Saint Dominic de Guzmán (1170-1221)
Founder of the Order of Preachers
Dominic was born in 1170 in Caleruega, a mountain village in Old Castile (Spain). He was the son of Felix de Guzmán and Juana de Aza. When he was 15 years old, he moved to Palencia to attend regular courses (liberal arts and theology) at the well-known schools of that town. There he came into contact with the misfortunes caused by endless wars and famine: a lot of people starved but nobody was doing anything for it! So he sold all his room furniture and his precious parchments in order to create a fund for the poor. To the people who expressed astonishment for such an act, he replied: «How can I study on dead skins, while so many brothers of mine are starving ?».
After finishing his studies, 24 years old Dominic, answering to God’s call, joined the «Canons Regular» of Osma cathedral, where he was ordained. In 1203 the Osma bishop Diego, who had to accomplish a tricky diplomatic mission to Denmark on behalf of Alfonso VIII of Castile, chose Dominic as his companion, and he would never leave him.
The close contact with people of southern France, conditioned by the Cathar heretics, and with the enthusiasm of northern Christians for the important missionary deeds in the East, represented for Diego and Dominic a revelation: they, too, would be missioners. Coming back from a second journey to Denmark, they went to Rome (1206) and asked the Pope the permission to dedicate themselves to the evangelization of the heathens.
Pope Innocence III, instead, guided their missionary zealous towards preaching in Albigensian region (France), that he had been ardently promoting with authority since 1203. Dominic accepted the new orders and heroically stood in the breach even after the Pontifical Legacy was disbanded, and the sudden death of Diego (30 December 1207) left him alone. Public wearing debates, private talks, negotiations, preaching, efforts of persuasion, prayer and penitence occupied those years of strenuous activity till 1215, when the bishop of Toulouse, Fulk, after letting him use Saint Mary de Prouille as a preaching centre for collecting women renouncing to heresy (1206), nominated him preacher of his diocese.
In the meantime, some of his friends gathered around Dominic, who was maturing a bold plan: making his preaching lasting and well-organized. He accompanied Fulk to Rome in 1215 in order to take part in the Fourth Council of the Lateran and to submit his project to Innocence III, who approved of it. The following year, on 22 December, Pope Honorius III gave the official and definitive approval. His order was named «Order of the Preacher Friars».
On 15 August 1217 the Saint Founder spread his sons throughout Europe, sending them especially to Paris and Bologna, at that time the main university centres. He devoted all his energies to spread his work, making an extraordinary and admirable effort. In 1220 and 1221 he held in Bologna the first two General Chapters, aimed at drawing up the «Magna Charta» and at stating the basic principles of the Order: preaching, study, mendicant poverty, common life, lawmaking, geographic distribution, missionary expeditions.
Worn out by his apostolic efforts and exhausted by his tough penances, Dominic died on 6 August 1221 surrounded by his friars, in his beloved convent in Bologna, in someone else’s cell, because he himself, the Founder of the Order, did not own one. Pope Gregory IX, a close friend of his, canonized him on 3 July 1234. Since 5 June 1267, his corpse is kept in a precious marble sarcophagus. The several miracles and very frequent favours received by intercession of the Saint are the reason why so many believers throughout Italy and Europe flock to his grave. The citizens of Bologna proclaimed him «Patron Saint and Eternal Defender of the city».
Saint Dominic’s character is unmistakable; during the hard years of the apostleship, he defined himself: «humble preaching minister». Thanks to long nights spent at the altar in the church and to his loving devotion to Mary, he had experienced God’s mercy and he had understood «the price of our redemption», Because of this he tried to testify to his brothers the love of God. He founded an Order whose aim is souls salvation through the preaching springing from contemplation: contemplata aliis tradere is the suitable phrase Saint Thomas Aquinas used to express Saint Dominic’s inspiration and his Order’s soul. This is the reason why study, liturgy, common life, evangelic poverty are so important in his Order.
Bold, prudent, resolute, respectful of the others’ opinion, capable of brilliant initiatives, obedient to the Church’s orders, Dominic is the apostle with no compromise nor hardening. He has been defined by Lacordaire as «loving like a mother, strong like a diamond».