Around the year 1170, Bl. Jane of Aza had a vision in which she gave birth to a dog with a burning torch carried in his mouth who ran across Europe setting the continent ablaze with the truth of the Gospel. Not long after, Bl. Jane gave birth to Dominic de Guzman who, in 1216, founded the Order of Preachers, more commonly known as the Dominicans, a religious order dedicated to the preaching of the Gospel for the salvation of souls.
The entirety of St. Dominic’s life was lived in the midst of the Church. He grew up in a devout home, and as a child he was sent to study under the guidance of his priest-uncle. After these studies he became a religious canon in the city of Osma, Spain. In either 1203 or 1204, St. Dominic accompanied Bishop Diego of Osma on a diplomatic mission that would change his life.
The Founding of the Order of Preachers
During his travels St. Dominic encountered the Albigensian heresy in the south of France. These heretics were dualists who believed in two deities — a god of the good, spiritual world, and a god of the evil, material world. Because the material world was thought to be evil, the Albigensians rejected the goodness of the body, the procreation of children, and the humanity of Christ. Though Rome had sent legates to preach and convert the Albigensians, none had any success. Moved by the plight of these people, St. Dominic remained in France preaching the truth of the Gospel. By 1216 he had obtained the blessing of the Holy See, and his preaching order was founded.
St. Dominic’s religious order was novel. At the turn of the 13th century the Church had two established forms of ecclesial life: either in the monastery or as a diocesan priest. St. Dominic (along with St. Francis, who founded the Franciscans in 1209) established a third way. These new religious, known as mendicants, lived a sort of combination of monastic and apostolic lives. They lived in communities, wore religious habits and took religious vows, but they also lived in urban settings, serving the people of God directly.
The Life of a Dominican Friar
A generation later, the great Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas would call the Dominican life a “mixed” life: one given to contemplation and study as monastic disciplines, which necessarily poured over into the apostolic mission of preaching and teaching. The Dominican friar can be described as a “contemplative apostle.”
The friar’s internal life is marked by several characteristics. The brotherhood of the friars is essential to Dominican life. Friars live together, eat together, recreate together, pray together, study and preach together. This offers a network of support and fraternity but also mirrors Christ’s sending of his disciples in pairs. Dominican life is also marked by liturgical worship. St. Dominic’s background as a canon is alive here, as a canon’s life is given to the celebration of the liturgy. A hallmark of Dominican life is to study; this is the labor of the Order. Study, for the friars, is not done so as to amass a lot of knowledge but to come to know Christ more deeply and more truly, both for our own salvation and for the salvation of others. Finally, Dominican life is a contemplative life. All of these things already mentioned, as well as the evangelical counsels, the habit, silence and other disciplines of life, are aimed at contemplative friendship with Christ.
It is this contemplative friendship that spills over into the other side of the mixed life, the apostolic life of preaching. In the 13th century, preaching belonged solely to the bishop. To have a religious order dedicated to preaching was a novel thing in the Church, and the Order of Preachers is still the only religious community given entirely to this charism. Preaching is not something Dominicans do; it is who they are. The whole of Dominican life overflows into the preaching Christ, from the pulpit, in the classroom and in the public arena. This has taken different forms throughout the 800 years of the Order’s existence, but the mission has remained the same: to bring the truth and beauty of the Gospel to a world in need.
Today, the Order of Preachers exists in all corners of the earth. Throughout the centuries, the Dominican life has produced some of the greatest saints the world has known, including St. Dominic, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Martin de Porres, St. Rose of Lima and St. Pius V, just to name a few. The Order’s preachers have shed their blood in missionary lands and have offered their lives as a holocaust in cloisters throughout the world.
In 1805, Edward Dominic Fenwick, an American from Maryland studying in Europe where he joined the Order, brought the Dominicans to the United States. He founded the Province of St. Joseph (the Eastern Province) with just five friars, and he later became the first Bishop of Cincinnati. Today, some 800 years after the founding of the Order and 200 years after the establishment of the first American province, Dominican friars, nuns and sisters continue to live the life that St. Dominican brilliantly created, a life that continues to burn with zeal for souls as Bl. Jane envisioned it would.
To learn more about the Order of Preachers and the Province of St. Joseph, check out these resources:
Provincial Website – Find out more about the Province of St. Joseph.
Vocations Website – Helpful resources for discerning a call to the Dominicans
Thomistic Institute – Opportunities to deepen your intellectual formation
Godsplaining Podcast – A new Catholic podcast by the Dominican friars
Aquinas101 – This free series of video courses will help you engage life’s most urgent philosophical and theological questions with the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Hillbilly Thomists – Check out this band of friars and their original album!