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St. Dominic and the Friars Preachers | Jordan Aumann, O.P. | From Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition | Ignatius Insight

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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 and poverty.

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 apostles were.

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)

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)
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)


(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, 1939.

(67) V. Walgrave, op. cit., pp. 39-42.

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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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