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Vocation - Blog
St. Dominic de Guzman
Fr. Roberto Corral, OP shares the early life of St. Dominic. Spanish Version available in an adjoining post.
Part One: His Family
The founder of our Dominican Order – officially known as the Order of Preachers (that is why we have the initials “O.P.” after our names) – was St. Dominic de Guzmán. The Church celebrates his feast day each year on August 8th. In order to prepare us for that celebration, I would like to dedicate a few of my weekly messages to his life story so that you can have a better understanding and appreciation of this remarkable, holy man.
St. Dominic was born around 1171 in a village named Caleruega in the region of Castile in Spain. Like all of us, St. Dominic was very much influenced by the family into which he was born, so I think it is important to know a little about them as well, even though we do not have much information to go by.
Dominic’s father, Felix, was very likely from the noble family of Guzmán (about 35 miles from Caleruega) and may even have been a wealthy magistrate of Caleruega. He was respected for his fairness and judicious rule and was described as “a man looked up to by the villagers.” Yet, another tradition says that he was simply a farmer.
Dominic’s mother, Jane, was most likely from a noble family as well, the family of Aza, (about 20 miles from Caleruega). She was considered “virtuous, chaste, prudent, full of compassion for those who were unfortunate and in distress, and was outstanding among all the women in the neighborhood for the excellence of her reputation.” It seems that Jane was married twice, but it is impossible to determine whether Felix was her first or second husband. Because of the holiness of her life, she was beatified in 1828 by Pope Leo XII.
There were at least two other children of whom we know born to Jane and Felix. One was named Antonio. He was said to have been a priest at a hospice who devoted himself unreservedly to works of mercy in the service of the poor. Apparently, miracles made him famous both before and after his death. Blessed Jordan of Saxony, the Dominican who led the Order after St. Dominic’s death in 1221, claims that Dominic’s other sibling was a half-brother (this is why it is believed that Jane was married twice) named Mames. He followed St. Dominic at least from the founding of the Order and perhaps much earlier. He was still alive when St. Dominic was canonized. He too lived a holy life and was beatified in 1833 by Gregory XVI, mistakenly under the name of “Mannes.”
It is also believed that Dominic had nephews and that perhaps two or three became members of the Order. This implies that Dominic had other siblings in addition to Antonio and Mames, but nothing is known of them.
Unfortunately, as you can see, very few details are known about St. Dominic’s family. However, it is known that the Guzmán and Aza families were of the highest degree of nobility. The Aza family was particularly distinguished by military activity in Spanish history.
St. Dominic – Part Two:
Legends about His Birth; His Early Years
As with many saints, there are a number of legends that have grown up around Dominic – some even before he was canonized. For example, it is said that Jane, St. Dominic’s mother, had a dream before Dominic’s conception that she would give birth to a dog carrying a torch in its mouth that would set the world on fire (Dominicans and others in the Church have seen the fulfillment of this dream in the preaching of St. Dominic and the Order that has illuminated the Church and the world through the centuries). For this reason, in many images of St. Dominic, it is very common to see a dog with a torch in its mouth at his feet (as you can see in the painting of St. Dominic to the left). There are also a number of Dominican organizations that have as their logo a dog with a torch or just a torch. However, it must be acknowledged that during that period this was a popular dream attributed to mothers of saints, e.g., the mothers of St. Bernard (who died in 1153) and of St. Julian of Cuenca (died in 1208). Thus, it is hard to know if this is an authentic story regarding Dominic’s mother or not.
There is another story that Dominic’s mother saw a moon (some older manuscripts say a star) on his forehead signifying that he would be as a light to the nations. And, once again, this feature is often portrayed in the images of the saint as a star above his head.
Finally, there is a less well known legend that bees supposedly alighted on the St. Dominic’s lips when he was a newborn. Yet, once again, the same thing is supposed to have happened to St. Ambrose, St. Isidore and St. John Chrysostom.
Dominic’s parents must have wanted him to become a priest, perhaps even before he was born. For this reason, when he was 6 or 7, he was sent to begin a clerical education under the tutelage of a priest-uncle in a nearby village. At 14 he was sent to Palencia to continue his clerical education. During these formative years, Dominic developed a love of scripture, the Divine Office (the daily prayer of the Church also called the “Liturgy of the Hours” today), and the celebration of the Mass. It was said at his canonization that he would often weep when he celebrated Mass.
Dominic developed a reputation for being devoted to study and prayer, even through the night, for his asceticism and for his compassion. There is a story that during a particularly harsh famine in the region, when the authorities and the wealthy were not doing much to help the poor, Dominic sold his most precious possessions – his books – saying: “I will not study on dead skins [the parchments of his books] when people are dying of hunger.” On another occasion, when a woman pleaded for her brother who had been taken captive in a local conflict, Dominic offered to sell himself into slavery to be a ransom in exchange for the man.