Saint Dominic was a Castilian priest and founder of the Dominican Order.
Saint Dominic was born in Caleruega, Spain in 1170. His parents were members of the Spanish nobility and related to the ruling family. His father was Felix Guzman, and was the royal warden of the village. His mother, Bl. Joan of Aza, was a holy woman in her own right.
According to one legend, his mother made a pilgrimage to an abbey at Silos. Legend says there were many signs of the great child she would bear. One of the most common legends says that during the pilgrimage, Joan had a dream of a dog leaping from her womb with a torch in its mouth. The animal “seemed to set the earth on fire.” His parents named him Dominic a play on the words Domini canis, meaning the Lord’s dog in Latin. An alternative, and possibly more likely story says he was named after St. Dominic de Silos, a Spanish monk who lived a century before.
It is known that Dominic was educated in Palencia, and he concentrated on theology and the arts. He spent six years studying theology and four the arts. He was widely acclaimed as an exemplary student by his professors. In 1191, a famine left many people desolate and homeless across Spain. Dominic sold everything he had, including his furniture and clothes and bought food for the poor. When he sold his manuscripts, required for study, he replied, “Would you have me study from these dead skins when people are dying of hunger?”
On two other occasions, Dominic attempted to sell himself into slavery to the Moors to obtain the freedom of others.
In 1194, Dominic joined a Benedictine order, the Canons Regular in Osma. He became the superior, or prior of the chapter in 1201.
At that time, the Albigensian heresy was flourishing. This heresy was so dangerous that it even praised the suicide of its members, often by means of self-inflicted starvation! The heresy wrongly taught that all material things,including the human body itself, were fundamentally evil. The Christian faith teaches otherwise. In fact, it proclaims the very resurrection of the Body.
Dominic recognized the need for a physical institution in Southern France to preserve the gains he made against the Albigensian heresy. The nobility needed a place to educate their children and Catholic women needed a safe place away from hostile heretics. Dominic established a convent at Prouille in 1206, which would become the first Dominican house. Bishop Diego and Dominic established their headquarters there. The monastery remains to this day as the Notre-Dame-de-Prouille Monastery.
In July 1215, Dominic was granted permission to form his own religious order for this purpose. He was joined by six followers. The group followed a Rule of Life which included a strict routine of discipline, including prayer and penance. They also established a system of education. They often traveled the countryside to preach.
His order was confirmed on December 22, 1216, and in 1217, Pope Honorius III dubbed Dominic and his followers “The Order of Preachers.”
In the summer of 1217, Dominic decided it was time to send his followers out to grow the order. The band of seventeen men was ordered to depart Prouille and to go out across Europe to spread the order. The decision was a fateful one which proved successful. New members began to appear in great numbers across the continent.
According to writings about him, Dominic chose for himself only the most meager of provisions. His accommodations and clothes were described as “mean.” He refused to sleep on a bed. When he reached the edge of a town, he removed his sandals and walked barefoot, regardless of the path. He constantly prayed or issued instruction as he walked and whenever he faced discomfort, he praised God. His only possessions were a small bundle and a staff. In his bundle he kept a copy of the Gospel of Matthew and the Epistles of St. Paul, which he would read over and over again. He always drew great crowds wherever he went.
As Dominic traveled, he recognized the need for written rules for his monks to follow. His order had previously adopted the Rule of St. Augustine, but they recognized a need for a more formal constitution.
This was worked out between 1220 and 1221. The constitution was revolutionary for its time. Every superior was to be elected for a limited period of time. The order was to be supported with alms, and still is to this day. Preaching and study were to be the dominant work of the Dominica orders.
By spring of 1221, Dominic went back to his travels. He began with a trip to Venice, then returned to Bologna where he had established a convent in 1218.
In July of 1221, Dominic took ill with a fever. He asked to be laid on the ground, still refusing a bed. He exhorted his brothers to keep a spirit of humility and charity. After several weeks of illness, he made a last confession and a will, then passed away on August 6. He died in the presence of his brother Dominicans. Dominic was just 51.
Dominic’s body was placed in a humble sarcophagus in 1223. It was then moved to a shrine in 1267.
Pope Gregory IX canonized St. Dominic on July 13, 1234, and his feast day is August 8.
Saint Dominic is the patron saint of astronomers, the Dominican Republic, and the innocent who are falsely accused of crimes. He is commonly depicted in icons with a dog, or lilies, holding a book. His hair always appears cut with a tonsure.
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