From: St. Dominic and His Work, by Pierre Mandonnet, O.P.,
        Translated by Sister Mary Benedicta Larkin, O.P., B. Herder Book Co., St. Louis/London, 1948.

Apostolic Work

TRUE to the very reason of their foundation, the Friars Preachers made apostolic labor the principal end of their activity. "Apostolic labor" includes preaching, hearing confessions, and in general the spiritual direction of souls. Elements so essential to Christian life were reduced to a rudimentary state in the early thirteenth century. Preaching, an episcopal prerogative, was rarely exercised, and the parochial clergy limited their instruction to the interpretation, in the pulpit on Sunday, of the Apostles' Creed and the Our Father. Meanwhile heresy engaged in a tireless apostolate, and even laymen took upon themselves the office of preacher and offered their services to the parish priests. In commanding confession and Communion at Easter time, the Fourth Lateran Council aimed at strengthening the religious life of the faithful; but most parish rectors were lacking in education and zeal.

The joint action of St. Dominic and the papacy created a militia wholly devoted to the apostolic life, that is, to the religious development and sanctification of souls. In Dominic the medieval world realized its first great type of apostle; in fact, no one before him had consecrated his whole strength and his whole life to the sole and permanent mission of preaching the gospel. This initial personal impulse communicated to the foundation of the Preachers the intensity of apostolic life which characterized the Order in the first century.

By its very name, the Order of Preachers found itself constituted in the Church to exercise the office of preaching. On November 15, 1219, Honorius III declared further that the ministry of the Preachers was useful to the Church and that they were assigned to preaching. In his letter of December 8 of the same year, their ministry was called necessary, and on February 4, 1221, they were no longer simply deputed to preaching but wholly deputed, totaliter deputati, and the Pope urged the bishops to entrust to them the confessions of the faithful.

Such was the imperative vocation out of which rose the Order of Preachers for a permanent mission in Christendom. The convents, established in the heart of large cities, were centers of preaching. A primitive name for the convent was Praedicatio or the Sancta Praedicatio. The urban populations in the midst of which these were located felt their immense force for good. The convents were responsible for the territory in a province or a nation according to districts, which varied in size with the erection of new convents, each of which was assigned a specific field of action. Within each conventual district, secondary houses, not having the rank of convents, might be opened, where for the whole year or part of a year religious resided for the purpose of preaching to the people within a given radius. In this way the entire district of a convent, and, on a large scale, even the whole extent of Christendom became subject to the continuous apostolic action of the Preachers, whose establishments formed a more and more closely woven network.

In a general way all the Preachers were vowed to the apostolate. The members of the professorial corps participated in it as their academic duties permitted. The Order exercised a strict control over the preaching and activity of its members. The Dominican preachers were classed in double rank. The first, and the more numerous, approved by the provincial chapter, included ordinary preachers who exercised their ministry within the conventual district under the direction and responsibility of the prior. The preachers general, less numerous, instituted originally by papal letters and later by the provincial chapters, worked through the whole field of their province and had full liberty of action in their apostolate.

The friars preached the gospel everywhere: in their conventual churches, in those of the secular clergy, in monasteries, in public squares, and in the most varied assemblies. They spoke to all social classes, and Humbert of Romans, master general of the Order, in his circular letter from the chapter of Strasbourg in 1260, accounting for the apostolic activity of the brethren, could say without exaggeration: "We teach the people and their rulers, we teach the wise and the poor in spirit, religious and seculars, clerics and laymen, nobles and peasants, the lowly and the great."

Chroniclers of the period, obituaries of convents, and written fragments of sermons have preserved the names of a considerable number of celebrated or highly gifted preachers. Lecoy de la Marche historian of the French pulpit in the thirteenth century, in considering the quality and intensity of the activity of the Friars Preachers, declared that "in learning and in numbers they were in the lead of their thirteenth-century competitors."


The apostolate of the Preachers was quickly felt in Christendom. In a letter 'of May 16, 1227 to Jordan of Saxony, the successor of St. Dominic, Gregory IX said he marveled at the multitude of fish caught in the nets of the new preachers and declared it a miracle. In 1233, in his deposition for the process of the canonization of St. Dominic, the provincial of Lombardy testified that in a short time the friars had won back to the Church more than a hundred thousand persons in northern Italy alone.

The Preachers were universally well received by the bishops, who were conscious of their own powerlessness to deal with the religious needs of their people and to ward off the dangers threatening the Church. Nevertheless the Dominican Friars, being founded to counterbalance the incompetence of the secular clergy, could not but find themselves at times in conflict with those in whose ministry they had assumed a share. Preaching, since it was done gratuitously, was rarely a cause of friction. Hearing confessions was a more delicate matter, because of the direct influence it gave over the people. But it was the grant of burial in Dominican cemeteries, as sought by some of the faithful, which created difficulties, on the score of infringement of parochial rights. Local agreements were reached nearly everywhere for the amicable settlement of these questions. On two occasions, however, the conflict was exceptionally grave: once in Paris, at the instigation of William of St. Amour, in regard to the academic rights of the Order (1252-59); and again in consequence of the bull of Martin IV, Ad fructus uberes (1281), when the quarrel was carried on chiefly by the Bishop of Amiens, William of Macon. The Church firmly supported the rights of the Preachers and of the Minors, and, although the privileges of the Mendicants fluctuated somewhat in degree, they remained constant in their essential character.


In the thirteenth century the art of preaching was very different from what it became later. The numerous written specimens of the style of the time give but an imperfect notion of the tone of popular preaching. Though the word was spoken to the laity in the vernacular, the sermons were written only in Latin; the Latin was easier to handle than the changing and unstandardized national idioms; furthermore, the discourse could be used by clerics of all countries in the Western Church. Then too, a few provincial councils, on different occasions, because of the danger of heretical propaganda had forbidden the writing of religious literature in the vernacular. The Order of Preachers had itself been obliged to follow this rule, and in the general chapter of 1242 the friars were forbidden to translate their sermons or Holy Scripture into the national languages of Europe. This prohibition was probably a contributing factor in depriving us of sermons addressed to the laity in the tenor in which they were given. Not until much later, in the last half of the thirteenth century or in the beginning of the following century, were discourses in the vulgar tongue preserved. Five French sermons of Lawrence of Orleans were added to the Somme le Roi, finished in 1277 for Philip the Bold, who was his penitent. The German discourses of the celebrated mystics, Master Eckhart and John Tauler, as well as those of Jordan of Pisa delivered in Italian at Florence, were saved in the transcriptions of their fourteenth-century auditors.


A large number of sermons still extant were addressed to the clergy, particularly to the students of the University of Paris; but in many cases, the same subjects could be used in preaching to the laity. The preacher simplified them and adapted them to the character of his hearers.

Sermons of the thirteenth century are readily identified by their distinctive traits as different from those of the twelfth. Those of the earlier century, modeled on examples from the Fathers of the Church, had a literary and marked humanist tone, and followed, as far as possible, the rules of rhetoric. But the sermons of the twelfth century frequently employed a form, as in the case of the dialogue, which was only a device for treating a religious subject. Often these discourses were never delivered or were addressed only to monks and to canons. There was almost no preaching, properly so-called, for the world of lay people in the twelfth century. Instead there was but a simple exposition of the Apostles' Creed and the Our Father. What began to merit the name of preaching was possible only with the organization of urban centers and communal life. The Friars became the first great missioners of preaching among people incomparably more alert and more intelligent than the mass of serfs in the preceding age.

Lecoy de la Marche thinks, with some show of truth, that the first Preachers, moved by an ardent zeal and as yet unskilled in the subtleties of the schools, must have practiced a simpler art than that which soon developed under the influence of philosophical and theological studies. Only then, in fact, did thirteenth-century preaching acquire its own characteristics. Abounding with quotations from Scripture and the Fathers, encumbered with divisions and subdivisions, and woven in and out with allegory, it employed example and anecdote freely. The effect was that of something disjointed, abrupt, without vigor, without soul; evidently there was some warrant for harsh criticism of thirteenth-century preaching. But such judgments proceed partly from a lack of historical sense. A sermon of the period of St. Louis should not be judged by comparison with a sermon of the age of Louis XIV or of our own century. The style of the public discourse has to be adapted to the conditions and needs of a given historical milieu; thus the thirteenth century abandoned the humanist mode of the preceding age and created a form of preaching useful and efficacious for the faithful who were thus truly reached for the first time. Scriptural and patristic texts, divisions and subdivisions, suited an elementary religious instruction for an illiterate congregation; allegories helped in the understanding and assimilation of truths of an elevated nature; anecdotes recalled wandering minds; and examples, in some striking form, fixed the moral of the lesson. The thirteenth-century sermon struck rich veins and drew serious sketches, at the same time revealing a remarkable keenness of vision in regard to the manners, the customs, and ideas of the public and private life of the epoch. Viewed in this light, it is one of the most precious sources of information for the historian. The crude language of the speakers, termed trivial at times, is often but a reflection of a social state, somewhat coarse, no doubt, but sincere and unadorned, still unfettered by the conventional prudery of the modern era.

It has been commonly thought that the Christian pulpit in the second half of the thirteenth century and the century following had attained a period of notable decadence. That view has not been established. Mediocre or poor preachers of the time of St. Louis were no better than those of the time of Philip the Fair. But the great orators-and the term is applicable here for the first time-whom we have already named, who appeared at the juncture of the two centuries, are witness to an undeniable superiority.

Philologists and historians of the European national languages have noted the influence of the sermon on the formation of various idioms in the vernacular. There is no doubt that the effect was far-reaching. All the intellectual culture of the thirteenth century was contained in Latin works. The most ordinary and most effective channel through which the wealth of Latin ideas and expression could be transmitted to the new tongue was the public speech, then current almost only in the sermon. Moreover, it was in reference to some of the great Dominican preachers that these observations were made.