Dominic was a Spanish religious leader who founded an order of preaching friars dedicated to learning as well as to poverty. His Order of Preachers, known as Dominicans, undertook the combating of heresy and became the intellectual power-house of the medieval Church. It was a different emphasis from that of the contemporary Franciscans.
He was born Domingo de Guzmán about 1170 in Caleruega, Castile, and educated at first by his uncle, who was a priest. At the age of 17 Dominic entered the University of Palencia, where he studied theology and philosophy. He proved an unflinchingly dedicated yet cheerful student. Known for his generosity, he is said to have sold all of his possessions to help the poor during a famine in 1191. But unlike St Francis, whom he probably never met, Dominic went through no stage of rebellious youth and his commitment to a life of poverty began less as a personal statement than as a matter of policy.
About 1196 he became canon of the Cathedral of Osma, in Castile, and was soon actively engaged in local ecclesiastical reforms. In 1203, he accompanied his superior, Didacus of Acebes, bishop of Osma, on a diplomatic mission to Denmark for King Alphonso VI. While travelling back to Spain through the Languedoc region of Southern France he spent a whole night talking to an innkeeper in Toulouse, from whom he heard of the clerical abuses and the prevalence of the Albigensian heresy (a dualist doctrine that rejected creation as evil and affirmed two eternal principles of good and evil). Realising that the Albigenses were able to spread their teachings because they were well educated and well organized, he set up an opposition along similar lines, determined that his preachers would be even better educated and organized. Dominic and a few companions were given a house and church at Prouille, near Toulouse, where they began their life of penance, study, and preaching. The preachers' efforts were eventually rewarded by a fortnight-long debate with the heretics which involved written submissions. One of these, written by Dominic, was thrown into a fire three times without burning. The heretics refused to be convinced that this was a miracle; and the lay adjudicators (sympathetic to the Albigensians) refused to reach a judgment. But as a result of their gradual success, Diego and Dominic found themselves supervising a group of female converts in what became the first Dominican convent at Prouille, formed in 1206. A more dramatic development was the murder of a papal legate in the region, which resulted in a crusade against the Albigensians which was led by Simon de Montfort. Dominic befriended de Montfort, but restricted himself to spiritual duties during the fighting. At the siege of Toulouse he was credited with saving some 40 English pilgrims whose boat had capsized on a river by the fervour of his prayers when he was called to the shore.
In 1216, Pope Honorius III gave Dominic permission to establish a new religious order for the purpose of preaching against heresy, and the Order of Friars Preachers came into being. Dominic's preachers travelled throughout Europe, instructing not only the common people, but civic and religious leaders as well.
The preaching institute was firmly established when Dominic set off with high hopes to the fourth Lateran Council. This was a universal gathering of bishops called by Pope Innocent III, partly to find an answer to the state of the Church's pastors, who, he found, were "dumb dogs that cannot bark". The answer surely seemed to be the followers of Dominic, the Domini canes ("dogs of the Lord"). Yet although Innocent was sympathetic, preaching was regarded as properly the task of the hierarchy, not a new body of poor friars. The council declared that any new religious order must live by an existing rule of life.
Dominic returned to his band, now consisting of some 16 members, and they decided to adopt the flexible Augustinian Rule. They introduced a system of dispensations to ensure that preaching and study were given priority over the recitation of the office (the psalms sung at intervals throughout the day). Back in Rome the following year, Dominic made a strong impression with his austere sanctity and Lenten sermons and obtained the first of a series of bulls confirming the order and its goals of checking heresy and carrying the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
Dominic insisted on the importance of education. The Black Friars, as the Dominicans were called on account of the black mantle worn over their white habit, were strategically placed both to open schools and to lecture on scripture and theology in the new universities which were springing up across Europe. In the next five years, Dominic's inspiring administration sent members of the order to a number of countries, including England, Scandinavia, Hungary, and Germany. Although worn out by continuous travels on foot as well as by his habit of praying all night in church, and living on a diet often consisting of only a small piece of fish or a couple of egg yolks, in 1221 he set off on a mission to Hungary, but when he reached Bologna in Northern Italy he fell fatally ill. Dominic died in Bologna on August 6th, 1221. He was canonized in 1234, and his feast day is August 8th.
page last updated 31 MARCH 2002