Religious orders nearly always appear in response to some crisis in the Church, and that was no different for the Order of Preachers. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, a heresy known as Catharism spread throughout much of southern Europe.
Dominic de Guzman, a Spanish priest, encountered the Catharists in France while traveling with Diego d’Azevado, the Bishop of Osma. After spending the night in conversation with a confused innkeeper, Dominic became enflamed with zeal to convert the Catharists back to the Catholic faith.
The Catharists taught that all of reality was the result of a conflict between a good god and an evil god. The good god was seen as having created the spiritual realm, and the bad god as having created all physical matter. According to the Catharists, all physical matter was evil, including the human body, which was thought of as a prison for the soul. This was in direct contradiction to the true Christian faith which professed belief in one God who created all things and “saw that it was good.”
Dominic, inspired by his love of God and neighbor, sought the permission of the Holy Father to combat the heresy of Catharism. Joined by the Bishop of Osma and a small group of priests, he received a mandate from Pope Innocent III in 1205 to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the salvation of souls.
By the end of 1215, Dominic and roughly 15 brother clerics had set up a base of operations at the church of Saint Romain in Toulouse, France. The brethren professed themselves to the Rule of Saint Augustine and committed their lives to preaching the Word of God, supported by prayer, study, and contemplation. Essential to the brothers’ success was their vowed religious life based on the evangelical counsels of poverty and chastity, both of which were subsumed under a single vow of obedience.
Dominic and his brothers held public debates with the Catharists throughout Toulouse. Blessed Jordan of Saxony, the second Master of the Order, often recounted a story of one of these debates. According to Bl. Jordan, a group of judges presiding over a dispute between Dominic and a Catharist were unable to determine a winner. As a solution, they sought recourse to the judgment of God by throwing both Dominic’s sacred text and the text of the Catharist into an open fire. Dominic’s book never caught fire, even after being tossed into the flames three times, while the Catharist’s book was burned immediately.
Pope Honorius III confirmed the foundation of the Order of Preachers in 1216. Wasting little time, Dominic began sending his brothers out in groups of two throughout Spain, France, and Italy to preach and to establish new convents that would attract more brothers to his preaching mission. At the end of Dominic’s life in 1221, the Order of Preachers had established five provinces and at least 20 convents.
The brethren who knew Dominic reported that while he was virtually always joyful and sociable with others, he lived a life mostly immersed in the scriptures when he wasn’t preaching. He was known as a man who spoke only to God or about God. His brethren reported that he slept little, preferring to spend his nights praying in the chapel.
At the time of his death, Dominic wished to be buried under the feet of his brothers at the convent of Saint Nicholas in Bologna. Numerous miracles are reported to have occurred at the site of his tomb. The Order of Preachers spread far beyond Spain and France after Dominic’s death, and is credited with extinguishing the Catharist heresy from medieval Europe. Nearly 800 years later, Dominicans imitate their founder by preaching the true Catholic faith for the salvation of souls. Saint Dominic, pray for us.