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August 8, 2021: Holy Father Dominic - Pastor’s Corner

Happy Solemnity of St. Dominic!

This Sunday we celebrate the feast of our patron and founder of the Order of Preachers.  While there are many saints that are well known in the devotional and imaginative life of the Church, I have discovered that the story of St. Dominic is not usually among them.  Three years ago, I was blessed to lead a pilgrimage to Spain and France to follow in the footsteps of St. Dominic.  It was a powerful experience of encountering the history and spirituality of St. Dominic.  My own vocation as a Dominican friar and priest was encouraged and animated anew.  In light of this experience, over the course of the month of August, I hope to share the story of St. Dominic, in order to bring his life alive in your heart.

Story of St Dominic: The Beginnings (Part I)

St. Dominic de Guzmán was born around 1171 in a village named Caleruega in the region of Castile in Spain.  Dominic’s father, Felix, was very likely from the noble family of Guzmán and he was respected for his fairness and judicious rule as a magistrate.  Dominic’s mother, Jane, was most likely from a noble family as well, the family of Aza.  She was considered “virtuous, chaste, prudent, full of compassion for those who were unfortunate and in distress, and was outstanding among all the women in the neighborhood for the excellence of her reputation.” Because of the holiness of her life, she was beatified in 1828 by Pope Leo XII. 

Dominic had at least two siblings. One was named Antonio. He was said to have been a priest at a hospice who devoted himself unreservedly to works of mercy in the service of the poor. Apparently, miracles made him famous both before and after his death. His other sibling, Mannes followed Dominic at least from the founding of the Order and perhaps much earlier. He was still alive when St. Dominic was canonized. He too lived a holy life and was beatified in 1833 by Gregory XVI.

When Jane was pregnant with Dominic, she had a dream that a dog with a burning torch in its mouth would come forth from her womb and set the world on fire.  Somewhat distressed by this dream, she sought the council of her spiritual director, who advised her not be afraid, but instead to rejoice because her child would dedicate his life to lighting the world aflame with God’s love.  Because of this dream, a dog bearing a burning torch is a symbol of St. Dominic and Dominican Order.  In fact, in Latin the word for dog is “canes”, so “Domini-canes” might be translated “Dogs of our Lord.”  This is a powerful image for us who would respond passionately to Christ’s impossible mission of discipleship. 

At the tender age of six, Dominic’s parents sent him to be educated by a priest-uncle in a nearby village. At age 14, Dominic was sent to Palencia to continue his clerical education. During these formative years, Dominic developed a love of scripture, the Divine Office (the daily prayer of the Church also called the “Liturgy of the Hours”), and the celebration of the Mass. It was said at his canonization that he would often weep when he celebrated Mass.

Dominic developed a reputation for being devoted to study and prayer, even through the night, as well as for his asceticism and for his compassion. There is a story that during a particularly harsh famine in the region, when the authorities and the wealthy were not doing much to help the poor, Dominic sold his most precious possessions – his books – saying: “I will not study on dead skins [the parchments of his books] when people are dying of hunger.” On another occasion, when a woman pleaded for her brother who had been taken captive in a local conflict, Dominic offered to sell himself into slavery to be a ransom in exchange for the man.

At the end of his studies, Dominic was ordained a priest and, at age 29, was appointed superior of the canons (priests living in community at the cathedral) in Osma. When I visited the cathedral of Osma on our pilgrimage, I was surprised to discover that St. Dominic’s choir stall is still there today.  The place where St. Dominic chanted daily is memorialized with a handsome plaque and it was particularly poignant to be able to chant the Marian hymn “Salve Regina” and the “O Lumen Ecclesia” in the very place that Dominic did many years ago.

The next year, in 1203, Dominic’s life would change forever. The King of Castile commissioned Bishop Diego of Osma to arrange a marriage between his son and a Danish princess. Bishop Diego asked Dominic to accompany him and it was on this journey, as they passed through southern France, that Dominic witnessed the spiritual poverty left in the wake of the Albigensian heresy. In contemporary terms, the Albigensians might identify themselves as being “spiritual but not religious.” Contrary to the Catholic insight that God created the world in goodness and love, the Albigensians held that the corporeal, natural world (including the human body) is evil and thus must be purged. While this philosophy might seem superficially benign, Dominic realized that its implications are devastating. Accordingly, the Albigensians more than frowned upon such things as marriage and family, and even rejected the foundation of our faith, the Incarnation, God’s assuming a human nature in the person of Jesus Christ.

During the negotiations, the Danish princess died and the mission ended, but in interacting with the needs of world, the seeds of Dominic’s ultimate calling were planted in his heart. Moved with compassion and with the psalmist’s words, “my people die for lack of knowledge” ringing in his soul, Dominic returned to France to preach the gospel to the Albigensians. Next week, we will discover how this particular preaching mission exploded into a worldwide Order of Preachers.

~ Fr. Michael

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