The “Order of Preachers", popularly known as the “Dominican Order” was established as a response to the need of the 13th century Church by one humble yet dynamic person named Dominic de Guzman, born in 1172 to a Spanish noble. The farsighted-vision and charism with which he got together a group of young men has led to his mission of preaching still being carried out all over the world even after 800 years of its establishment.
Spiritually Thirsty World of the 13th Century: The 1st Century model of Christian life consisted of simplicity and unity amongst the Apostles and their community, where “the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul…and they had everything in common" (Acts 4:32). However, the13th Century Institutional Church in Europe had gradually moved into a lifestyle of materialistic and moral laxity. The Laity were growing in awareness of the widening gap between the teachings of Jesus and the self-indulgent lifestyle of the clergy. The Laity were in search of a spirituality that matched with the simple life led by Christ. Lack of initiative on the part of the institutional Church - to perceive the gap, accept it, and bridge it - led many people to leave the Church in search of sources that would quench their spiritual thirst elsewhere.
Emergence of lay movements The apathy on the part of the Church triggered off “Lay movements” across Italy and France that provided alternate paths of Christian living in “poverty and piety". Two dominant groups that emerged were the: (1)Waldensians and (2)Albigensians, both the groups professing extreme notions as paths to attain salvation.
The Waldensians sought to imitate the simple life of the early Church by an exact following of the Gospel narratives on poverty and preaching. While the Albigensians stressed on a life of asceticism, living austere moral lives with special emphasis on fasting, chastity, poverty and preaching.
Challenge to bring back Laity to the Church Dominic de Guzman in Spain (1170-1221) and Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226) in Italy took upon themselves the challenge to draw people away from these extreme lay movements, back to a balanced Christian life and spirituality based on the true Spirit of the Gospel teachings.
After completing his theological studies at Palencia in 1196, and designated as a Canon Regular (a Canon Regular is a member of a community of priests following the Rule of St. Augustine) attached to the cathedral of Osma in Spain, Dominic de Guzman was assigned by Pope Innocent III to preach against the Albigensians in the south of France. This entailed that he live among them and preach to them. Nine years (1206-1215) of being in close contact with them, gave Dominic a deep understanding of how the importance of the Church was being undermined by the new movements and how they were filling the void of spiritual quest of the common people. The deep insight into the needs of men/women of his time, helped him mold his approach to overcome the crisis. In order to impress upon them the need to return to the Church, Dominic adopted the principles of living the Gospel in ways that would be appealing and acceptable to them. For this he had to have a two-pronged approach –close contact with humanity and a holy life. Every moment of his living, thus, got transformed into one of living in prayer, simplicity and discipline, plus close connectedness to society.
Dominic's vision for the Order
- Dominic's vision for the Christian community was similar to the one in Jerusalem where “they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42) and consecrating their lives to the gospel counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience.
- Community of nuns: The converted Albigensian women were the first community of Dominic’s followers who lived a life of prayer and simplicity in a place called Prouille. They were the first preaching nuns who in the later years collaborated with the friars in taking forward the mission of St. Dominic.
- The Order of Friars Preachers: The first community of preachers who dedicated themselves to contemplative and apostolic living was established by Dominic in the year 1215. This was done under the guidance of Bishop Fulk of Toulouse in France.
Foundation of the Order Founding an Order entailed ecclesiastical approval. In order to found the Order of Preachers as visualized by Dominic he had to get the approval from the Pope. So he accompanied Bishop Fulk who was going to attend the Fourth Latern Council at Rome. The Pope (Innocent III) agreed to Dominic's request on the condition that he chose one of the already existing Rules of religious life. Since he was already following the Rule of St. Augustine as a Canon Regular of Osma, Dominic chose the same paths of spirituality for his new Order. This comprised three prominent aspects: religious priests living as a community, liturgical commitment through daily Eucharistic celebration and the Divine Office, and fulfilling the sacramental needs of the faithful.
Dominic added a unique dimension to his new Order: life of contemplative study. His vision for his Order was: “Preach in Poverty". Living in poverty meant they work or beg for their daily needs, own no property except the land on which their priories (religious houses) were built. Dominic’s plan for an order of contemplative preachers exercising priestly ministry and living in mendicant poverty was approved in 1216 by Pope Honorius III, the successor to Pope Innocent III.
Last four years of Dominic's life and the expansion of the Order The sixteen friars living in the community at Toulouse was converted into the international Order of Preachers. In 1217, the young friars were sent to different parts of Europe:
- seven friars to Paris to study, to teach and to found a priory;
- four friars to Spain to preach and establish priories;
- three friars remained in Toulouse to continue the ministry they had begun under Bishop Fulk;
- two friars went to Prouille to preach and to minister to the preaching nuns;
- Dominic himself went to Rome to meet the Pope and to found the Order in Italy.
From 1217 to 1220 the Order grew considerably. At the General Chapter (1220) decisions were taken regarding the legislations for the governing of the whole Order. At the General Chapter (1221), twelve provinces were established and legislations clearly defined the vision and mission of the Order with scope for flexibility with changing needs of the world. This chapter concluded six weeks before the death of St. Dominic.
In conclusion: the Mission of the Order The Order of Preachers was established for preaching and for the salvation of souls. This was to be achieved through the means of faithful living out of the three vows, community life and the monastic observances, the solemn recitation of the Divine Office; and the study of sacred truth. The Dominican Order has contributed outstanding men and women to the Church during the course of the eight centuries of its existence. Even today the Order continues to be faithful to St. Dominic’s vision in a variety of ways at the service of the Church.