A Hound’s tale
Then, with sage doctrine and good will to help,
Forth on his great apostleship he fared,
Like torrent bursting from a lofty vein;
And dashing ‘gainst the stocks of heresy,
From him there flowed out those divergent streams
With which the Catholic garden is so watered
That its small trees have a more vigorous life.
Wrote Dante the great Medieval Poet on St Dominic in “Divine Comedy”, the preeminent poem in Italian literature. The magnificent quality of poetry to compass complex ideas effortlessly is clearly visible here, as Dante’s mighty felt tip encompasses in these few lines, the profound intellectuality of St. Thomas Aquinas, the fiery tongue of St. Vincent Ferrer, the love that St. Catherine had for church, the devotion to Rosary of Pope St. Pius V and the charity of St. Martin de Porres within the person of our holy father St. Dominic.
Dominic of Calruega was just like any other priest found across the length and breadth of Europe in the turbulent times of 12th century. In the year Dominic was born, Bishop Thomas Beckett was murdered in England. The age was pregnant with new knowledge from Hellenistic shores and was groaning with birth pangs. The three crusades raged during his time, feudalism was slowly fading out into the horizon and middle class became a powerful entity due to the of the rise of cities. The influx of new ideas into the public psyche and the unchecked growth of intellectually convincing teachings of Albigensians, Cathars etc was a problem that the poorly trained clergy could barely manage. On the one hand there was plutocratic clergy who rode their high horses into land filled with barefooted, ascetical heretics and on the other hand the monks who leapt in defense from the monochromatic cloisters of their monasteries were ill equipped intellectually to answer the vehement charges of the heretics. The lack of preachers and new ideas infused into the medieval minds meant that the battle that Dominic had to fight was not against flesh and blood but a war against ignorance and errors fought in the battlefield of minds. The century indeed saw a famine prophesied by Amos; “a famine of the hearing of the Word of God” (Amos 8:11) spread all across the land. A rot had set in the church resulting in the Church’s own ranks getting complacent with a holier than thou attitude which created a gulf between the people and priests which the deviant minds dexterously took advantage of. and the secular clergy and the religious was either too ignorant or incompetent to wither the storm intellectual that lashed against the Church. It is to this land that the hound of the Lord, St Dominic, whom Dante compares to torrent was born.
Dominic, born of a Gothic warrior lineage was truly torrent of a man. In thought he was as lofty as a torrent; he roared from Pulpits across Europe like a waterfall; much like the cascade polishing submissive stones and withering out blocking rocks he polished the faith of the believers and shattered heresy; his nourishing waters satiated the physical and spiritual hunger; to cap it all, just like a torrent proceeding out of mountains, Dominic lived his life treading not the smooth plains of life but the rocky, thorny terrain of austerity and observances.
Dominic’s charity stretches back to his student days when he sold his books to buy food for the starving. Realizing the call of God he joined the Canons of St. Augustine and for ten years served as a canon of the Cathedral at Osma in Spain. Dominic and his bishop, Diego, passed through southern France on a journey about 1204, and the journey changed their lives. The church was devastated in the region. Manicheans, Catharist, Albigensians—the movement had various names—had propagated a doctrine that included a hatred for matter, for material sacraments as well as for the body itself. These were the products of an evil unspirited god. Perfect religion was to starve oneself into the release of death. In contrast to worldly Catholic clergy, the leaders of the Catharists were rigid ascetics who captured the hearts of their followers by showing an example of a life lived for a larger goal than one’s belly or one’s pocketbook, however extreme their actual beliefs were.
Dominic and Diego were moved at the state of the Church, and struck by the failure of past attempts to bring back the lapsed—past attempts by ecclesiastical dignitaries weighed down with servants and pomp. Dominic saw the need for preachers who would be learned, disciplined, and poor. With the approval of the bishop of Toulouse, Folques , a converted troubadour Dominic began to gather a group of men willing to take up mendicancy and the dangers of preaching in hostile territory. They would sing a love song, but not that of the troubadours. They would sing the love of Jesus crucified. They would be given over to liturgical life and prayer, like the monks. They would be given over to active ministry in community, like the canons. But they would move about according to the needs of the Church and they would preach, something heretofore largely reserved to bishops. As he gathered his preachers, Dominic also established a convent of nuns (mostly converts from heresy), whose example and prayer would lend support to the campaign of the preachers.
Pope Honorius III granted universal approbation to the plan of life of the preachers in December 1216. The Friars, up to that time a promising experiment in southern France, were now given wider scope, directly under the patronage of the Holy See. And in 1217 Dominic took decisive action to ensure that the work of the Order would range as widely as the need for preachers did. After long prayer, he called his sixteen new followers together and dispersed them, despite their objections. They were too inexperienced, needed a leader, the Order was just getting on its feet, with few resources and few friends. Dominic’s reply: “Seed that is hoarded rots. You shall no longer live together in this house.” So he sent them off: four to Spain, seven to Paris, two to stay on in Toulouse, two to Prouille. He and one last brother shortly went off to Rome. The seed was being scattered for harvest.
By 1221, the year of Dominic’s death, some 500 friars had spread as far as Hungary, Denmark, and England. By 1222 they had reached the mission fields of Cracow, Danzig, and Prague. Soon after, they were preaching the Word in Greece and Palestine. The story of the Preachers had begun.