During this month of August, we continue our series on the life of St. Dominic. In this third installment, we see how St. Dominic’s passion to share the faith blossomed into a worldwide Order of Preachers. Like St. Dominic, may we be God’s light and love to all! ~ Fr. Michael
Story of St. Dominic
The Foundations & Mission (Part II)
As he vigorously preached, Dominic knew that in order for his small band of preachers to be effective, cultural and religious education was paramount. So Dominic recruited a group of women to complement the preaching. On the evening of July 22, 1213, the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, as Dominic prayed on a hill overlooking the village of Prouille, he saw what appeared to be a globe of fire descending upon a shrine of Our Lady. This sign appeared again the next two nights. Inspired by this sign, Dominic endeavored to establish a group of nuns. In the months that followed, Dominic converted nine young women. Consequently, the first Dominican convent opened on December 27. As a result, St. Mary Magdalene is the patroness not only of the nuns of Prouille but also of the entire Order of Preachers.
With regard to the friars, Dominic’s initial attempt in 1215 to form an Order of Preachers was denied. Undaunted, he returned to Rome in 1216, and the new Pope, Honorius III, gave his approval on December 22: “We, considering that the brethren of the Order will be the champions of the faith and true lights of the world, do confirm the Order in all its lands and possessions present and to come and we take under our protection and government the Order itself, with all its goods and rights.”
Honorius wanted Dominic to stay in Rome, so he appointed him to be the Master of the Sacred Palace (a theological advisor to the pope, a teacher of the papal court). Since then, this position has traditionally been held by a Dominican. While there, Dominic made pilgrimages within the Eternal City. Once, while praying in the old St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Dominic had a vision that the Apostle Peter handed him a staff, and the Apostle Paul handed him a book. Together, they spoke to Dominic, saying, “Go and preach, because you have been chosen by God for this work.” Dominic then saw all of his spiritual children preaching two by two throughout the world. From that time on, St. Dominic was often seen on the road carrying a walking stick and the Epistles of St. Paul. He also carried the Gospel of St. Matthew, and could recite these Scriptures by heart.
In May of 1217, St. Dominic returned to Toulouse where he made a surprising and controversial decision. Instead of remaining together in France, Dominic decided to disperse the brothers far and wide. Being only 16 in number, the brothers protested, certainly it was wiser to marshal their resources together during this fragile stage of development. But Dominic replied, “Do not fear, for I know very well what I am doing. The seed will mold if it is hoarded; it will flourish if it is sown.” So on the feast of the Assumption, August 15, the whole group gathered for the last time at Our Lady of Prouille. The brothers professed their vows in Dominic’s hands (in some places, the custom of making profession on the Assumption is still common), and he sent them off with nothing more than the official documents which gave them permission to preach and beg. Interestingly, the connection with the birth of the Order and the feast of the Assumption, which we celebrated last Thursday, appears in the painting of the Assumption in St. John Lateran where Dominic is prominently featured. Also, for our Western Dominican province, it has recently become the traditional day when we enter the novitiate (first year of Dominican formation). When our seven new novices to be arrived, I was brought back twenty-one years ago, when I arrived at the steps of St. Albert’s donned in a white dress shirt and black corduroys. Reflecting on the significance of St. Dominic placing the success of his new preachers under the auspices of Our Lady of the Assumption, I give thanks for all the ways that the Lord has blessed my vocation!
In sending the brothers abroad, Dominic sent them to the university towns such as Paris and Bologna. This emphasis on study has always been an integral component of Dominican formation. Because of this, many professors soon entered the Order. Dominic, the first “Master” of the Order, sent other friars to Rome and to Spain, while the remaining few continued the mission in southern France. Dominic himself grew in hope that he would be allowed to preach in Russia and receive martyrdom, but this opportunity never came. Yet Dominic's inspiration to disperse the brothers proved correct. Soon after this initial dispersal of the brethren, the new Order of Preachers experienced tremendous success and growth. After only a little time, the friars moved into England, Ireland, Germany, Poland, and beyond. Next week, we will explore St. Dominic’s connection with St. Francis and his love and devotion for the Blessed Virgin Mary.