in the hands of the Church. Accordingly, shortly after rendering him the grateful homage just mentioned, Father di Monferrato determined to take up the work in which he and the venerable patriarch had planned to toil together. With the permission of his superiors and the blessing of Gregory IX, he left Italy for the missions in the orient. Raynaldi places him there in 1235 at the latest.(5) Writing to Gregory IX in 1237, Father Philip, provincial of the Friars Preacher in Palestine, tells the Holy Father that William di Monferrato and two other confrères, who are well versed in the oriental languages, are laboring hard to bring the patriarch of the Nestorians in Greater India, a part of the Tartar territory, and other lands into union with the one true Church. The editors of the Cartulaire de Saint Dominique assure us that he labored in Bagdad and Mosul.(6)
From this time, however, nothing more is known of Christ's zealous ambassador. Still this is by no means so strange as the lack of information on the place and time of the deaths of some of the other immediate disciples of Blessed Dominic who remained in Europe. Not often were any personal accounts received of the early Friars Preacher who labored in the orient as missionaries. Not infrequently they died at their posts far removed from their brethren, or crowned glorious lives with their blood in an onslaught, which made it hard to learn of their deaths. None doubt but that William di Monferrato, imitating the example of his friend who founded Order, toiled on among the pagans and schismatics in foreign lands until the end, and received the reward of eternal glory for his faithful, self-sacrificing services in the cause of religion. He has ever been considered as one of the bravest of the brave in an Order of spiritual soldiers.
1. Acta Sanctorum, XXXV (first vol. for August), 631, No. 13 ff; QUETIF-ECHARD, op. cit., 1, 47,104.
2. Acta Sanctorum and QUETIF-ECHARD, as in note 1.
3. See note 1. Mother Augusta Theodosia Drane, O. S. D. (History of Saint Dominic, p. 173) gives a translation of this part of Father di Menferrato's testimony, in which she uses the first person. She makes the curious mistake (possibly a typographical error, or a slip of the pen) of translating "septentrionis" as south, instead of north. See also Father Thomas Mamachi's Annales Ordinis Praedicatorum, appendix, col. 107. It is worthy of remark that this vast plan of missionary work shows Dominic's dream for his Order. (Ed. note).
4. See note 1.
5. RAYNALDI, Oderic, Annales Ecclesiastici, Anno 1235, No. 28; QUETIF-ECHARD, op. cit., 1, 105.
6. RAYNALDI, Oderic, op. cit., Anno 1237; QUETIF-ECHARD, op. cit., 1, 104; BALME-LELAIDIER, Cartulaire de Saint Donninique, II, 306.