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Monday, 06 August 2018 15:04

St Dominic and the Church

It is undeniable that the founder of the Order of Preachers had a great impact on the changes that have been done on what the Church looks like now. As a young Dominican sister I tried to study the story of our founder to understand in a better way the needs of the Church today.

First of all we need to look at which point the Church was at the time of Saint Dominic. By the 13th century Europe had entered a period of growth. Western parts were at the time of considerable peace. People felt safer, which caused the population growth and people started moving to cities. Unfortunately not everybody was lucky enough to find a better life there. Poverty among ordinary people was visibly spreading.

On the other hand there were people of the Church, especially heads of the Church, who definitely were not a good example of how to be a good Christian. Instead of sharing their wealth with the poor, they preferred to gather even more and spend money to make their lives even more comfortable than it had already been. Instead of looking at what people close to them needed and taking care of teaching them the Gospel, they were in favour of the Crusades to teach the people of the East the religion of peace using swords and leaving a bloody road behind.

No wonder that in those circumstances, where hierarchs were more occupied with what was happening outside Europe and how to have even more wealth, the Old Continent became a perfect place to develop heretic teachings. The Church was in an increasing crisis, mostly because of the things that were happening inside. A part of the Church, looking at what the priorities of the hierarchs were, started to oppose to it criticising strongly their way of living and developing new interpretations of Gospel. In that group two were the most important ones. First there were Catharists, which identified themselves with the idea of dualism in a very simplified manner and interpreted Gospel in a letteral way. Their influences were most visible in the southern part of France and Lombardy with the northern and central Italy. Another group was formed by Peter Waldo, after whom they got their name – Waldensians. Their vision at the beginning seemed to be positive, they saw corruption of the Church and by their preaching they wanted to show true living according to Gospel. They were also aware of the dangers from Catharists’ heretical teachings. Unfortunately they started to be more and more brave with accusing the hierarchies and they got suspended. This fact did not stop them as they became even more fierce in preaching, setting themselves outside the the Church.

Pope Innocent III seeing what was happening, how many ordinary people, as well as a part of clergy, were fascinated with heretics, started sending legates to prevent wrong teachings from spreading. But they could not do much. Both Waldensians and Catharists represented the same simple way of life, which was absolutely opposite to the one presented by the official Church and therefore they were always more convincing. Their austere and simple life was connected more with the teachings they gave than even the greatest preaching according to the Church, but done by a person, whose life was closer to a prince than to a person to whom he preached.

Dominic and his idea of preaching could not appear in a better moment. It was 1206 and he was travelling with Diego, the bishop of Osma, when on the way to Montpellier they met three Cistercians, who were papal legates, devastated after a failure with combating heresy, and one of the supporters of heretics. In both situations they did the same thing – spent whole night talking to them, discussing the problem and persuading to change their lives. Dominic’s ability to listen to others with respect mixed with his lively intelligence caused that they succeeded.

These events had surely an impact on founding the Order of Preachers. Dominic saw that laic people did not have anybody who would teach them Gospel of Christ properly. Some part of the clergy was also not formatted well enough to resist heresy, so his idea of preaching coincided with the need of the time, to protect Christian faith by forming people from the very bottom, starting with those, whose duty was to proclaim God’s word to common people. Faith was to be taught in both, heart of the Church, and in its edges, in all of the senses. Dominic became a living example of the grace of proclaiming the Word in a crucial moment in the Church’s history.

The Order of Preachers was founded just to serve the Church, and not only in one place, but all over the world. However, Dominic saw, that under the supervision of bishops in dioceses this service would be limited. That time priests of a particular Church were a part of a local Church and were dependant on a bishop, including canons and monks.  Dominic was trying to have more freedom in helping the God’s word to spread. He asked the Holy See for receiving an exemption and he got even more. Pope gave Dominicans a privilege of celebrating a Holy Mass beyond sacred places, which means that they were the first order which was allowed to celebrate Eucharist wherever they were, without asking local authorities for permission. This definitely made it easier to go with the word of God to all people and be on service of the Church in even more accessible way.

It is indisputable that Holy Mass is crucial for every Christian, and so was for Dominic. It is said that he used to celebrate it with a great devoutness, just as he listened to confesses or was always available as a spiritual director for whoever asked him to be. All those aspects of priesthood were, according to him, the culmination or the basis of preaching and it was preaching that he wanted from his brethren to concentrate on as a part of a priest’s and monastic life. At the time, when preaching was not commonly connected with priestly functions, Dominic’s idea to mix them was a real novelty in the Church.

But the Church is not only a male domain. In 1207, in South France, in the beginning of his service Dominic saved a group of girls from the influence of heretics. They were mostly from noble but poor families whose parents had sent them to Catharists to give them proper education. To offer a new form of self development, which would be similar to a demanding and severe way of life represented by Catharists, Dominic, together with Diego of Osma, set a first Dominican monastery in Prouille. It was not a traditional female community as we know nowadays, but it constituted a double convent, where both, sisters and brothers, could create a real Dominican family. Those kinds of convents were not rare in the 13th century, but what was original, usually there were female communities that were joining male convents, which had been already set. In this case women had priority. The idea of their existence was not only to form themselves. By their contemplation and intercession they could take part in proclaiming the Word by brothers. What’s more, by the example of their life they were real samples of how to put this Word into practice.

As it is underlined nowadays, laic people are one of the biggest force that exist in the Church. 800 years ago it was not so obvious, but setting convents in cities by St. Dominic changed that point of view a little. Dominican preachers were closer to ordinary people, and because of that also laic people felt that living a religious life and proclaiming by giving the example of their own life, was not something reserved only for monks. But founding the first Third Order, which for a long time was attributed to Dominic, was yet to come. In Italy in the 13th century a group of people, who had converted, formed a penitentiary order (Ordo de Poenitentia s. Dominici), which was in the custody of Dominicans and whose role was to serve the truth in their proper way. This event was the beginning of the form which later transformed into the Third Order.

As we can see Dominic’s contribution to the Church is enormous. Together with his brothers they were pioneers in many branches that nowadays exist in the Church as normal. But what can we learn today from the work of Dominicans and saint Dominic himself?  It seems, that the world is completely different than 800 years ago. But is it really? The best example we can find in the way dogmas of our faith are treated now. Because of the great law that we have, which is a freedom of speech and thought, as well as new inventions, such as the Internet and other things which make worldwide communication easier, anybody can spread information within a second, even a false one. Crisis in faith and in religious education, which we can observe especially in the Old Continent, facilitate wrong interpretations of the Bible and the basis on which our Church is built. Sensational information about some hierarchs and their not very Christian way of life do not make it easier either. No wonder that books, like The da Vinci Code are treated by some people like a new gospel and the Church is seen as a company, which wants to hide some uncomfortable truth. How can we react to this?

In this matter saint Dominic can be really helpful. When he met heretics and people who were influenced by their wrong teachings he did all he could to find what the biggest need of the person was, he listened and then talked to them trying to show the points, in which their way of thinking was illogical, not connected with the base – the Word of God. Then he could start building something new. What is the most important, he did it always with respect to others, looking at a person like a friend, who had done something wrong, but did not realize it, and with love, which had roots in communion with God in prayer and from the Gospel, which he always used to have with himself. When we look at the Dominic’s meetings with heretics we can see that he treated each person individually, spending hours on talking to them, but he had never stopped looking for other people who needed such talks. The Order of Preachers as a basic aim chose the motto of their founder: to preach Gospel to everyone, everywhere and with every possible mean, but preach with both its simplicity and profundity, remembering that without respect for a person, sharing of life, compassion for his or her spiritual poverty and concern about their salvation, proclaiming the Gospel is not possible, because “man is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission” (John Paul II, Enc. Redemptor Hominis, n. 14).
Published in IN DIALOGUE

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About Us

Union “St. Catherine of Siena” of School Missionaries is a Dominican Religious Congregation.
We are called to accompany our contemporaries along their path with study and prayer and to seek along with them Gospel’s answers to the questions of our complex, multicultural society.
We want to live therefore coherently a Christianity of frontiers and be yeast and salt of the least visibility yet cause to leaven and give flavor.  
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