Editor’s note: The following homily was preached at Holy Innocents Church in New York City for the memorial of St. Dominic (August 4/8, 2021/OF & EF calendars).
Today we honor St. Dominic in the calendar of the usus antiquior, while he is commemorated in the revised calendar on August 8; he actually died on August 6, a date unavailable to him for his birth into Heaven since it was already taken from antiquity to celebrate the Lord’s Transfiguration.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should note at the outset that my life has been colored by a Dominican hue, which may explain why I tend to see reality in such black and white terms! I began grammar school at St. Rose of Lima (a Dominican saint) in Newark, New Jersey. In sixth grade, we moved forty miles south to Freehold, where the school was again St. Rose of Lima, which made my mother happy since I could use the same school tie. For high school, I attended the brand new St. Joseph High School in Toms River, staffed by the Dominican Sisters of Newburgh – before they went over the cliff in 1971. I got my licentiate in theology from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington and taught a monthly theology class for fourteen years to the nuns at St. Dominic’s Monastery in Newark (where, as a schoolboy, I brought thousands of Christmas cards to the nuns to make into holy cards). Perhaps I should revise my original verb from “colored” by things Dominican to “haunted”!
Our saint of the day was born in 1170 and named for St. Dominic of Silos, to whose abbey his mother had gone on pilgrimage to pray for a child. As an aside, that’s the same Silos Abbey that became famous some years back for their Gregorian chant CD. Juana of Aza (eventually beatified by Pope Leo XII in 1829) then had a dream that she was giving birth to a dog with a flaming torch in his mouth, setting the earth on fire. That image has been a part of Dominican iconography from time immemorial. It also gave birth to a pun as the holy founder of the Order of Preachers is dubbed the “Domini canis” (the Lord’s hound).
Dominic was ordained a priest at the age of 24 and named a canon of the Cathedral of Osma. Four years later, the reforming Bishop of Osma made Dominic the sub-prior of the Cathedral chapter. Returning from a diplomatic mission to Denmark through the south of France, he encountered the Cathars or Albigensians, a Gnostic sect of heretics, who were wreaking havoc. The Cistercians had been deputed by Pope Innocent III to preach against those heretics, but did so unsuccessfully. Dominic concluded that their failures were due to their worldliness, which was used against them by the very ascetical Albigensians.
Within the year, Dominic launched his own reform movement in Toulouse with six pioneer-members, committed to preaching the truth of the Catholic Faith (hence, the motto of Veritas) and the living of a very simple life. It is not generally known that in the lead-up to his founding of the Order of Preachers, he called upon a group of pious women to provide the prayer-power needed for the success of their mission; these women became the contemplative nuns of the Second Order. The new institute of men adopted the venerable Rule of St. Augustine and had their community approved by two successive Popes, Innocent III and Honorius III. They focused on cities, where they provided much-needed education.
Dominic made the headquarters for the new community in Rome at the ancient Roman Basilica of Santa Sabina, canonically transferred to the Order in 1222. You may know that it is the stational church for Ash Wednesday as the papal liturgy for the day begins there and a procession moves on to Sant’Anselmo (the seat of the Benedictine Order) for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
The house of studies begun at Santa Sabina “morphed” into a larger project at the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and, by the sixteenth century, into the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, familiarly known as the Angelicum. It is a stronghold of Catholic orthodoxy; since the friars were known to be more compassionate than demanding, for a time it was jokingly referred to as “the Easy A.” Two of its leaders today are Americans: the rector magnificus is Father Thomas Joseph White of the St. Joseph Province (encompassing the northeast); the dean of the theology faculty is Sister Catherine Joseph of the wonderful Nashville Dominicans.
Dominic moved on to Bologna; we are told that, in his typical penitential fashion, he always walked barefoot and, regardless of the weather conditions, he only praised God. He died in Bologna in 1221, at the age of 51 – worn out by his endeavors. (I had the privilege of celebrating Holy Mass over his tomb many years ago.) He was canonized by Gregory IX a mere thirteen years later.
The name of “Dominican” often elicits mention of the Roman Inquisition. Dominic was never personally involved in that institution, which was only established a decade after his death. To be sure, not a few Dominicans played significant roles in the Inquisition, which has been unfairly portrayed as part of the “Black Legend.” It should be known that many elements of contemporary jurisprudence we take for granted were the fundamental principles of the Inquisition: the right to a defense, with an attorney provided for the indigent; the right to present witnesses on one’s behalf; the right to review and correct the transcript of the trial. Amazingly, the accused was asked for a list of his enemies, who were then excluded from offering testimony! Contrary to popular mythology, very few Inquisition convicts were executed. The Spanish Inquisition, unhinged from ecclesiastical control, was another story.
Of course, we would be grossly remiss were we to pass over the Holy Rosary in discussing St. Dominic and his work. Sometimes it is mistakenly said that Dominic “invented” the Rosary; that devotion pre-existed him. The correct story is that Our Lady gave him the Rosary as the spiritual power for his apostolic work. The Order not only wears a rosary with their habit, but has been the consistent promoter of that staple of Catholic spirituality for centuries. It was a Dominican Pope (there have been four of them), St. Pius V, who asked Christendom to pray the Rosary to avert the Muslim take-over of Europe. That union of prayer resulted in the lopsided Christian victory over the Ottoman hordes at the Battle of Lepanto, liturgically celebrated as the feast of Our Lady of Victory or Our Lady of the Rosary on October 7 each year.
The Dominicans of the St. Joseph Province have a large footprint in New York City as their provincial headquarters are here, next to the magnificent Church of St. Vincent Ferrer, which they staff, along with St. Catherine of Siena near St. Vincent’s and St. Joseph in Greenwich Village (which recently announced the opening of a perpetual adoration chapel). They also are responsible for the Catholic chaplaincy at NYU. This province has been enormously successful, ordaining record numbers of priests for over a decade now; their House of Studies in Washington is home to more student-brothers today than in the 1950s! This province had the potential for a slide into confusion, like many other religious communities in the post-conciliar era. Fortunately, indeed providentially, the bottom-up structure of the Order (by which leaders are elected at every level) enabled young men unaffected by the “spirit of Vatican II” virus to stem that disastrous tide. Conversely, the top-down structure of the Jesuits (where the only elected leader is the Father General) has total control at every level. The Dominicans brag that their Order was never “reformed because never deformed.” That’s a clever boast, but it would be more accurate to say that, like Mother Church, the Order has been “semper reformanda” (always, consistently reformed).
Speaking of the Jesuits, I want to share with you a telling anecdote. A recent young convert to the Faith approached his parish priest with a question: “Father, I am continually learning new things about Catholicism. I just discovered there are two types of priests – diocesan or secular clergy and religious. But what distinguishes one order from another?” His pastor replied: “Well, you have, for example, the Dominicans and the Jesuits. The Dominicans were founded in the twelfth century by a Spaniard to confront the Albigensian heresy. They operate schools, staff parishes, and do missionary work. They wear a white habit. The Jesuits were founded in the sixteenth century by a Spaniard to confront the Protestant heresy. They operate schools, staff parishes, and do missionary work. They wear a black habit.” The young man pressed: “I see, but it seems to me that, aside from the date of their founding and the color of the habit, they sound alike. Might the difference be in their effectiveness?” The priest responded: “When was the last time you met an Albigensian?”
As the Order of Preachers celebrates their eighth centenary this year, we have to submit them to the same test as every other institute of consecrated life, namely, how have they lived out their baptismal promises and their vows of consecrated life? That is, how have they responded to what Vatican II called “the universal call to holiness”? Their track record on producing saints is pretty impressive: more than 100 saints and nearly 300 blesseds. Not bad. Their collective holiness has, in turn, brought about holiness in the lives of countless millions down the centuries, with their Third Order for laity being a primary engine in that regard and Pier Luigi Frassati being one of the most famous tertiaries.
The Church gives us the “cult” of the saints for access to their kindly intercession, but also that we would be inspired by their example – an example not merely to be admired from afar but to be emulated. Which leads to one final point that just occurred to me in preparing this homily. Dominic, like Anthony of Padua and Vincent de Paul and many other saintly priests, all were handed or pursued “cushy” clerical positions, which they eventually eschewed in favor of a more evangelical way of life. Those men understood that the reform of the Church had to begin with self-reform, with the individual, with me. Therein lies the most important lesson for each of us. Reforming ourselves then enables us to call others to holiness of life.
St. Dominic embodied Cardinal Newman’s vision six centuries later: “A few highly-endowed men will rescue the world for centuries to come.”1 Of course, that could have been said of Newman himself. The English Cardinal also suggested another criterion for success in the apostolate: “Rather, shunning all intemperate words, let us show our light before men by our works.”2 Interestingly, the Dominican hymn to their holy founder is called “Lumen Ecclesiae” (Light of the Church). Works more than words.
And wasn’t that the very challenge of St. John Paul II (a graduate of the Angelicum, by the way) for his program of the “new evangelization”: Duc in altum (Put out into the deep)?
St. Dominic, pray for us, that we – like you – may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
1 U.S. 97 (22.1.1832).
2 P.S. I 308 (8.5.1831).
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