St. Dominic Between Center and Periphery

The Dominican historian Brother Simon Tugwell, in the first of his series of articles on Dominic of Caleruega, published in 1995 in the journal Archivum Fratrum Praedicatorum, entitled one chapter “Dominic and his Popes”. There he discussed the personal relationship Dominic had with the first two Popes of the thirteenth century, Innocent III (1198-1216) and Honorius III (1216-1227): it was thanks to the openness of both to his project that the Order of Preachers was born and spread rapidly in the various regions of Christian Europe.

To these two popes we must add a third: Gregory IX (1227-1241) who, while still Cardinal Ugolino, Bishop of Ostia, was linked to Dominic by a deep friendship, so much so that he presided at his funeral in Bologna in 1221. It was Gregory IX who canonised the founder of the Order of Preachers in 1234. A thirteenth-century source, known as the “Encyclical” of Blessed Jordan of Saxony on the Translation of St. Dominic’s Body, reports that Pope Gregory expressed his conviction of Dominic’s sanctity even before the translation took place in 1233.

To the host of pastors of the universal Church who can be called ‘Dominic’s popes’ Pope Francis undoubtedly belongs. In his address to the participants at the General Chapter of the Order of Preachers on 4 August 2016, in the year of the celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Order, the Pope praised Dominic for his work, noting that “his example inspires us to face the future with hope, knowing that God always renews everything…”. Today, in his letter Praedicator Gratiae, written on the occasion of the eighth centenary of the dies natalis of Saint Dominic, the Pope again highlights the various aspects of the Saint’s personality and his many contributions to the Church of the time. Some of these aspects could also be summed up in Dominic’s extraordinary ability to move between centre and periphery, or better still between centres and peripheries.

Dominic showed great courage in going beyond the monastic-canonical tradition in which he had been formated, without abandoning it completely, in order to fulfil his vocation as an itinerant preacher of the Gospel in the face of the current needs of his time. The sources explain his loving commitment to the people on the social and ecclesiastical peripheries by his being anchored in the love of Christ, the centre of his life as a preacher. As one friar testified during his canonisation process, Dominic’s interest was focused on the salvation not only of Christians, but also of unbelievers, from whom he did not want to be cut off to keep his faith intact, but whom he ardently desired to meet, in humility and with respect, in order to communicate to them his faith in Jesus Christ. And it is precisely this intention that lies at the heart of the Order he founded. However, in order for his brothers to succeed everywhere, he also took care of their education, sending them to Paris, the intellectual centre of Europe at that time. Pope Francis has stressed the importance of this option for the Preachers who must be well prepared for the evangelising mission of the Church.

An important, well-known aspect of Dominic’s personality is that he sought affinity with the popes, the pivot of the universal Church: and this, certainly, was neither to seek personal advantage, nor to benefit from the support of central ‘power’, but to obtain the endorsement of his preaching project aimed at the salvation of souls, the ultimate goal of preaching. Historians have repeatedly emphasised Dominic’s focus on the objective that became fundamental to Dominican legislation. This aspect has been called “system rationality” (Systemrationalität) by the German historian Gert Melville and presented as the reason for the success of Dominic’s Order in the Middle Ages.

Referring to the community form of government of the Order of Preachers chosen by the founder, the Pope touched on another personal characteristic of Dominic’s: namely, the fact that his role as the centre or principle of unity of the Order was not for him a matter of personal success, but a matter of service to the Church. The nostalgia for the periphery, for the life of a simple preacher, did not leave him until the end of his earthly life. In conclusion, I believe I can say, without fear of contradiction, that Dominic’s extraordinary ability to be a man of balance between centre(s) and periphery(ies) is the reason that he always deserves our attention.

Br. Viliam Štefan Dóci, O.P.
Historical Institute of the Order of Preachers

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