Saint Dominic and the Order of Preachers, Preface

cover of the ebook 'Saint Dominic and the Order of Preachers'. The cover image a detail of a stained glass window of Saint Dominic, date and artist unknown. It is in the Saint-Suplice church in Fougères, France, was photographed on 28 December 2017 by GO69, and swiped from Wikimedia CommonsAny sketch of the mission, organization and history of the Dominican Order which did not contain an adequate study of its holy founder would be much like the play of Hamlet with the Dane left out. For it is from its founder that every order gets its own genuine and authentic spirit, temper, fibre, character, individuality, ethos – or whatever other name may be chosen to designate the marks that distinguish and set off, apart and alone, one religious institute from every other. If, then, no two orders are alike in spirit and organization, it is for the very simple reason that no two individuals are quite the same in temperament and ideals.

Now, it is safe to say that only a personality of astounding force and strength, only a man of engaging moral and intellectual beauty, only a person of quick and correct perception of the needs of the ageless Church and the aging civilizations on the one hand, and the inherent possibilities of human devotion and service on the other, only a saint whose heroism against the man within was outstripped by his love for the God above, could ever have so dazzled and impressed succeeding generations by his spirit and ideals that countless souls ever after would put it down as a willful sin against the light to fail to reproduce his lineaments in their own lives. The man who built and rigged out a ship that has weathered the storms of seven centuries without the loss of so much as rudder or sail must have gauged with almost prophetic foresight the force and perils of the winds that blow and the waves that surge from individual hearts, and from the heart of humanity itself.

After seven centuries Saint Dominic’s work still inspires and energizes. Therefore, Dominic still lives and speaks. His name and his memory are still green in the hearts of men. True, from the beginning his enemies have banded together to besmirch his character and belittle his achievements. Even Catholics have indulged the unorthodox practice of comparing him with other saints of God in order to minimize his real greatness and historical significance. But by the longevity and fecundity of his Order Dominic proves unmistakably his own superb genius, whilst by the compelling charm of his sanctity he still holds his ascendency over the hearts of men. Amongst the holy patriarchs of monasticism he holds an unique place – apart.

Scion of a noble house, with the blood of Gothic warriors in his veins, Dominic was above all else a strong, imperial character. Because he knew his own mind, and deliberately chose the means to accomplish his purposes, there was little room left in his make-up for poetry and romance. Dominic never dreamed. He was essentially a doer. He lived to serve. This was the passion of his life. But may not drudgery be called divine just because it is doing one’s simple duty simply? Every inch a man, he tried always and everywhere to do a man’s honest share of work for Him whose cause he had espoused. Single-minded, he could not but be jealous of his Master’s interests, as are all nature’s noblemen, quick to cede their own, not other people’s rights and riches. His own cherished him as a tender father, whose love for them frequently ran the lengths of utter self-effacement. He was ever athirst to bring back to the feet of Jesus the masses were prostituting to error and superstition the intellects which God had given them for knowing the truth. Like Moses coming down from the mountain, he swelled with holy anger at the disloyalty and unfaithfulness of those Christians who were bartering away the actualities of eternal truths for passing hypotheses and exchanging the fecund moral laws for sterile formulae of conduct. As he had the real apostle’s expansive heart, he sought to multiply himself during his lifetime and throughout the ages by founding an order which should break the bread of truth to the hungry and starving in every corner of Christendom, and even beyond its most far-flung outposts. He himself preached always. Of his sons, he asked the boon of being allowed to go to the Asiatic Tartars to announce to them the good news of salvation. No wonder, then, that the ages

“venerate the man whose heart is strong,
Whose hands are pure, whose doctrine and whose life
Coincident, give lucid proof That he is honest in the sacred cause.”

Dominic lived in an age that was witnessing the collapse of feudalism, which had held Europe together politically for several hundred years. In the thirteenth century the masses were feeling for the first time the full thrill of political power and importance. Solidarity was just then being born in the social conscience of Europe. Ugly signs of sharp conflict between this new spirit and the Church were already visible in the heavens. Many churchmen, mistrusting completely the new life that was pullulating all over Europe, pleaded for an iron return to the worn-out forms of the past. Dominic, with his quick eye, saw the dangers of the new spirit. Rather than kill it off completely, however, or flee from it utterly, he determined to harness it securely to the Master’s chariot. His challenge to the Zeitgeist, or spirit of the times, was the Order of Preachers. Like every other order, it was a flat contradiction of the spirit of the world, which is at all times utterly unassimilable by the Church. Unlike every other order, it profited from those currents which did not run directly counter to Rome. By embodying in his Institute those ideals of the times that were capable of purification, Dominic showed his keenest foresight and sublimest genius. Because he baptized into religion a spirit that was destined to hold sway over men for ages, he assured his Order a permanence of existence which, over and above the divine blessing, could not otherwise have been achieved.

Now, the spirit of the Dominican Order from the beginning has been essentially democratic. Its ranks were recruited from the masses. It was no longer only the rich burgher’s son, or the scion of the nobleman who lived yonder on the sharp crag, who might hope to reach holy orders in the monastic life. Amongst the Dominicans there was always an open door to the priesthood for the worthy sons of the people. Then, too, all the superiors of the Order ruled by the suffrage of the rank and file. Saint Dominic wished to make his Order a royal Order, because he looked upon all the brethren as “arm-fellows of God.” Therefore, to none was denied the right of a vote. The authority of the Order was, notwithstanding, highly centralized. At Rome, near the tomb of the Apostles, sat the Master General, drawing his powers and jurisdiction directly from the Apostolic See. His authority was sovereign, though the privileges of the brethren were guaranteed by chapters regularly convened. Since the heads of the various provinces into which the Qrder was soon divided had to be approved by the Master General, a wholesome connexionalism and internationalism arose which made for efficiency, unity of program and permanency of campaign. Localism, which had characterized the older monastic institutes, and which had been responsible for their eventual decay, was supplanted among the Dominicans by a vigorous rivalry of the different provinces. Local control by the episcopate, and the vow of stability – powerful agents in the development of monastic individualism – were done away with by the General’s right to tell off an individual friar to any corner of the world.

The Friars Preachers were the first to make the pursuit of knowledge an integral part of their monastic program and scheme. Amongst the older orders there was scarcely one which countenanced study for its own sake. The principal business of the primitive monk was, by corporal labor, fasting and strict monastic observance to become “a hunter hunting out the beast in man.” Nearly all intellectual effort was confined to the reading of the Scriptures and the Fathers and the copying of manuscripts. Saint Dominic, in founding his Institute, realized that if his sons were to be preachers of the Word, if they were to go down into the busy marts of men to challenge the new doctrines that were being hawked about, it was necessary that they should be well equipped, not only with sacred knowledge but also with the secular learning by which men set such store. And for this reason the Order of Friars Preachers has ever played a notable part in the history of education. Born in the golden age of universities, its children were from the first men of learning. To promote learning, every dispensation, save such as would have constituted a downright violation of the law, was conceded.

With such encouragement of intellectual life we need not be surprised that the Order during the past seven hundred years has afforded the Church a constant stream of theologians and thinkers whose one concern it has been to defend the integrity of the Faith. Its preachers have been priests “whose lips guarded wisdom,” preaching to the benighted, not themselves, not glittering generalities, but a simple yet systematic course of instruction. Its painters, its musicians, its architects, have made the spirit of Christ to live in the hearts of men in divers ways. Its martyrs in countless hundreds have by their blood testified to the divinity of the doctrine preached by the brethren.

The services rendered to the Church by the Order of Saint Dominic have been the theme of many a Pontiff’s words. Some have spoken of it as the great nursery of theologians. Others have extolled it as the training-school of martyrs. Others, still, have praised it as the true guardian of art and learning. But none has pointed out its providential mission more clearly than Honorius III, who in his bull of confirmation – a most remarkable papal document by reason of its brevity – proclaimed that Dominic’s brethren were to be for all ages pugiles fidei – the well-trusted, the ever-ready champions of the Faith.

Of them the beautiful words of Lionel Johnson are true:

“Ah, see the fair chivalry come, the companions of Christ!
White Horsemen, who ride on white horses, the Knights of God!
They, for their Lord and their Lover who sacrificed
All, save the sweetness of treading, where He first trod!

“These through the darkness of death, the dominion of night,
Swept, and they woke in white places at morning tide;
They saw with their eyes, and sang for joy of the sight,
They saw with their eyes the Eyes of the Crucified.

“Now, whithersoever He goeth, with Him they go;
White Horsemen, who ride on white horses, oh, fair to see!
They ride, where the Rivers of Paradise flash and flow,
White Horsemen, with Christ their Captain; forever He!”

In the following pages we have an authentic study of the character and mission of the Good Man of Calaroga, done with a careful hand, an open eye and a loving heart. He appears here as that “Incomparable Leader” of the ages whose words are still audible and whose tenderness still allures. The author is well qualified to speak of the spirit and organization of the Dominican Order. With a justifiable pride he selects some few of the achievements which in the course of the ages his forbears in religion have consecrated to Holy Mother Church. In a few pages he has succeeded admirably in condensing a vast mine of information, difficult to obtain otherwhere. It is an inspiring record, and one which should make a mighty appeal to those youthful hearts in which the spirit of sacrifice still burns.

Thomas M. Schwertner, O. P.
New York City