The Life of St. Dominic of
Saint Dominic (Spanish: Domingo),
also known as Dominic of Osma, often
called Dominic de Guzmán and
Domingo de Guzmán Garcés (1170 –
August 6, 1221) was the founder of the
Friars Preachers, popularly called the
Dominicans or Order of Preachers
(OP), a Catholic religious order.
Dominic is the patron saint of
astronomers and the Dominican
Birth and Parentage
Dominic was born in Caleruega, half-way between Osma and
Aranda in Old Castile, Spain. He was named after Saint Dominic
of Silos, the patron saint of hopeful mothers and the Benedictine
Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos, a few miles north of Caleruega.
In the earliest narrative source, by Jordan of Saxony, Dominic's
parents are not named. The story is told that before his birth his
mother dreamed that a dog leapt from her womb carrying a torch
in its mouth, and "seemed to set the earth on fire". Jordan adds
that Dominic was brought up by his parents and a maternal uncle
who was an archbishop. The failure to name them is not
surprising, since Jordan's work is a history of the early years of
the Order rather than a biography of Dominic. A later source, still
of the 13th century, gives the names of Dominic's mother and
father as Juana and Felix. Nearly a century after Dominic's
birth, a local author asserts that Dominic's father was vir
venerabilis et dives in populo suo ("an honoured and wealthy
man in his village"). The earliest statement that Dominic's
father belonged to the family de Guzmán, and that his mother
belonged to the Aça or Aza family, occurs in the travel narrative
of Pero Tafur, written in 1439 or soon after.
Education and early career
Dominic was educated in the schools of Palencia, afterwards a
university, where he devoted six years to the arts and four to
theology. In 1191, when Spain was desolated by a terrible famine,
Dominic was just finishing his theological studies. He gave away
his money and sold his clothes, his furniture and even his
precious manuscripts, that he might relieve distress. When his
companions expressed astonishment that he should sell his
books, Dominic replied: "Would you have me study off these
dead skins, when men are dying of hunger?" This utterance
belongs to the few of Dominic's sayings that have passed to
posterity. In 1194, around twenty-five years old, Dominic became
a Praemonstratensian canon, in the canonry of Osma,
following the rule of Saint Augustine.
In 1203 or 1204 he accompanied Diego de Acebo, the bishop of
Osma, on a diplomatic mission for Alfonso VIII, king of Castile, in
order to secure a bride in Denmark for crown prince
Ferdinand. The mission made its way to Denmark via the south
When they crossed the Pyrenees, Dominic and Diego
encountered the Cathars. They found themselves in an
atmosphere of heresy. The country was filled with preachers of
strange doctrines, who had become alienated from the Church
and had little respect for Dominic, his bishop, or their Roman
pontiff. The shocking experiences of this journey inspired in
Dominic a desire to aid in the extermination of heresy. He was
also deeply impressed by an important and significant
observation. Many of these heretical preachers were not ignorant
fanatics, but well-trained and cultured men. Entire communities
seemed to be possessed by a desire for knowledge and for
righteousness. Dominic clearly perceived that only preachers of a
high order, capable of advancing reasonable argument, could
overthrow the Cathar heresy.
Travelling up again to Denmark in 1204 or 1205 and finding that
the intended bride had died, Diego and Dominic returned by way
of Rome and Citeaux. Dominic then stayed a number of years in
the south of France working among the Cathars. In late 1206 or
early 1207, with the help of bishop Foulques of Toulouse, and
thanks to the generosity of Guillaume and Raymonde Claret,
Diego and Dominic were able to set up a first monastic community
at Prouille near Carcassonne, intended largely as a refuge for
women who had previously lived in Cathar religious houses. Soon
afterwards Diego, at the pope's insistence, returned to his
diocese. Still in 1207, Dominic took part in the last large scale
public debate between Cathars and Catholics, at Pamiers.
Foundation of the Dominicans
In 1208 Dominic encountered the papal legates returning in pomp to Rome, foiled in their attempt to crush the
growing sect. To them he administered his famous rebuke: "It is not by the display of power and pomp,
cavalcades of retainers, and richly-houseled palfreys, or by gorgeous apparel, that the heretics win proselytes; it
is by zealous preaching, by apostolic humility, by austerity, by seeming, it is true, but by seeming holiness. Zeal
must be met by zeal, humility by humility, false sanctity by real sanctity, preaching falsehood by preaching truth."
A small group of priests formed around Dominic, but soon left him since the challenge and rigours of a simple
lifestyle together with demanding preaching discouraged them. Finally Dominic gathered a number of men who
remained faithful to the vision of active witness to the Albigensians as well as a way of preaching which combined
intellectual rigour with a popular and approachable style. By departing from accepted church practices and
learning from the Albigensians, Dominic laid the ground for what would become a major tenet of the Dominican
order over time - to find truth no matter where it may be.
In 1215, Dominic established himself, with six followers, in a house given by Pierre Seila, a rich resident of
Toulouse. He subjected himself and his companions to the monastic rules of prayer and penance; and meanwhile
bishop Foulques gave them written authority to preach throughout the territory of Toulouse. Thus the scheme of
establishing an order of Preaching Friars began to assume definite shape in Dominic's mind. He dreamed of
seven stars enlightening the world, which represented himself and his six friends.
The final result of his deliberations was the establishment of his order. In the same year, the year of the Fourth
Lateran Council, Dominic and Foulques went to Rome to secure the approval of the pope, Innocent III. Dominic
returned to Rome a year later, and was finally granted written authority in December 1216 and January 1217 by
the new pope, Honorius III for an order to be named "The Order of Preachers" (Ordo Praedicatorum, or O.P.,
popularly known as the Dominican Order). This organization has as its motto "to praise, to bless, to preach" (in
Latin: Laudare, benedicere, praedicare), taken from the Preface of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Roman Missal.
Dominic's Later life
Dominic now made his headquarters at Rome, although
he traveled extensively to maintain contact with his
growing brotherhood of monks. It was in the winter of
1216–1217, at the house of Ugolino de' Conti, that he
first met William of Montferrat, afterwards a close friend.
When arriving in Bologna in January 1218, he saw
immediately that this university city was most convenient
as his center of activity. Soon a convent was established
at the Mascarella church by the Blessed Reginald of
Orléans. Soon afterwards they had to move to the
church of San Nicolò of the Vineyards. Dominic settled in
this church and held in this church the first two General
Chapters of the order. He died there on 6 August 1221
and was moved into a simple sarcophagus in 1233. The
church was later expanded and grew into the Basilica of
Saint Dominic, consecrated by Pope Innocent IV in
1251. In 1267 Dominic's remains were moved to the
exquisite shrine, made by Nicola Pisano and his
workshop, Arnolfo di Cambio and with later additions by
Niccolò dell'Arca and the young Michelangelo. At the
back of this shrine, the head of Dominic is enshrined in
a huge, golden reliquary, a masterpiece of the goldsmith
Jacopo Roseto da Bologna (1383).
Throughout his life, Dominic is said to have zealously
practiced rigorous self-denial. He wore a hairshirt, and
an iron chain around his loins, which he never laid
aside, even in sleep. He abstained from meat and
observed stated fasts and periods of silence. He
selected the worst accommodations and the meanest
clothes, and never allowed himself the luxury of a bed.
When traveling, he beguiled the journey with spiritual
instruction and prayers. As soon as he passed the limits of towns and villages, he took off his shoes, and,
however sharp the stones or thorns, he trudged on his way barefooted. Rain and other discomforts elicited from
his lips nothing but praises to God.
Death came at the age of fifty-one and found him exhausted with the austerities and labors of his eventful career.
He had reached the convent of St Nicholas at Bologna, Italy, weary and sick with a fever. He refused the repose of
a bed and made the monks lay him on some sacking stretched upon the ground. The brief time that remained to
him was spent in exhorting his followers to have charity, to guard their humility, and to make their treasure out of
poverty. He died at noon on 6 August 1221
What part Dominic personally had in the proceedings of the episcopal Medieval Inquisition has been disputed for
many centuries. The historical sources from Dominic's own time period tell us nothing about his involvement in the
Inquisition. This is all the more striking when we consider that several early Dominicans, including some of
Dominic's first followers, did become inquisitors. In fact, the notion that Dominic had been an inquisitor only began
in the 14th century through the writings of a famous Dominican inquisitor, Bernard Gui, who tried to paint his
Order's founder as a participant in the Institution.
In the 15th century, Dominic would be depicted as presiding at an auto da fé, later offering German Protestant
critics of the Catholic Church a convenient publicity weapon against the very Order whose theologically informed
preaching had proven to be a formidable opponent in the lands of the Reformation. Thus a 14th century invention
soon became a part of the Black Legend.
Some histories of the Rosary claim its origin to Saint Dominic through the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our Lady of the
Rosary is the title received by the Marian apparition to Saint Dominic in 1208 in the church of Prouille in which the
Virgin Mary gave the Rosary to him. However, other sources dispute this attribution and suggest that its roots
were in the preaching of Alan de Rupe between 1470-1475, and suggest that Saint Dominic had nothing to do
with the Rosary. There are sources trying to seek a middle ground to these two views. Either way, the
Rosary has for centuries been at the heart of the Dominican Order. Pope Pius XI stated that: "The Rosary of Mary
is the principle and foundation on which the very Order of Saint Dominic rests for making perfect the life of its
members and obtaining the salvation of others.".
For centuries, Dominicans have been instrumental in spreading the rosary and emphasizing the Catholic belief in
the power of the rosary.
Patrick Cardinal Hayes of New York provided his imprimatur in support of the fifteen rosary promises attributed to
Saint Dominic and Alan de Rupe. In this attribution, based on some Catholic beliefs on the power of prayer the
Blessed Virgin Mary reportedly made fifteen specific promises regarding the power of the rosary to Christians who
pray the rosary . The fifteen rosary promises range from heavenly protection from misfortune to assurance of
sanctification, and to meriting a high degree of glory in heaven .