"O praise God, laudare! Be a blessing, benedicere! Preach the
Gospel, praedicare!" - A Dominican
Francis of Assisi and Dominic Guzman, according to legend, met
at the Fourth Lateran Council in Rome in 1215.
Among the many Council issues were church reform, a crusade to
ensure safe pilgrimages to religious sites in Jerusalem, and the
challenge of the Gnostic Cathars or Albigensians, especially in
southern France. Whether the mendicants Francis and Dominic met is
debatable, but the legend does emphasize the synergy between the
Franciscan and Dominican communities.
The Dominicans, like the Franciscans and the Jesuits, are
grounded in Catholic Christianity, and created luminaries in the
Catholic intellectual tradition: Albert the Great and Thomas
Aquinas in the 13th century; Meister Eckhart and Catherine of Siena
in the 14th century; Vincent Ferrer in the 15th century; Pope Pius
V and Bartoleme de las Casas in the 16th century; Henri Lacordaire
in the 19th century; and Joseph Lagrange, Yves Congar and Edward
Schillebeeckx in the 20th century.
As a Franciscan friar serving as president at a Dominican
Catholic college—Mount Saint Mary College—I ventured with some
fellow presidents of Dominican colleges on a pilgrimage in the
footsteps of Saint Dominic.
The highlights in Spain included Caleruega, birthplace of
Dominic; Osma, where Dominic as an ordained priest served as a
cathedral canon under the rule of Saint Augustine; and Salamanca,
the university city where Francisco de Vitoria, a Dominican friar,
promulgated the human rights of native Americans in the
In southern France, we stayed at the Belvedere in Fanjeaux,
where Dominic briefly lived while debating the Cathars and where he
experienced in 1206 the Seignadou, “a sign from God”: a light
settling over the nearby Church of Sainte Marie de Prouilhe, which
affirmed the beginning of the Dominican nuns. We explored Toulouse,
where Dominic founded the Order of Preachers and where Thomas
Aquinas is buried; and visited Carcassonne, a walled medieval city
which captures life in Dominic’s 13th century. Dominic is buried in
Bologna, Italy, where he died after his many journeys throughout
Spain, France and Italy.
Tomb of Dominic, Bologna, Italy
Dominic is often depicted in black-and-white garb, with a dog at
his feet holding a torch in its mouth. Behind the image is a dream
and a pun. Dominic’s mother dreamt of her son as a dog with the
torch of the Gospel or Veritas (truth) to set the world ablaze. The
pun takes the Latin for ‘Dominican’ – “Dominicanus” and hears it as
the Latin words “ Domini canis”- “the dog of the Lord” .
Indeed, the motto at Mount Saint Mary College is “Doce me
veritatem” – “Teach me the Truth.” More to the point, “Teach me the
Dominic is elsewhere depicted holding a Bible or a rosary. Both
Dominicans and Franciscans promoted love of Scripture, and prayer
invoking Mary the Mother of God.
My overriding question on this Dominican pilgrimage was: what is
the heart of Dominican spirituality?
I concluded it is preaching the Gospel. Preaching is the
priority; prayer and study and community life are supportive to
Such a way of life had and has its tensions: for example,
between poverty and study, and the demands of preaching and
Our Dominican pilgrimage began in Madrid, the Spanish capital of
museums, parks, plazas, palaces and churches.
We began our pilgrimage with this prayer:
“We trust in God and hunger for truth. Teach us, O Wisdom, to be
contemporary proclaimers of your Word; teach us, O Light, to pursue
and recognize truth; to study and value wisdom wherever we find it;
teach us, O Just One, to confront evil and to birth justice in our
world; teach us your ways, O God, and we will walk in our truth;
give us an undivided heart that we may seek your face.”
We traveled north to the world heritage city of Segovia, and
prayed at the cave, now a chapel, where Dominic contemplated the
mysteries of God centuries before.
We continued north to Caleruega, the birthplace of Dominic.
Caleruega is a sleepy rural village, without the charm of Assisi.
Someone described Caleruega’s climate as “nine months of winter and
three of hell.” In the 11th century, it was primarily a border
separating Christians from Muslims.
Calueruega, the birthplace of Dominic
We presidents of Dominican colleges stayed at the aptly named
Casa de Espiritualidad Santo Domingo , met a few friars, visited
the sisters in their cloister, and went down into the crypt of the
church where a well marks the birthplace of Dominic.
In Osma, where Dominic served as a canon regular and became a
friend of the bishop, Diego, we marveled at the cathedral
architecture. Dominic accompanied Diego to Italy and to France; in
France, Dominic first encountered the Albigensians.
From Caleruega, we drove to Salamanca, with its shimmering
sandstone buildings. I saw the majestic old and new cathedrals,
sipped a glass of wine in the Plaza Mayor, and admired the façade
of the university, a masterpiece of the Plateresque style.
The façade depicts, among other symbols, vices and virtues. On
one carved skull is a frog, a symbol of sin. Interestingly, for
students touching it, the frog is a sign of good luck before
Most remarkable was the Dominican Church of Saint Stephen. The
carvings on that façade, and especially the royal cloister where
Columbus supposedly met Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, recreated
the excitement of the 15th century discovery of the Americas.
A friar introduced us to “The Rights and Obligations of Indians
and Spaniards in the New World” according to the Dominican
Francisco De Vitoria. The thesis of this document was expressed in
three key principles: (1) The Indians’ fundamental right to be
human beings and to be treated as free people; (2) their
fundamental right to have and defend their own sovereignty; and (3)
the fundamental right of all peoples to make and to work in favor
of peace and international solidarity.
Bartolome de las Casas championed these rights in the New World,
but unfortunately they appeared to be observed most often in the
We concluded our pilgrimage in Toulouse, southern France’s
cultural city with its art galleries, cafes, museums, cathedral,
basilica. The sunlight reflecting on the brick buildings brought
Toulouse the name “the pink city”.
Here, Dominic founded the Order of Preachers in 1215 under the
auspices of the Bishop of Toulouse.
We visited the tomb of Thomas Aquinas at the Jacobins Church.
(Dominicans in France are known as Jacobins, since their first
priory was near the Church of St. Jacques in Paris.)
Tomb of Thomas Aquinas
I reflected on how Thomas studied, and mightily tried to
demonstrate the reasonableness of Catholic faith through his famous
“disputatio” methodology: topic, arguments against, arguments for,
response, and reply to arguments against.
This methodology of “disputatio” is as relevant today as it was
then, especially in academe.
Early Dominicans, like many Franciscans, readily gravitated
toward the great universities of Medieval Europe, e.g., Paris,
Bologna and Oxford, because they wanted to clearly understand the
great mysteries of the Catholic faith before preaching them.
And if they were to preach, they had to travel, wherever they
heard the “call.” As mendicants or beggars, itinerant or traveling
preachers, they often depended upon the generosity of the
communities they visited.
Simon Tugwell, O.P., in his fascinating book “Saint Dominic”
published in 1995, uses a phrase evocative of the Testament of
Francis; Dominic was “doing what had to be done.” As Francis had
done what was his to do.
Like many religious movements, the Dominican movement eventually
called for a basic structure. Dominic adopted the Rule of St.
Augustine as the guide.
He and his followers engaged in liturgical prayer, theological
study and the common life, so they could preach the Gospel
On our modern day pilgrimage, we lodged for a few days at the
Belvedere Dominican guest house in Fanjeaux, a small rural French
village about 60 miles southeast of Toulouse.
Fanjeaux sits on a hill overlooking a magnificent landscape of
hills and valleys. We strolled the narrow streets of this once
thriving fortified medieval site, met a few Dominican sisters who
started a research center, visited the stone church where Dominic
preached against the Cathars, meandered around Carcasonne with its
cobblestone streets, castle and basilica, and joined in evening
prayer with Dominican nuns at Prouilhe, where Dominic first
endeavored in 1206 to establish a Catholic monastery for women at a
site where a church was in disrepair.
Now, a comparison might be drawn to the call Francis received to
rebuild the church.
In Dominic’s case, Bishop Diego had realized that some Catholic
families were forced by poverty to entrust their daughters to
heretic houses. Dominican biographer Tugwell explains that like
Francis did earlier, Dominic “adopted a way of life dominated by
the instructions given to the apostles in Matthew 10; but whereas
Francis found there the answer to an urgent personal question,
Dominic was just obeying his bishop and his bishop was responding
to a missionary problem.”
The Catholic foundation in Prouilhe provided a useful base for
preachers, notes Tugwell, who goes on to explain that Bishop Diego
conceived the radical idea of deputing people full time to the task
of preaching. Diego also organized a major debate against the
Albigensians and the Waldensians.
With his in-depth study of Scripture, his obedience, and his
preaching truth against heresy, Dominic’s work may have resembled
that of the Franciscan friar Anthony of Padua.
This pilgrimage in the footsteps of Dominic made me realize how
truly Catholic and evangelical Dominic was. Preaching the Gospel of
Jesus Christ was his passion. And that passion inspired others to
do the same.
Dominic’s friars, nuns, sisters and laypeople have continued
through the centuries to integrate the best of Catholicity into
their many ministries, especially education.
They have striven to do so in a way that involves people of
Vibrant communities are formed not by people with vague,
ill-defined identities (a vague or undefined identity denotes lost
identity), but by persons who know who they are and rejoice and
celebrate in it.
Just as an individual Catholic can only dialogue honestly with
people as a Catholic, so Dominican Catholic college communities,
including those of other faiths or no faith, engage them
respectively in a way that does not compromise identity. Mark W.
Roche’s book “The Intellectual Appeal of Catholicism and the Idea
of a Catholic University” expresses this thought which I’m sure
would have held meaning for Saint Dominic:
“Faith is not an add-on to learning, restricted to residential
life; it is integrated into the realm of inquiry, woven into each
subject of study.”
What is the heart of Dominican spirituality? For me, it is
contemplative, centered in a life of prayer around the Eucharist
and the Liturgy of the Hours; intellectual, dedicated to study, in
particular theology; fraternal, committed to one another in
community; and apostolic, missioned specifically to proclaim the
Word of God.
Unlike Jesuit spirituality, with The Spiritual Exercises, and to
a lesser degree Franciscan spirituality, Dominican spirituality is
less systematic. Nonetheless, authentic Dominican spirituality is
grounded in Catholic Christianity and is inseparable from it.
“Dominic” is rooted in “Catholic.” To dichotomize the two would be
to distort the authenticity of Dominic’s legacy.
May the prayer we college presidents began on our pilgrimage in
the footsteps of Saint Dominic continue to inspire all:
“We trust in God and hunger for truth. Teach us, O Wisdom, to be
contemporary proclaimers of your Word.”
Fr. Kevin E. Mackin, OFM
President, Mount Saint Mary College