"O praise God, laudare! Be a blessing, benedicere! Preach the Gospel, praedicare!" - A Dominican motto

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 Americas.

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 Gospel.”

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 it.

Such a way of life had and has its tensions: for example, between poverty and study, and the demands of preaching and community life.

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 examinations.

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 breach.

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 effectively.

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, France

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 different faiths.

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 (2010)
Fifth President, Mount Saint Mary College

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