St. Dominic, Defensor Fidei: 4 August

Br. Columba Maria

Dominic de Guzman was born in the north of Spain. He was an excellent and pious student and early cultivated the austerities that he relentlessly practised and promoted in later years, coupled with a great charity to his neighbour. He was ordained at about the age of 25, and was an Augustinian canon in the cathedral at Osma.

In 1203, King Alfonso of Castile sent his bishop on a diplomatic mission into France to negotiate a suitable match for his son, and Bishop Diego took Dominic with him. It was on this journey, while travelling in the region of Toulouse, that Dominic first encountered the antagonistic influence on his life that was to produce such lasting fruit; for this region, Languedoc, was almost entirely given over to the Albigensian heresy, in which all the material world was believed to be evil and therefore suicide was commendable, while childbirth was the evil embodiment of an otherwise pure spirit.

Their mission ended prematurely with the death of the intended princess and, using the opportunity to visit Rome, the then-pope, Innocent III, gave them the mission to preach in those parts of France that had succumbed especially to the heresy. It was in Rome that Dominic befriended Saint Francis of Assisi, who was also to introduce a new bouquet to the Church’s vineyard.

Cistercians were already trying to admonish the heretics, but Dominic in turn admonished the Cistercians, calling upon them to throw off their baggage train of foodstuffs and clothing, as it was undermining their credibility with the people, who were impressed by a greater spirit of detachment in the Albigensian perfecti. Thus, poverty allied to preaching became the two pillars of his new Order.

It must have been at this time that Dominic, despairing of the reluctance of these people to repent and convert, withdrew into a forest to pray and chastise himself for them, and was visited by Our Lady who told him that the battering ram for this kind of warfare was the Hail Mary and the Rosary.

Dominic went straight to the cathedral and his preaching was accompanied by a thunderstorm and a vision of Our Lady calling down God’s vengeance on the people if they did not convert. Toulouse began to turn. Another miracle took place at a public debate with his adversaries, when they challenged him to throw his papers into the fire with the challenge that if they were true they would not burn. Three times they were thrown in and three times they leapt out unsinged!

But these Albigensians were very stubborn. More than once Dominic’s life was in danger. Each time, however, he welcomed his assailants, inviting them to do their worst and secure a high place in heaven for him. Unable to upset him, they left him alone. The civil unrest that accompanied the heresy became a bloody war, lead on the Church’s side by Count Simon de Montfort. The count and our saint truly were the secular and clerical arm in the struggle. After de Montfort’s great victory at Muret in 1213, where Dominic spent the night in the church, an inquisition was held to expose those heretics who were a danger to the faithful. Dominic was chosen as chief inquisitor and he did not shy from sending men to torture or even to death when he judged it appropriate. He could be lenient too, as on one occasion when he prophesied that a heretic would finally convert, and many years later so it happened.

Dominic saw the necessity of a convent to receive women who had converted, and his first one, at Our Lady of La Prouille near Fanjeaux, became the cradle of the new Order. Monks associated with him at this early stage often convened here to parlay, until eventually Pope Honorius III granted him all the permissions he needed to found the new Order of Preachers.

Desiring that his monks embrace a spirit of poverty and mortification, the great monastic Lent, from the feast of the Holy Cross in September until Easter, was included in the Rule.

Regrettably, many of the converts from heresy relapsed, and Dominic’s final sermon at La Prouille was a calling down of divine vengeance upon an obstinate people. Then he began sending his monks to found monasteries in Italy, France, Germany, Poland and beyond.

His final years were spent travelling from convent to convent exhorting his monks and nuns to live their Rule. He died at the house in Bologna, aged 52, in 1221.

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