Today is the feast of Saint Dominic de Guzman. Ora pro nobis.
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
St. Dominic, the glorious patriarch and founder of the famous Order of the Friars Preachers, was born in Spain of illustrious and pious parents. His mother, before his birth, had a vision in her sleep, in which it seemed to her that she was bearing a little dog, which carried in its mouth a burning torch that illuminated the whole world. At the time of his baptism, a noble matron saw a bright star on the brow of Dominic. By this God probably intended to foreshadow the future labors of St. Dominic and their effect; how, by his sermons, he would drive away the heretics–those veritable wolves in the Christian fold– and how while he illumined the whole world with his teaching and virtues, he would at the same time inflame it with love of God.
Dominic evinced, in his earliest youth, a love of virtue quite unusual for his age. He would rise in the middle of the night to pray; he was extremely moderate in eating and drinking, and modest in all his ways. He detested all worldly amusements, avoided all questionable society, was compassionate towards the poor, and sought all his pleasure in prayer, in visiting the churches and in study. He acquired knowledge suitable for his station in life, was sent to the most renowned Universities, where he never departed, in the least, from his pious course. He preserved his innocence and purity unspotted till his death, and the means which he employed to do this were, avoidance of idleness, and of intercourse with the other sex; temperance in eating and drinking.
After having finished his studies with great honor, James Azebedo, bishop of Osma, received him into the number of the regular canons. When thirty years of age, he began to preach, and continued for two years, with great success. After this he accompanied the bishop to France, which was, at that period, greatly disturbed by the heresy of the Albigenses. When they arrived at their destination they took lodgings in a house where the people were tainted with the heresy; but Dominic soon convinced them of their error and they returned to the true faith. They were the first of the heretics converted, and Dominic consecrated the first fruits of his labors, in profound gratitude, to the Almighty, feeling within himself a daily increasing desire to devote himself entirely to the extermination of this new heresy. Obeying the admonition of the Divine Voice that spoke to his heart, he asked of the Pope the necessary permission and prepared himself with a few other zealous priests, by prayers, fasts and other penances, for so great a work.
After this, taking a staff in his hand, in imitation of the holy Apostles, he wandered barefooted through all the cities and villages where the Albigenses had sown the seed of their heresy, preached with great zeal the truths of the Catholic faith and refuted the errors of the heresy, without allowing himself to be in the least disturbed by the ravings of the enemies of the church. Authentic historians say that he converted more than 100,000 heretics to the truth faith. The gift of miracles which God bestowed upon His unwearied apostle to confirm his words, added much to his influence. The Albigenses had written a book filled with heretical doctrines, which they gave the Catholics to read. St. Dominic refuted this by another book, and to convince the people that his was the true one, he threw both into the fire, in the presence of a crowd of heretics and faithful. The heretical book was instantly seized by the flames and consumed, while the book written by the Saint remained intact, raised itself up, fluttered a little while in the air, and then lighted upon a beam to the utter amazement of the spectators. This miracle was repeated a second and a third time, and not only strengthened the faith of the Catholics, but confounded the heretics. At another time, when the celebrated Count Montfort, with a small force of Catholics numbering 1800 men, attacked a large army of Albigenses, St. Dominic by floods of tears, obtained from God so signal a victory for the Catholics, that 20,000 of the enemy remained upon the field of battle, others were driven into the river and drowned and the rest were routed.
It is also related that this holy man relieved many who were possessed, cured many who were sick, and raised the dead to life. These and similar miracles could not fail to obtain for the Saint the veneration of men, and they were the means of converting many heretics. To preserve these in the true faith and to bring others to the knowledge of the truth, he resolved to found an order, the principal aim of which would be to preach the Gospel, to lead sinners to repentance, confirm Catholics in their faith, and convert the heretics. Pope Innocent III. at first refused to give his consent to this plan; but, one night, he dreamed that the walls of the Lateran church appeared to fall, but were supported by St. Dominic, and saved from the impending destruction; he concluded from this that St. Dominic had been elected by God to be the pillar of His church, and no longer withheld his consent to the founding of the new order. Pope Honorius III. who followed Pope Innocent, confirmed the order, to the great comfort of the Saint. It may, in truth, be said that by means of this order, the destruction which menaced the whole world through the heretics and false teachers, was averted.
One night, when St. Dominic prayed in the church of St. Peter, he saw Christ sitting on a throne in the clouds, surrounded by indescribable splendor. He held three spears in his hand to punish the world with three chastisements, famine, war and pestilence, because of the iniquity of the people. Not one of the Saints dared to oppose the anger of God with prayers. At last, the Blessed Virgin herself came to His feet, and humbly asked mercy for those whom He had redeemed with His precious blood. She assured Him that St. Dominic and St. Francis, who was then in Rome, to obtain the approval of his order, and their brethen, would do all in their power to move the sinful world to repentance and reformation. The prayers of His Blessed Mother appeased Christ, and He approved of the intentions of the two holy men. This vision was not only a great comfort to St. Dominic, but an incentive to use all his endeavors to reach the end he had proposed to himself.
For many years he strove, with incomparable zeal, to accomplish his design, when it pleased the Almighty to call him to receive the reward of his unwearied labors. He received the announcement of his death from Our Lord Himself, Who appeared to him during his prayers and said: “Come, come to enjoy true happiness.” After this, he fell ill, and having made his confession, he so fervently and devoutly received the Blessed Sacrament, that he drew tears from the eyes of all who were near him. Before his end, he exhorted his disciples to obedience, poverty, chastity, and brotherly love. He further commanded them to work zealously for the salvation of souls, to trust unwaveringly in God, to love their heavenly Father above all things, to avoid idle discourses, to speak only with or of God. At last he requested them to read aloud for him the usual prayers for the departing soul. When they came to the words: “Come to his assistance, ye Saints of God, come forth to meet him, ye Angels of the Lord, receiving his soul, offer it to the Most High,” he calmly closed his eyes and gave up his soul, filled with so many merits, into the hand of God, in the year 1221, the 50th of his age.
He left to posterity, not only the holy Order which he founded, but the most noble example of virtue. His heart was filled with the love of God; hence he endeavored most assiduously to prevent others from offending the Divine Majesty and to move sinners to repentance. Frequently he passed the whole night in prayer and in chastising his body, offering it to God for the conversion of sinners, saying that he would willingly give every drop of his blood, if by it he were able to prevent a single sin, or to convert a sinner. It was his wish to suffer and to give his life for the love of Christ. Humility made him three times refuse a bishopric. He desired nothing but to work for the salvation of souls, to suffer and be despised. Towards himself he was extremely severe; he constantly wore a rough hair-shirt, fastened around the loins with an iron chain, drawn so tightly, that it cut into the flesh. The steps of the altar or the bare boards were his bed. He scourged himself three times each night, first for his own sins; secondly for the sins of other men; and thirdly, for the souls in purgatory. His life was, besides, a continual fast. He never tasted meat. To live on alms and to aid the poor was all he desired. While he was still a student, he sold his books and clothes more than once, and gave the money to the poor. To a widow who asked him for alms to release her son from captivity, he offered himself as ransom, so that her son might return to her.
Many other splendid examples of admirable virtues must be omitted here, for want of space; but the great devotion he always entertained for the Queen of Heaven must be mentioned. This devotion arose from his great love for her. He began nothing without invoking her assistance with filial confidence, and he disseminated veneration for her by the use of the Rosary, which the Almighty deigned to confirm by many miracles. He advised Blanche, the pious Queen of France, who had no issue, to have recourse to the Divine Mother, and to say the rosary devoutly in her honor. Blanche followed his advice and in the course of time, gave birth to Louis, the holy and celebrated Catholic king. To the devout use of the rosary is also ascribed the above-mentioned victory of Montfort over the Albigenses; for, the Catholic soldiers, at the instance of St. Dominic, wore the rosary around their necks, and thus under the protection of the Blessed Virgin, attacked and defeated the enemy. How many miracles the Almighty performed after St. Dominic’s death, at his intercession, is to be found in the books of those authors who have written his life more minutely. (7)
More than a dozen Popes have attested to this tradition, including Pope Leo XIII, who wrote: “The belief that to this form of prayer a special power has been accorded by the Queen of Heaven is justified, because by Her instigation and under Her patronage it was introduced by the holy Father Dominic, and it was spread in a time hostile to everything Catholic, much like our own, and as a powerful means of opposing the enemies of the Faith effectually…
During the famous battles in southern France against the Albigensians, with his rosary in hand he revived the courage of the Catholic armies, led them to victory against overwhelming numbers, and finally subdued the heresy. His nights were spent in prayer; and, though all beheld him as an Angel of purity, before morning broke he would scourge himself to blood. His words rescued countless souls, and three times raised the dead to life. At length, on August 6, 1221, at the age of fifty-one, he gave up his soul to God.
The life of St. Dominic was one of tireless effort in the, service of God. While he journeyed from place to place he prayed and preached almost uninterruptedly. His penances were of such a nature as to cause the brethren, who accidentally discovered them, to fear the effect upon his life. While his charity was boundless he never permitted it to interfere with the stern sense of duty that guided every action of his life. If he abominated heresy and labored untiringly for its extirpation it was because he loved truth and loved the souls of those among whom he laboured.
He never failed to distinguish between sin and the sinner. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, if this athlete of Christ, who had conquered himself before attempting the reformation of others, was more than once chosen to show forth the power of God. The failure of the fire at Fanjeaux to consume the dissertation he had employed against the heretics, and which was thrice thrown into the flames; the raising to life of Napoleone Orsini; the appearance of the annals in the refectory of Saint Sixtus in response to his prayers, are but a few of the supernatural happenings by which God was pleased to attest the eminent holiness of His servant. We are not surprised, therefore, that, after signing the Bull of canonization on 13 July, 1234, Gregory IX declared that he no more doubted the saintliness of Saint Dominic than he did that of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
The hermits of the first centuries, who could not read the psalter, used to recite one Our Father and one Hail Mary in the place of every psalm; and in order to note the number they said, they made use of small stones, or of seeds strung on a cord. St. Dominic was the first who made the custom general of substituting one hundred and fifty Hail Marys for the one hundred and fifty psalms; hence the rosary used to be called the Psalter of Mary. When, about the year 1200, the heresies of the Albigenseans wrought great mischief in the south of France and the north of Italy, St. Dominic was commissioned by the Pope to preach in refutation of their erroneous tenets. His efforts availed little, and he besought the aid of the Mother of God. She appeared to him, and bade him make use of the rosary as a weapon against her enemies. He accordingly introduced it everywhere, and before long it had effected the conversion of more than a hundred thousand heretics. The use of the Rosary soon spread throughout Christendom, and it became a most popular devotion. It is a method of prayer at once simple and sublime; the prayers are so easy that a child can repeat them, and the mysteries are so profound that they supply a subject for meditation to the most learned theologians. It is a prayer of contemplation as well as a prayer of supplication, for it places before the mind the principal truths of the faith. The Rosary is a compendium of the Gospels; a complete and practical manual of instruction wherein the chief points of Christian doctrine are presented under the guise of prayer. By meditation on the events of Our Lord’s life faith and charity are increased; from the example of our divine Redeemer we learn to be humble, gentle, obedient; we are incited to imitate the virtues which the mysteries teach, to strive after what they promise us. Moreover the union of vocal and mental prayer makes the Rosary easy, pleasant, and profitable. As a method of prayer it is unrivaled; the longer and more devoutly it is practiced, the more one appreciates its excellence and becomes convinced of its supernatural origin.1. The Rosary is well pleasing to God, because of its humility, and because it is an imitation of the unceasing song of praise sung by the angels.The Rosary is the prayer of the humble, for in it well-known truths are simply stated and constantly repeated. The proud despise it, but God, Who looks down on the low things (Ps. cxii. 6), approves it. It is an imitation of the angel’s song; we read in Holy Scripture that the angelic choirs cry to one another: ” Holy, holy, holy. Lord God of hosts; all the earth is full of His glory ” (Is. vi.3). And when we recite the Rosary, we praise the Mother of God in a similar manner. It is beyond a doubt that this form of prayer is most acceptable to the Mother of God, for when she appeared at Lourdes she had a rosary in her hand. Pope Pius IX unhesitatingly asserts that it is her gift to men, and she loves no other prayer as well. 2. The Rosary is a most useful devotion, for by it we obtain great graces and sure help in time of trouble; many indulgences are besides attached to it.
The Rosary is a very treasury of graces. Many sinners owe their conversion to it. It possesses marvelous power to banish sin and restore the transgressor to a state of grace. By it the just grow in virtue. All the saints who have lived subsequently to the institution of the Rosary have been assiduous in its use, and this may have contributed largely to their sanctification. Several holy bishops and servants of God are known to have pledged themselves by vow to recite it daily; St. Charles Borromeo, despite the numerous and pressing duties of his position, recited it every day with the seminarists and the members of his household. Blessed Clement Hofbauer was accustomed to say the Rosary while passing through the streets of Vienna, and rarely did he recite it in vain for the conversion of a sinner. It is recorded of several distinguished officers and victorious commanders that they never engaged in battle without first saying the Rosary, and to this they attributed their military successes. The Rosary has been called “the thermometer of Christianity,” for the reason that where it is diligently recited faith is ardent, and good works are manifest; and where it is neglected religion is at a low ebb. In seasons of general calamity, miraculous aid has been granted to Christendom by means of the Rosary; this was especially the case in wars with the Turks, the victory of Lepanto (1571), the deliverance of Vienna (1683), the victory of Belgrade were all owing to the power of the Rosary. It was said that the beads of the chaplet did more execution than the bullets of the soldiers. It was in thanksgiving for these victories that the Holy See instituted the feast of the Holy Rosary on the first Sunday in October. Pope Sixtus IV declared that many dangers which threatened the world are averted, and the wrath of God is appeased by the prayers of the Rosary. Our Holy Father Leo XIII says that, as in St. Dominic’s time the Rosary proved a sure remedy for the evils of the age, so it may now effect much towards the amelioration of the ills that afflict society.
Every one who recites the Rosary must feel its supernatural power; there is no prayer which affords more consolation in affliction, more tranquillity to the troubled breast. It soothes in sorrow, it imparts the peace spoken of in the Gospel. Another proof of its excellence is the hatred and contempt wherewith unbelievers regard it. The devil incites them to decry what is a fruitful source of grace to the Christian, and by which souls are wrested from his grasp. The Rosary has been richly indulgenced by the Holy See, and the recital of it strongly urged upon the faithful. An indulgence of five years and five quarantines may be gained if five consecutive decades be said, on a properly indulgenced rosary. Our Holy Father Leo XIII. has decreed that every day during the month of October, the Rosary, together with the litany of Loretto, be said in church either during the parish Mass, or in the afternoon, with the Blessed Sacrament exposed. For every time of assisting at this devotion seven years and seven quarantines are granted. ‘Pope Pius IX. bequeathed, as a legacy to the faithful, this admonition: “Let the Rosary, this simple, beautiful method of prayer, enriched with many indulgences, be habitually recited of an evening in every household. These are my last words to you; the memorial I leave behind me.” Again he said: “In the whole of the Vatican there is no greater treasure than the Rosary.” (8)
Image: Crop of The Perugia Altarpiece, Side Panel Depicting St. Dominic, artist: Fra Angelico, circa 1437 (5).
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