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.
In 1203 he joined his bishop, Diego de Acebo on a trip to Denmark. His mission was to help find a bride for Crown Prince Ferdinand. Although an agreement was made, the princess died before she could depart for Spain.
Her untimely death left the pair free to travel where they wished. They opted to travel to Rome, where they arrived in late 1204. The reason for this trip was that Bishop Diego de Acebo wanted to resign his office to pursue a new mission, the conversion of unbelievers.
Pope Innocent III did not wish the pair to travel to a distant land filled with unbelievers. Instead, the pair were asked to go to southern France, the region of Languedoc, to convert heretics back to the true faith.
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.
A group of monks, an order of Benedictines who returned to an ancient Rule known as the Cistercians, were specifically assigned to combat the heresy through prayer, fasting and instruction, but they made little headway. According to writings from the period, some of the monks had become worldly and even pompous in their approach, surrounding themselves with material artifacts which repulsed the Albigensians.
Diego and Dominic were austere by comparison to some of these worldly monks and this austerity and personal self discipline appealed to many of the heretics who had been deceived in their thinking.
When Dominic debated the heretics, they could not defend themselves. Naturally, there is no defense against the truth. Many heretics threatened Dominic with violence. Despite the threats, Dominic traveled throughout the region, preaching and converting many back to Catholic Christian faith and practice.
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 January 1208, the French nobility decided to take up arms against the heretics, after they murdered a papal legate. During the crusade that followed, Dominic consistently appealed for mercy for the heretics who were often the victims of atrocities. Dominic followed the armies and spent his time reconciling survivors to the Church.
Around this time, two things have been attributed to St. Dominic, although both are questioned by historians.
The first is his status as the first Inquisitor of the Inquisition. The first formal Inquisition was established as early as 1184, when Dominic would have been a teenager. The purpose of the Inquisition was to combat heresy by bringing the accused to trial and giving them an opportunity to repent. Although modern depictions accuse the Inquisition of being a bloodthirsty institution that liberally employed torture and death, such insinuations are generally false. The Inquisition was the first to provide many of the rights afforded to accused persons in modern courts. It was very progressive for its time.
There had been earlier courts to combat heresy, but these were not known as the inquisition.
In any case, while Dominic devoted his life to combating heresy, he was by no means the first inquisitor. It is possible he did advise various judges on Catholic orthodoxy when questions arose. There are no primary sources from the period which say Dominic was directly involved with the Inquisition.
The second thing concerns the Rosary. According to legend, St. Dominic received the Rosary during a period of prayer at the abbey in Prouille. This allegedly took place in 1214 during an apparition of the Virgin Mary.
This legend is a matter of some dispute among historians, but while similar devotions existed before this time, there is no record of the Marian rosary in this form before. Also, the Marian Rosary became popular following this event, suggesting the legend may be true.
Dominic became famous as a result of his mercy and his work. Several other prominent religious figures of the time petitioned for Dominic to be made bishop. He refused at least three attempts at promotion, saying he would rather run away with nothing than become a bishop.
Dominic remained steadfast to his mission to establish an order dedicated to promoting morality and the expulsion of heresy.
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.
After sending out his followers, Dominic headed to Rome to meet with the Pope and seek support for his mission.
Shortly afterwards, Pope Honorarius III elevated Dominic to the rank of “Master of the Sacred Palace.” The position has been occupied by Dominican preachers since Dominic himself in 1218.
Pope Honorarius III issued a Bull, a papal decree, asking all clergy across Europe to support the Order of Preachers. He then asked Dominic to assist with a new mission. The Pope noted that the religious orders for women in Rome were becoming lax in their discipline. He desired to bring them together to restore their discipline. He assigned Dominic this task.
He gave Dominic an old church, San Sisto, which required renovation. Once complete, Dominic did the hard work of persuading several orders of nuns to relocate. Somehow, he accomplished this mission. However, the arrival of the nuns meant that Dominic’s small order had no place to call home in Rome. The Pope rewarded Dominic with a new church, the basilica of Santa Sabina. The basilica remains the headquarters of the Dominican order to this day.
Following these successes, Dominic began a period of travel that would continue for the rest of his life. His followers managed to establish several new houses which were growing rapidly.
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.