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St. Dominic and the Friars Preachers | Jordan Aumann, O.P. | From
Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition | Ignatius Insight
Religious life continued to evolve in the thirteenth century as it had in the twelfth, and the
evolution necessarily involved the retention of some traditional elements as well as the
introduction of original creations. In fact, the variety of new forms of religious life reached such
a point that the Lateran Council in 1215 and the Council of Lyons in 1274 prohibited the
creation of new religious institutes henceforth.
Nevertheless, two new orders came into existence in the thirteenth century: the Franciscans and
the Dominicans. As mendicant orders they both emphasized a strict observance of poverty; as
apostolic orders, they were dedicated to the ministry of preaching. Yet there was a noticeable
continuity between the newly founded mendicant orders and the older forms of monasticism and
the life of the canons regular. At the risk of oversimplifying, we may say that the Franciscans
adapted Benedictine monasticism to new needs while the Dominicans adapted the monastic
observances of the Premonstratensians to the assiduous study of sacred truth, which
characterized the Canons of St. Victor.
The mendicant orders, however, were not simply a development of monasticism; much more
than that, they were a response to vital needs in the Church: the need to return to the Christian
life of the Gospel (vita apostolica); the need to reform religious life, especially in the area of
poverty; the need to extirpate the heresies of the time; the need to raise the level of the diocesan
clergy; the need to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments to the faithful. This was
especially true of the Dominicans, who were consciously and explicitly designed to meet the
needs of the times and to foster the "new" theology, Scholasticism. The Franciscans, as we shall
see, were more in the tradition of the old monasticism and sought to return to a life of simplicity
St Dominic Guzmán, born at Caleruega, Spain, in 1170 or 1171, was subprior of the Augustinian
canons of the cathedral chapter at Osma. As a result of his travels with his bishop, Diego de
Acevedo, he came face to face with the Albigensian heresy that was ravaging the Church in
southern France. When they learned of the failure of the legates to make any progress in the
conversion of the French heretics, Bishop Diego made a drastic recommendation. They should
dismiss their retinue and, travelling on foot as mendicants, become itinerant preachers, as the
In the autumn of 1206 Dominic founded the first cloister of Dominican nuns at Prouille; towards
the end of 1207 Bishop Diego died at Osma, where he had returned to recruit more preachers.
The work of preaching did not end with the death of Bishop Diego, but during the Albigensian
Crusade under Simon Montfort, from 1209 to 1213, Dominic continued the work almost alone,
with the approval of Pope Innocent III and the Council of Avignon (1209). By 1214 a group of
associates had joined Dominic and in June, 1215, Bishop Fulk of Toulouse issued a document in
which he declared: "We, Fulk, ... Institute Brother Dominic and his associates as preachers in our
diocese . . . . They propose to travel on foot and to preach the word of the Gospel in evangelical
poverty as religious." (56) The next step was to obtain the approval of the Holy See, and this was
of special necessity in an age in which preaching was the prerogative of bishops. The
opportunity presented itself when Dominic accompanied Bishop Fulk to Rome for the Lateran
Council, which was convoked for November, 1215. According to Jordan of Saxony, Dominic
desired confirmation on two points: the papal approval of an order dedicated to preaching and
papal recognition of the revenues that had been granted to the community at Toulouse. (57)
Although Pope Innocent III was favorably inclined to the petition, he advised Dominic to return
to Toulouse and consult with his companions regarding the adoption of a Rule. (58) Quite logically,
the Rule chosen was that of St. Augustine, as Hinnebusch points out:
The adoption was dictated by the specific purpose St. Dominic sought to achieve -- the salvation
of souls through preaching -- an eminently clerical function. The Rule of St. Augustine was best
suited for this purpose. During the preceding century it had become par excellence the Rule of
canons, clerical religious. In its emphasis on personal poverty and fraternal charity, in its
reference to the common life lived by the Christians of the apostolic age, in its author, it was an
apostolic Rule. Its prescriptions were general enough to allow great flexibility; it would not
stand in the way of particular constitutions designed to achieve the special end of the Order. (59)
In addition to the Rule of St. Augustine, the early Dominicans used the customs of the
Premonstratensians as a source for their monastic observances, for which reason they were often
called canons as well as mendicant friars. What was peculiar to the Dominican Order was added
by the first Chapter of 1216 and the General Chapter Of 1220: the salvation of souls through
preaching as the primary end of the Order; the assiduous study of sacred truth to replace the
monastic lectio divina and manual labor; great insistence on silence as an aid to study; brisk and
succinct recitation of the choral office lest the study of sacred truth be impeded; the use of
dispensations for reasons of study and the apostolate as well as illness; election of superiors by
the community or province,; annual General Chapter of the entire Order; profession of
obedience to the Master General; and strict personal and community poverty.
On December 22, 1216, the Order of Friars Preachers was confirmed by the papal bull,
Religiosam vitam, signed by Pope Honorius III and eighteen cardinals. On January 21, 1217, the
pope issued a second bull, Gratiarum omnium, in which he addressed Dominic and his
companions as Friars Preachers and entrusted them with the mission of preaching. He called
them "Christ's unconquered athletes, armed with the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation"
and took them under his protection as his "special sons." (60)
From that time until his death in 1221, St. Dominic received numerous bulls from the Holy See,
of which more than thirty have survived. The same theme is found in all of them: the Order of
Preachers is approved and recommended by the Church for the ministry of preaching. St.
Dominic himself left very little in writing, although we may presume that he carried on an
extensive correspondence. The writings attributed to him are the Book of Customs, based on the
Institutiones of the Premonstratensians; the Constitutions for the cloistered Dominican nuns of
San Sisto in Rome; and a personal letter to the Dominican nuns at Madrid.
The Dominican friars were fully aware of the mission entrusted to them by Pope Honorius III. In
the prologue of the primitive Constitutions we read that "the prelate shall have power to dispense
the brethren in his priory when it shall seem expedient to him, especially in those things that are
seen to impede study, preaching, or the good of souls, since it is known that our Order was
especially founded from the beginning for preaching and the salvation of souls." (61)
"This text," says Hinnebusch, "is the keystone of the apostolic Order of Friars Preachers. The
ultimate end of the Order, it states, is the salvation of souls; the specific end,. preaching; the
indispensable means, study. The power of dispensation will facilitate the attainment of these
high purposes. All this is new, almost radical." (62) On the other hand, it may be interpreted as a
return to the authentic "vita apostolica," and that is the way St. Thomas Aquinas would see it:
"The apostolic life consists in this, that having abandoned everything, they should go throughout
the world announcing and preaching the Gospel, as is made clear in Matthew 10:7-10." (63)
Preachers of the Gospel need to be fortified by sound doctrine, and for that reason the first
General Chapter of the Order specified that in every priory there should be a professor. Quite
logically, the assiduous study of sacred truth, which replaced the manual labor and lectio divina
of monasticism, would in time produce outstanding theologians and would also extend the
concept of Dominican preaching to include teaching and writing.
Dominican life was also contemplative, not in the monastic tradition, but in the canonical
manner of the Victorines; that is to say, its contemplative aspect was manifested especially in
the assiduous study of sacred truth and in the liturgical worship of God. However, even the
contemplative occupation of study was directly ordered to the salvation of souls through
preaching and teaching, and the liturgy, in turn, was streamlined with a view to the study that
prepared the friars for their apostolate. Thus, the primitive Constitutions stated:
Our study Ought to tend principally, ardently, and with the highest endeavor to the end that we
might be useful to the souls of our neighbors. (64)
Because of the central role which the study of sacred truth plays in the Dominican life, the
spirituality of the Friars Preachers is at once a doctrinal spirituality and an apostolic
spirituality. (66) By the same token, the greatest contribution which the Dominicans have made
to the Church through the centuries has been in the area of sacred doctrine, whether from the
pulpit of the preacher, the platform of the teacher or the books of the writer. The assiduous study
of sacred truth, so strictly enjoined on the friars by St. Dominic, provides the contemplative
attitude from which the Friar Preacher gives to others the fruits of his contemplation. In this
restricted sense we may say with Walgrave that the Dominican is a "contemplative apostle." (67)
All the hours are to be said in church briefly and succinctly lest the brethren lose devotion and
their study be in any way impeded. (65)
(56) Cf. Laurent, Monumenta historica S. Dominici, Paris, 1933, Vol. 15, p. 60.
(57) Jordan of Saxony, Libellus de principiis ordinis praedicatorum, ed. H. C. Scheeben
in Monumenta O. P. Historica, Rome, 1935, pp. 1-88.
(58) The Fourth Lateran Council forbade the foundation of new religious institutes
unless they were extensions of an existing institute or adopted an approved Rule.
(59) W. Hinnebusch, The History of the Dominican Order, New York, N.Y., 1965, Vol.
1, p. 44. The Rule of St. Augustine was also adopted by numerous other religious
institutes founded in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
(60) Cf. W. Hinnebusch, op.cit., p. 49. On February 17, 1217, a third papal bull, Jus
petentium, specified that a Dominican friar could not transfer to any but a stricter
religious institute and approved the stability pledged to the Dominican Order rather
than to a particular church or monastery.
(61) I Constitutiones S.O.P., prologue; cf. P. Mandonnet-M. H. Vicaire, S. Dominique:
l'idee, l'homme et l'oeuvre, 2 vols., Paris, 1938.
(62) Cf. W. Hinnebusch, op. cit., p. 84.
(63) Contra impugnantes Dei cultum et religionem.
(64) I Const. S.O.P., prologue; cf. W. Hinnebusch, op. cit., p. 84.
(65) I Const. S.O.P., n. 4; cf. W. Hinnebusch, op. cit., p. 351.
(66) Cf. M. S. Gillet, Encyclical Letter on Dominican Spirituality, Santa Sabina, Rome,
1945 Mandonnet-Vicaire, op. cit.; V. Walgrave, Dominican Self-Appraisal in the Light
of the Council, Priory Press, Chicago, Ill., 1968; S. Tugwell, The Way of the Preacher,
Templegate, Springfield, Ill., 1979; H. Clérissac, The Spirit of St. Dominic, London,
(67) V. Walgrave, op. cit., pp. 39-42.
Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Book Excerpts:
St. Thomas Aquinas and the Thirteenth Century | Josef Pieper
Theologians and Saints | Hans Urs von Balthasar
Catholic Spirituality | Thomas Howard
Jordan Aumann, O.P. (1916-2007), was a theologian and spiritual writer who authored Christian Spirituality in the Catholic
Tradition and Spiritual Theology.
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