The Life of St. Dominic

III. The Building of the Edifice

by fr. Gregory Anderson, OP (

At the end of our last session, we saw that when St. Dominic arrived in Rome in 1216 with everything all in order for papal approval of his new foundation, he found that Pope Innocent III had died. This meant that he would have to go all through the process of persuading Innocent's successor that his Order would be good for the Church. As it turned out, the man elected to succeed Innocent was Honorius III who was even more supportive of Dominic than his predecessor had been.

The first thing Honorius did was to give a bull of approval of the Order on December 21, 1216. On the following day, he issued a second bull of confirmation in which are the words so dear to the hearts of Dominicans, "We, considering that the brethren of the Order will be the champions of the Faith and true lights of the world" and so on. On January 26th. of 1217 he issued third bull which called the Dominicans "preachers" This was the one St. Dominic really wanted. That title given by the Holy See was a radical one. It meant that now priests, and not just bishops, were authorized to preach the Word of God. This was completely new in the Church.

Dominic was eager to return to Toulouse, but the Pope held him in Rome. He was made the theologian to the Pope, the office of Master of the Sacred Palace, an office that has been held by a Dominican since that time. The present one is Cardinal Chiapi. Finally, in May he was allowed to return home. On August 13th., 1217 he summoned his brethren to Prouille, the place where he had begun to found the Order. There he took another radical step. On the Feast of the Assumption, he dispersed his small band of followers, some to Spain, others to Bologna, but the largest number to Paris, the greatest center of learning in the west at that time. There were those who thought this was a foolish move, but he said, "Do not oppose me, for I know very well what I am doing." Usually, St. Dominic deferred to the wishes of his brethren, but in this case he was insistent and he was right. The Order grew tremendously as a result. Upon the suggestion of the saint, the brethren chose Matthew of France to be Abbot in case he was incapacitated. But as time would show, the title just did not fit so Matthew was the first and last abbot in the Dominican Order. Then Dominic set off again for Rome.

He arrived there in January of 1218. The Pope gave him the ancient church of San Sisto Vecchio, which is right across the street from the baths of Caracalla and down a short way from the Circus Maximus. The Pope, however, had another project in mind involving Dominic. He wanted to bring together all the nuns of Rome who were living in various monasteries all over the city. Their discipline was lax and they needed to be brought back to a stricter way of life. He saw Dominic as the man who could persuade them to leave their various places and take on a more rigorous rule of life. This was a big order but somehow or another the saint was able to bring it off. As soon as the remodeling of San Sisto was complete the nuns were to be brought there. This meant that the Dominican Fathers and Brothers had to have some place to move to. The Pope came through again and gave the Friars the magnificent basilica of Santa Sabina on the Avelline Hill overlooking the Tiber River. It had been built in the fifth century and is certainly one of the most beautiful churches in Rome. It is still the headquarters of the Order. Sometime after their arrival there St. Dominic planted some lemon trees in the courtyard of the cloister. Cuttings from those trees were planted in the courtyard of St. Albert's Priory in Oakland and they are flourishing.

Since the dispersal of the brethren there were houses of the Order all over Europe and the numbers would continue to grow, for vocations came in great abundance. Many of the men entering were distinguished scholars already. One of the most notable was Reginald of Orleans who held the chair of canon law at the University of Paris. He was the one to whom the Blessed Mother appeared and gave him the white scapular that we all wear and is the most important part of the Dominican Habit. He also was a most eloquent preacher and attracted a great many young men into the Order. One of those was Blessed Jordan of Saxony, who would succeed St. Dominic as General of the Order. He would attract over a thousand novices into the Order, among them two future popes, two canonized saints, numerous blesseds and countless intellectual giants of the time, one of whom was St. Albert the Great. Entering during this period were also St. Hyacinth, who preached not only in his native Poland but in other countries of northern Europe as well, and his brother, Blessed Celaus, who worked in Bohemia and Silesia.

The Order grew very quickly then. St. Dominic began visiting the various houses to insure that all these new members understood his ideals and purposes, to encourage them in their work and inspire them to greater apostolic zeal and regular observance. Keep in mind, he walked every step of the way. There was no public transportation or good roads. He would not ride a horse or a mule or even a donkey. He walked thousands of miles, to Spain, all over France as far as Paris and to Rome and other cities of Italy. He never stayed long anywhere. When he got outside of town he would take off his sandals and go barefoot even over rocky ground. He carried with him a staff and a little bundle on his shoulder. In it, among other things, of course, were the gospel of Matthew and the epistles of St. Paul which he read constantly. Every where he went he preached and drew great crowds to hear him. He always lived an austere life no matter where he was, fasting, praying most of the night, and scourging himself. He did have one weakness in the line of food. He loved turnips, which most of us might consider a penance.

One fact quickly became obvious. There was a urgent need for a written rule of Constitutions. The Friars had already chosen the Rule of St. Augustine as the basic law of the Order and had adopted a few regulations, but the Rule needed to be made more specific and applied to the purpose and spirit of the Order. For this reason, a General Chapter consisting of delegates from the various houses of the Order was called to meet in Bologna on May 17, 1220. We do not know the names of those who were present with the exception of Jordan of Saxony who has left us a brief account of the chapter proceedings. This is the only record we have of it. Jordan, incidentally, had been in the Order only two months when he was selected as one of the four delegates from Paris.

From his account we know that several characteristics were built into the Order's legislation. The first was a democratic spirit that was totally unheard of at that time. Every superior was to be elected, even the Master of the Order, for definite terms of office. Poverty was to be observed with the brethren living on alms. We still do it that way. Even the work we do in the St. Jude Office and on our mission band is a form of begging. Instead of going from door to door asking for food and money as they did in the Middle Ages, we write letters to people or preach asking for money to educate our students for the priesthood. The capitular fathers also re-affirmed that preaching was the primary work of the Order hand in hand with study, for ignorant preachers were causing problems. Both preaching and study were so essential that a superior could grant dispensation from regulations of the Rule if they would interfere with either one. One piece of legislation was that Chapters were to be held every year alternating between Bologna and Paris. This had to be abandoned later on when the Order grew so large that it became impractical.

We do not know how long the Chapter lasted for Jordan does not tell us. We do know that on May 24th., a week later, St. Dominic was on the road again travelling all over northern Italy.

In May of 1221, the second General Chapter was held once again in Bologna. We know even less about it than the first for Jordan was not there. By this time he was the Provincial of the Province of Lombardy in northern Italy. We do know that the Order was divided into eight provinces each with its own Prior Provincial. They were Spain, Provence, France, Lombardy, Rome, Germany, Hungary and England. Further refinements were made in the Constitutions, but we are not certain what they were for the records of it have not come down to us.

In June, Dominic was in Venice, conferring with Cardinal Ugolino, his close friend, the one who as Pope Gregory X was to canonize Dominic. In July, the saint returned to Bologna feeling tired in body but tireless in spirit. It was a unusually hot summer and on top of it, he had a fever. It was decided to move him to higher ground in the hills above Bologna where it was cooler. He talked about his life's work to the brethren present. He made a public confession to them and admitted that although he had preserved chastity all of his life he had taken more pleasure in conversing with younger women than with older ones. He then made his last will and testament: "These are, beloved ones, the inheritances I leave you as my sons: have charity among you, hold to humility, possess voluntary poverty."

It was now obvious that the end was near. He requested to be taken back to Bologna to die among his brothers. They had to carry him back very slowly for it seemed as though he would die on the way. They finally made it, his body burning with fever. He told the friars around his bed not to weep for him for, in his words, he was going to where he could serve them better. They wanted to begin the prayers of the dying, but he told to wait. A little later on, he said "Begin." At the words "Come to his help, you holy ones of God; come out to meet him, you angels of the Lord, taking his soul, and offering it in the sight of the Most High." He repeated the words, opened his eyes, sighed and died at six o'clock on Friday evening, August 6, 1221. He was only fifty -one years old.

In five short years, from 1216 to 1221, St.Dominic had accomplished the almost incredible. He had founded a religious Order with just six followers at the beginning. When he died they were in the thousands. It was a totally new form of religious life made up of highly educated men whose mission was to preach the Good News of salvation. Yet he intended that they should follow what we call the monastic observances --- Divine Office said in choir, silence and penance. Oh yes, he met with opposition. Those who consider themselves conservatives who never like anything new and they were the ones who attacked the whole idea of a world-wide Order under one head who were itinerant preachers, but learned men who roamed all over Europe helping the bishops to fulfill their office of preaching. One critic complained that "they have the world for their cell, and the ocean for their cloister." Dominicans gleefully seized upon this statement as an apt description of their way of life.

We may well ask: how faithful are present day Dominicans to this ideal? In the opinion, of most, very well. We are certainly are faithful to our office of preaching. The Order has produced some of the greatest preachers in the history of the Church. Names that come to mind are Savanarola, Lacordaire, Tom Burke and Ignatius Smith, whom Life Magazine selected as the only great Catholic preacher in American history. In our own Province there have been men like Reggie Lewis and Stan Parmisano. We have had a mission band for as long as I know about, one that is still active and doing great work in the Western States and Canada. They are itinerant preachers and it is a hard life but those called to it love it. Over the years many people say that the quality of preaching in Dominican churches is higher than in other churches. That is something we should be proud of.

As far as learned men are concerned, all of us have a thorough theological education and we have produced many outstanding theologicans, men like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Albert the Great, Cardinal Cajetan and John of St. Thomas. But they are not just in the past. Many of the top theologians of today are Dominicans, men like Chenu, Congar and Schillibex. In our own Province, the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley is probably the most distinguished faculty in the country. St. Dominic, as you recall sent his men out to universities. We are still doing that. Our province has more student centers or Newman clubs than any other province in the Order. It is something to be proud of.

We still celebrate Office in choir every day. Our living conditions are not luxurious. In fact, I think most people would consider them unacceptable. Community life is a reality. We love to be together and find our strength and spirit coming from the community of our brothers. We are still a democratic Order and we have proof of that as we elect a new Provincial every four years. St. Dominic would be happy with his sons of this day and age, seven hundred and fifty years later.

Let us close with this tribute by the poet Dante in his Paradiso:

With Apostolic sanction guaranteed,
Equipped with doctrine and zeal as well,
Like some high torrent thundering down at speed

On briars and brakes of heresy he fell
Uprooting them, and still was swift to go
Where opposition was most formidable.

From him, unnumbered rillets took their flow
To irrigate the Catholic garden-plot
Thenceforth, whence all its bushes greener grow.

(Canto VII, nn. 97-105, Translation of Dorothy L. Sayers)

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