St. Dominic

St. Dominic

 An artist begins with apparently random, even disconnected, strokes. Only when the work is finished do we realized that the artist always had a plan and each stroke contributed to the final product.

If we consider the life of St. Dominic, we recognize that God led him through a variety of experiences. These events of his life sharpened his perception of what God wanted and gave form to the emergence of a new order in the Church, the “Order of Preachers.”

Between November 7, 2015 and January 17, 2017, the Dominican Family, Friars, Nuns, Sisters and Dominican Laity celebrated the eight-hundredth anniversary of the approval of the Order founded by Dominic.

Writing about 1276, Rodríguez de Cerrato marveled at the surprising way that God brought Dominic out from an obscure area of Europe: “It was truly appropriate in these latter times from the remotest parts of the earth, at the sunset of the century, that God would produce a light from the West, which would illumine with its rays the whole world, wrapped in shadows.”

Blessed Jordan of Saxony brought together the earliest biographical material on St. Dominic, in his Libellus. Jordan recounts that Dominic’s mother, Blessed Jane d’Aza, had a prophetic vision or dream: “Before his mother conceived him, she saw in a vision that she would bear in her womb a dog who, with a burning torch in his mouth and leaping from her womb, seemed to set the whole earth on fire.”[1]

Since Jordan completed his work by 1234, no more than thirteen years after Dominic’s death in 1221, it is possible that Jordan was in touch with a family memory and not a later legend. Nonetheless, Dominic’s early years hardly seemed likely to set the world on fire.

Dominic was born around 1174 in the village of Caleruega, part of the province of Castile in Spain. Jordan, and the other early biographers, describe Dominic’s father, Felix, as “honorable” and his mother, Jane, as “compassionate” and “merciful.” Surely, their influence left their mark on Dominic in the ways of love for God and compassion for others.

Some years before, this area of Spain had been won back by the local people, after centuries of occupation by the North African Moors. Dominic’s steel-like tenacity must have been forged by these people who held on to their faith through years of occupation.

While Castile was not the centre of Europe, events happening in Europe affected this area and as a result affected Dominic. Towards the end of the twelfth century, some of the traditional cathedral schools were moving towards becoming Europe’s first universities. Dominic’s studies at the cathedral school at Palencia impressed upon him the value of serious scholarship. In time, he later sent young friars to study near the universities, despite the cautious attitude of a number of religious people.

According to Jordan, when a famine affected the area around Palencia, Dominic sold “all his belongings, even his books, which he very much needed in that city.”[2] His fellow students and even the professors imitated his example. This compassion manifested itself throughout Dominic’s life, especially his concern for the salvation of others.

In Medieval Europe, the clergy attached to the cathedral were called “canons.” The canons devoted themselves to the public liturgical services of the cathedral, such as the solemn celebration of the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours.[3]

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the popes, in their concern to renew the clergy, urged bishops to form the canons into disciplined communities, following the Rule of St. Augustine with its emphasis on the common life. Canons who followed a rule were called “canons regular.”

Martín Bazán, the bishop of Osma, the diocese in which Caleruega was located, initiated this discipline at his cathedral. Jordan informs us that Martin invited Dominic to be one of his canons: “Reports about Dominic reached the bishop of Osma, who, after carefully verifying all that he heard, summoned Dominic and made him a canon regular of his church.”[4]

Jordan tells us that Bishop Diego de Acebo, Martín Bazán’s successor, continued to reinforce the community life among canons:

He used every available means to draw to himself, wherever they could be found, good and virtuous men… Hence it happened that he took pains to urge his canons, by frequent admonitions and salutary exhortations, to agree to observe a canonical religious life under the Rule of St. Augustine.[5]

Records include Dominic among the canons at the cathedral of Osma by 1199. His years as a canon instilled in Dominic in a life-long devotion to the Liturgy of the Hours, as the Dominican historian M – Humbert Vicaire reports:

This was the obligation and privilege of the cleric, and particularly of the canon, because this was the task of the apostles. Dominic always found both strength and joy in the recitation of the canonical office, even at the most disturbed moments of his life, even as he traveled along the highroads; on the last day of his life, worn out by fatigue and with the hand of death upon him, he would still go off to sing Matins in the middle of the night before lying down to rest for ever.[6]

Canons were more active in pastoral care than monks were, although the way of life of canons included monastic practices. Canons were both contemplative and pastoral. Jordan’s description of Dominic during this time of his life emphasizes the contemplative aspect yet Dominic’s prayer was intensely pastoral:

He prayed without ceasing and, making use of the leisure afforded for contemplation, he scarcely ever left the monastery grounds. God gave him the singular gift of weeping for sinners, the wretched and the afflicted, whose sufferings he felt within his compassionate heart, which poured out its hidden feelings in a shower of tears.[7]

As a canon, Dominic wore a white tunic, a surplice and a black cloak with a pointed hood. Just as the clothing of the canons evolved into the habit of the friars, the life of the canons eventually provided Dominic with a framework for the community life of the friars.

In May, 1203, King Alfonso VIII of Castile asked Bishop Diego to negotiate a marriage between his son, Fernando, and a noble woman from the “Marshes,” (possibly northern Germany or Denmark). Dominic accompanied Diego on the journey.

As Diego and Dominic passed through the area of the Midi or Languedoc, around Toulouse in southern France, they were startled at the number of people who were abandoning the Catholic faith and adopting the religion of the Cathars.

In the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the ideas of the Cathars had spread from the East into the West, brought by traders and returning crusaders. The Cathars believed in two principles, the God of good, who was the God of the New Testament, and the God of Old Testament, who was the God of evil.

Every spiritual thing was good. Every material thing was evil. Souls were angels who had fallen into evil, i.e. matter. Those who were “Perfect” lived austerely in order to separate themselves from what was material, which included their own bodies. Because the city of Albi had been especially affected by the movement, the Cathars are often called “Albigenses.”

At the inn where they took shelter in Toulouse, Dominic spent the entire night in discussion with the innkeeper, who, by early morning, asked to be received back into the Church.

After their journey, Diego and Dominic reported to the king and then resumed their lives as before. Nevertheless, the encounter with heresy made a deep impression on both the bishop and his canon.

In 1205, the king asked Diego to accompany the bride back to Spain. Again, Dominic traveled with his bishop. It is unclear why the bride did not return with them. (It is possible that she became a nun in order to avoid leaving her homeland). In hindsight, we can recognize that the journey was God’s way of opening a new stage in the lives of Diego and Dominic.

As they traveled, they continually encountered the Cathars throughout the area of Southern France. Pope Innocent III was deeply concerned about the situation. He asked three Cistercian abbots to act as his legates, urging them to preach throughout the area. Since the Cistercians were known for their austerity, Pope Innocent thought that they could act as an effective challenge to the penitential preachers of the Cathars.

Sometime between April and June, 2006, Diego and Dominic met the abbots who were eager to discuss their experience. The monks had been working for two and a half years with little success.

Diego may have understood from his own attempts to evangelize the Cathars that the abbots were at a disadvantage with the Cathars. The abbots road in carriages. They were protected by soldiers and were accompanied by servants. The “perfects,” on the other hand, walked unprotected to preach their message. The poverty and austerity of the “perfects” made their preaching seem more genuine compared to the legates.

Jordan recounts that Diego called the legates’ attention to the differences:

If you come with less poverty and austerity, you will hardly gain any edification, you will cause much harm, and you will fail utterly of your objective. Match steel with steel, rout out false holiness with the true religion, because the arrogance of these false apostles must be overthrown by genuine humility.[8]

Diego urged the monks to put Jesus’ instructions to His disciples into practice, traveling on foot, two by two, preaching wherever they could, and begging for food. The abbots accepted Diego’s ideas and other abbots and monks joined them. Diego and Dominic began to minister alongside the monks. The work was called “the Preaching” and the seal of the missionaries bore the title, the “Preaching of Jesus Christ.”

This decisive moment opened for Dominic his future as an itinerant preacher of the Gospel. Dominic was assigned to minister in the area near Fanjeaux. This town was set a high hill that served as a crossroads to other cities. Among the noble families in Fanjeaux were devoted Cathars. There was a community of the Perfect in the town.

Down the hill from Fanjeaux was Prouille (Prouilhe). At Prouille, Diego established some women converts in a religious house. Jordan tells us: “In order to give assistance to certain women of the nobility whose parents were led by poverty to give them over to the heretics for training and support, he established a monastery between Fanjeaux and Montréal in a place called Prouille.”[9] The nuns took up residence at the property of the chapel of Notre Dame de Prouille sometime between the end of 1206 and March, 1207.

Although Jordan attributes the foundation of the monastery to Diego, Dominic immediately assumed direction for the nuns. As early as April, 2007, the Archbishop of Narbonne, donated property to “the prioress and the nuns who have recently been converted by the counsel and example of Brother Dominic of Osma and his companions…”[10]

In September, 1207, when Diego returned to his diocese to obtain funds for the monastery and to recruit priests to help in the preaching, he entrusted the spiritual care of the nuns to Dominic and their temporal care to William Claret.

Typically, the male branch of orders has been established first and then the branch for women has followed. This was the pattern for the Benedictines, Franciscans, Carmelites, and Augustinians, among others. Dominic’s first foundation was for religious women. At first, the women may have followed the Cistercian rule as many monasteries of women did at the time. As the Dominican friars developed, the women soon adopted their practices.

According to Jordan, Dominic took special care for the nuns: “Brother Dominic had the church at Fanjeaux and other places from which he could derive enough to sustain himself and his followers. Whatever they could afford from these revenues they gave to the sisters of the monastery at Prouille.”[11]

Most of the Cistercian monks returned to their monasteries by September or October, 1207. The mission of the Cistercians was necessarily temporary since their vocation was monastic. Diego did not return to Languedoc, as he died in Osma on December 30, 1207.

Jordan tells us: “Only Dominic remained and continued preaching, and, although some of the others remained with him for a while, they were not yet bound to him by any ties of obedience. Among them was William Claret and another Brother Dominic from Spain.”[12]

Going out as an itinerant preacher in Languedoc, Dominic carried a staff. In the fold of his tunic, he kept the Gospel of St. Matthew and the Letters of St. Paul. Dominic had one tunic and a cloak. He carried no money.

Jordan writes: “In this way about ten years passed from the death of the bishop of Osma up to the Lateran Council, and all this time Brother Dominic remained there more or less alone.”[13]

By 1214, a small group had gathered around Dominic at Fanjeaux and continued the preaching mission to the Cathars. On the request of the cardinal legate, in January, 1215, Dominic transferred his residence to Toulouse, leaving three brothers to assist the nuns at Prouille.

In April, 1215, Dominic took a decisive step towards forming a religious community. At Toulouse, Peter Seila and Thomas professed vows to Dominic. Pierre Seila gave Dominic three stone houses he had inherited, which were built against the city wall.

In the middle of 1215, John of Navarre made profession into the hands of Dominic. Vicaire explains that making vows into the hands of another was a form of feudal homage that the monks at Cluny had adopted for its profession.[14] The members of the new community wore the white tunic and black cloak that Dominic had worn as a canon.

In June or July, 1215, the bishop of Toulouse, Bishop Foulques, incorporated the community into his diocese by means of a charter:

We… in order to root out the corruption of heresy, to drive out vice, to teach the creed and inculcate in men sound morals, institute as preachers in our diocese Brother Dominic and his companions, whose regular purpose is to comport themselves as religious, traveling on foot, and to preach the Gospel word of truth in evangelical poverty.[15]

Foulques’ charter, appointing Dominic and his brothers as official preachers in the diocese of Toulouse, is most significant. Lay preachers, including even the early Franciscans, were commissioned to preach “penance,” a change of life. Dominic’s brothers, as clerics, were commissioned to “root out the corruption of heresy” and to “teach the creed.”

The friars continued to use the seal of the original Preaching mission and Dominic began to call himself predicationis minister humilis, “humble minister of preaching.”

During the summer of 1215, Dominic with six companions attended the theology lectures of the Englishman, Alexander Stavensby, whom Foulques had brought to Toulouse as a teacher. Dominic wanted his followers to base their preaching on a solid theological base. For the friars, study replaced the manual labor of the monks.

In September, 1215, Dominic accompanied Bishop Foulques to Rome for the Fourth Lateran Council. Foulques’ presence at the council was important because concerns regarding the Cathars were to be discussed.

Early in October, the Pope received Foulques along with Dominic. Dominic asked for the pope’s confirmation of his preaching community. A bishop had the authority to approve an order that would belong to his diocese but Dominic desired a more secure affirmation from the pope himself that would allow the order to minister beyond Toulouse.

According to Jordan, Dominic proposed himself and his companions to Innocent as “an order which would be called and which would be in fact an order of preachers.”[16]

The situation was complicated because Innocent was well aware that the upcoming council was likely to prohibit the creation of new orders. Innocent may have wanted a stable base for this community, which didn’t fit the traditional categories of religious, being neither hermits nor monks. It is likely that he considered them a community of canons but they were not exactly canons either. Even though the friars had a home in Toulouse, they didn’t have a church.

Pope Innocent advised Dominic to speak with his brothers in order to choose an existing rule and to obtain a church which would be their stable base. Jordan reports: “Accordingly, after the council, Dominic returned to Toulouse and calling the brethren together, he notified them of the Lord Pope’s wishes. Now, the future preachers chose the Rule of St. Augustine… and added to it some stricter details about food and fasts, as well as about bedding and clothing.”[17]

Bishop Foulques gave the community the Church of St. Romain, in June, 1216. A cloister was constructed around it with cells which Jordan tells us were “for study and sleep.”[18]

Innocent III died on July 16, 1216. The following October, Dominic set out for Rome to report to the new Pope, Honorius III, the choice of the friars for the Rule of St. Augustine. Unlike others who followed that Rule, such as the canons, Dominic envisioned a mission of itinerant preaching.

Honorius III confirmed the community in a bull Religiosam vitam, which he signed along with eighteen cardinals, on December 22, 1216. Perhaps, at first, the pope assumed that this community would remain a small group of canons within the diocese of Toulouse. He quickly realized the potential of this foundation.

In this first bull, Pope Honorius acknowledged that the brothers were “preaching” praedicantes. However, Dominic wanted the brothers to be designated, not only as those who preached, but to be identified as “preachers” praedicatores.

On January 21, 1217, the Pope Honorius gave Dominic another bull, Gratiarum omnium largitori, which described the members of the community as Friars (Brothers) Preachers, at St. Romain, in the region of Toulouse. The pope affirmed:

Thus, like Christ’s unconquered athletes, armed with the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation, you do not fear those who can kill the body, but valiantly trust the word of God, which is keener than any two-edged sword against the foes of the faith… We call upon your charity and earnestly exhort you with the command… that, ever more strengthened in the Lord, you strive to spread the Word of God by being insistent in season and out of season and fulfilling the work of the evangelist in a praiseworthy manner. Now if you undergo tribulations for this cause, you must not only tolerate them with equanimity, but even glory in them, rejoicing with the Apostle that you are deemed worthy to endure outrages for the name of Jesus.[19]

Papal bulls at the time often followed certain formulas and made use of similar expressions. The unique elements in the texts disclose essential points. Vladimir Koudelka, O.P., comments: “With this bull Honorius confirmed for Dominic and his brethren that preaching was the very reason for their existence. This is the first time that the preaching of the word of God is designated as the objective of a religious order.”[20]

  1. Michèle Mulchahey, likewise, asserts: “… it represents the first time that the commissioning of preachers had been removed from episcopal hands and embodied in an order through papal authority. Dominic and his friars were no longer preachers at the pleasure of a local bishop, they were preachers, answerable to the pope.”[21]

Dominic returned to Toulouse by March. At Pentecost, Dominic explained to the brothers his decision to send them out to other areas. Jordan describes this incident:

After invoking the Holy Spirit [Dominic] assembled the brethren and announced that, in spite of their small number, his heart’s desire was to send them throughout the whole world and that they would no longer live together in their present abode. Although they were all surprised at the announcement of this unexpected plan, yet, because his evident authority of holiness animated them, they easily agreed to it in the hope that it would result in a good purpose.[22]

Dominic explained that grain that is stored begins to go bad. it needs to be spread. The Archbishop of Narbonne and the Bishop of Toulouse objected to the plan. Dominic assured them: ‘Do not oppose me, since I know very well what I am doing.’[23]

On August 15, 1217, Dominic dispersed the brothers. Dominic sent three Spanish brothers to Spain. Two groups were sent to Paris in order to study. Pierre Seila and Thomas remained in Toulouse while Noel and William Claret stayed at Prouille.

John describes himself as “reluctant” when he was sent with five clerical brothers and a lay brother to Paris. Dominic charged them not to fear because everything would prosper. They were “to study, preach and found a priory.”[24] We should not overlook the importance given to study from the very beginning of the order.

Jordan marvels at Dominic’s confidence: “It was as if he knew exactly what was going to happen, or as if he had been given instructions by the Spirit in some revelation…”[25] Jordan observes that even though the first friars were simple and uneducated, Dominic sent them out, even when others thought he was destroying what he had begun. Jordan remarks, “He backed up everyone he sent out with his prayers, and the power of the Lord was with them to give them increase.[26]

While Pope Honorius had identified the brothers as “Friars Preachers,” Dominic was not completely satisfied because he desired wanted a more universal commission. In a letter of February 11, 1218, recommending the order to bishops, Pope Honorius III designates the brothers as the “Brothers of the Order of Preachers.”[27]

Although the Fourth Lateran Council suggested that bishops might employ preachers in their dioceses, the pope’s bull indicates that the friars are an order of “preachers.” In other words, their ministry of preaching is not one entrusted to them by a bishop but rather preaching is the role of the friars in the church.

Jordan impresses upon us the fact that Dominic was always “a man of the Gospel,” always seeking opportunities to evangelize:

No matter where he happened to be, whether on a journey with his companions or in the house of a stranger, or even in the presence of princes, prelates, or other dignitaries, his conversation was always edifying and abounded in allusions which would draw his hearers toward love for Christ and away from love of the world. At all times his words and his works proclaimed a man of the Gospel.[28]

Jordan marvels at his zeal: “For his part, Brother Dominic, with all his energy and with passionate zeal, set himself to win all the souls he could for Christ. His heart was full of an extraordinary, almost incredible, yearning for the salvation of everyone.”[29]

Dominic went to Spain and stayed there a little under a year, helping to strengthen the two houses, one in Madrid and one in Segovia. He also organized a community of nuns in Madrid. When he reached the priory in Paris in May 1219, he was met with a community of thirty friars, most of whom were students.

Jordan tells us that Dominic moved on from Paris to Bologna in late August, 1219: “After a brief stay in Paris, he set out for Bologna. Here, at St. Nicholas, he found a large group of brethren being nourished in the discipline of Christ under the diligent care of Brother Reginald. They all received him with joy and treated him with the respect accorded to a father.”[30]

Dominic continued to take the opportunity to preach wherever possible. Simon Tugwell comments: “To the end of his life, St. Dominic remained an indefatigable preacher, spending long hours on the road, talking to anyone who was prepared to listen to him, whether or not he knew their languages. St. Dominic the preacher was never sacrificed to St. Dominic the founder and organizer.”[31]

In the recollections of the friars, Dominic’s habit of praying during the night were frequently recalled.  Jordan offers us such as description of Dominic’s nightly vigils:

It was his very frequent habit to spend the whole night in church, so that he hardly ever seemed to have any bed of his own to sleep in. He used to pray and keep vigil at night to the very limit of what he could force his frail body to endure. When at last weariness overtook him and his spirit succumbed, so that he had to sleep for a while, he rested briefly before the altar or absolutely anywhere, sometimes even leaning his head against a stone like the patriarch Jacob (Gen 28:11). But then he would soon be awake again, rallying his spirit to resume his fervent prayer. [32]

  1. Humbert Vicaire comments on the witnesses’ observations on Dominic:

However moving certain descriptions of the preaching of St. Dominic by the witnesses at the Bologna proceedings may be, the most penetrating image, the most insistent image that they leave us is that of his prayer. The extent, the depth, and the radiating of this prayer impressed them all the more as they admired his generosity as an apostle, on the one hand, and his efficiency as a founder on the other.[33]

By the end of May, 1221, there were twenty five houses of friars with three or four more being formed, as well as monasteries of nuns at Prouille, Madrid and Rome. Friars were being sent to England, Hungary, Denmark and Bosnia.

At the end of July, 1221, Dominic came to the house in Bologna. The friars assumed that his obvious weariness was due to the heat. Dominic went to the church and stayed there through the night office.

Brother Ventura, the prior, learned that Dominic had a headache. He refused to lie in a bed but lay down on some sacks. Ventura recalls: “And he had the novices called to him and he consoled them with gentle words and with a cheerful face, encouraging them to goodness. He endured this sickness … so patiently that he always seemed to be in good spirits and happy.”[34]

Soon, he could no longer stand and finally allowed himself to be given a bed. Dominic’s response to the weeping of the friars was, “Do not weep. I shall be more useful to you in the place where I am going than I have been here.”[35]

Brother Rudolph, who was with him at his death, said that he had never seen him lying on a pallet before. Dominic told them to get ready and they began to sing the office of commendation of souls. Rudolph believed that he died when they sang the words, “Come to help him, saints of God, run to meet him angels of the Lord, taking his soul and presenting it in the sight of the Most High.”[36]

When Dominic died in the evening of August 6, 1221, he was not yet fifty years old. The cardinal of Ostia, Cardinal Ugolino, celebrated the funeral Mass. Ugolino, a friend to both Dominic and Francis, was elected pope in 1227. As Gregory IX, Ugolino canonized Dominic on July 3, 1234, at the Cathedral in Rieti, with the bull, Fons Sapientiae.

By Dennis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

              [1] Jordan of Saxony, Libellus, in Saint Dominic: Biographical Documents, ed. Francis C. Lehner, O.P. (Washington: Thomist Press, 1964), par. 5, 7.

              [2] Jordan, Libellus, par. 10; 11-12.

              [3] Vicaire, St. Dominic and His Times, trans. Kathleen Pond (Green Bay, Wisc: Alt Publishing Co., 1964),  39.

              [4] Jordan, Libellus, par. 11; 12.

              [5] Jordan, Libellus, par. 4; 7.

              [6] M.-H. Vicaire, St. Dominic and His Times, 43.

              [7] Jordan, Libellus, par. 12; 12.

              [8] Jordan, Libellus, par. 20; 15.

              [9] Jordan, Libellus, par. 31; 29.

[10] Bérenger, “Deed of April 17, 1207,” in Vladimir J. Koudelka, O.P., Dominic, trans. Consuelo Fissler, O.P. and Simon Tugwell, O.P. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1997), 160.

              [11] Jordan, Libellus, par. 37; 38.

              [12] Jordan, Libellus, par. 31; 29.

[13] Jordan, Libellus, 37, in Vladimir J. Koudelka, O.P., Dominic, trans. Consuelo Fissler, O.P. and Simon Tugwell, O.P. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1997), 134.

              [14] Vicaire, St. Dominic and His Times, 177.

              [15] Vicaire, St. Dominic and His Times, 171.

[16] “… confirmari fratri Domenico et sociis euis ordinem, qui predicatorum diceretur et esset” Jordan, Libellus, 40, in M. Michèle Mulchahey, “First the Bow is Bent in Study…”: Dominican Education before 1350 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1998),  4.

              [17] Jordan, Libellus, par. 41-42; 42.

              [18] Jordan, Libellus, par. 44; 42.

              [19] Honorius III, Bull of Approbation, in Saint Dominic: Biographical Documents, 201-202.

[20] Vladimir J. Koudelka, O.P., Dominic, trans. Consuelo Fissler, O.P. and Simon Tugwell, O.P. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1997),  142.

[21] M. Michèle Mulchahey, “First the Bow is Bent in Study…”: Dominican Education before 1350 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1998), 22.

              [22] Jordan, Libellus, par. 47; 45.

              [23] Testimony of Brother John of Navarre, in The Process of Canonization – Bologna, in Saint Dominic: Biographical Documents, no. 26; 115.

              [24] Testimony of Brother John of Navarre, in The Process of Canonization – Bologna, in Saint Dominic: Biographical Documents, no. 26; 115.

[25] Jordan, Libellus, 62, Vladimir J. Koudelka, O.P., Dominic, trans. Consuelo Fissler, O.P. and Simon Tugwell, O.P. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1997), 112-113.

[26] Jordan, Libellus, 62, Vladimir J. Koudelka, O.P., Dominic, trans. Consuelo Fissler, O.P. and Simon Tugwell, O.P. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1997), 112-113.

              [27] Honorius III, Bull of Recommendation, in Saint Dominic: Biographical Documents, 202.

              [28] Jordan, Libellus, par. 34; 32.

[29] Jordan of Saxony, Libellus 33, in Vladimir J. Koudelka, O.P., Dominic, trans. Consuelo Fissler, O.P. and Simon Tugwell, O.P. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1997), 77.

              [30] Jordan, Libellus, par. 60; 54.

              [31] Tugwell, Early Dominicans, 15.

              [32] Jordan, Libellus, 106,  in Vladimir J. Koudelka, O.P., Dominic, trans. Consuelo Fissler, O.P. and Simon Tugwell, O.P. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1997), 60.

              [33] M. Humbert Vicaire, O.P., “On the Place of Contemplative Prayer in the Life of  St. Dominic and His First Friars” in “Notes et Travail”, papers prepared by the Curia Generalitia in preparation for the General Chapter in Rome in 1983, 43.

[34] Testimony of Brother Ventura, Bologna Canonization Process, 7, in Vladimir J. Koudelka, O.P., Dominic, trans. Consuelo Fissler, O.P. and Simon Tugwell, O.P. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1997), 68.

[35] Testimony of Brother Rudolph of Faenza, Bologna Canonization Process, 33, in Vladimir J. Koudelka, O.P., Dominic, trans. Consuelo Fissler, O.P. and Simon Tugwell, O.P. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1997), 80.

[36] Testimony of Brother Rudolph of Faenza, Bologna Canonization Process, 33, in Vladimir J. Koudelka, O.P., Dominic, trans. Consuelo Fissler, O.P. and Simon Tugwell, O.P. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1997), 80.


St. Catherine of Siena

St. Catherine of Siena

 On October 4, 1970, Pope Paul VI, the Pope who presided over most of the Second Vatican Council and assiduously implemented its directives, declared Catherine to be a Doctor of the Church along with St. Teresa of Avila. It would seem that Pope Paul believed that these women had a message for the Church in its period of renewal.


Catherine’s Life, (1347-1380)


Because St. Catherine’s ideas are so related to her experiences, the events of her life help to illuminate her teachings. She was born on March 25, 1347, the twenty-fourth child of Mona Lapa and Giacomo di Benincasa, in the city of Siena, part of the Tuscan area of Italy. Giacomo was a dyer of linen and woolen cloth. The family’s large home was located a short distance down the hill from the Dominican Church of San Domenico.


Even as a child, Catherine was intensely conscious of God. She was only six years old when she saw Jesus blessing her from above the tower of San Domenico. Catherine’s growing piety was benignly accepted until, as a young adolescent, her ideas began to conflict with her family’s expectations. Contemporary parents of  teenagers, might, at times, wish their offspring were saints. Mona Lapa’s and Giacomo’s experience proves that sanctity doesn’t necessarily make adolescents any easier to rear. When they found a prospective husband for her, Catherine chopped off her hair, discouraging any immediate wedding plans.


To bend her will, Giacomo ordered Catherine to do the work of a family servant, cleaning and cooking for the large Benincasa household. Over the course of a year, Giacomo watched Catherine’s generosity and willingness to serve the family, and he became convinced that God was doing great things in her soul. He concluded that Jesus was the best son-in-law he could hope for. Giacomo gave Catherine a room that was nine by fifteen feet and was set below the kitchen. There she could live and pray undisturbed.


When, however, Catherine asked her parents’ permission to join the third-order Dominican lay women, they still resisted this idea. These women were known as the Mantellate because of the black mantle that covered their habit of a white tunic and coif. Most of them were widows. The Mantellate continued to live in their family homes, gathered for Mass and prayers at San Domenico and engaged in works of charity, especially the care of the sick. The superiors of the Mantellate also feared that Catherine was too young for such a commitment.


Catherine became sick and it seemed that she might die. When her grief-stricken mother promised to do anything to help her recover, Catherine sent her off to plead her case with the superior of the Mantellate. Once Mona Lapa had successfully argued her daughter’s acceptance into the Mantellate, Catherine recovered and was admitted into the Dominican Order when she was sixteen or seventeen.


After becoming a Dominican, Catherine spent  three years secluded in her small room, spending her days and nights in continuous prayer and penance, leaving only to go to Mass. Mona Lapa would often visit and cry and at times even claw her own face as she pleaded with Catherine to mitigate her penitential practices. It is worth noting that although Catherine performed extraordinary penances herself, in her writings she cautioned that penance was only an instrument. She taught that God preferred conformity with His will and love because love is infinite and all other human actions, even penitential ones, are finite.


Catherine’s small room became a battlefield where she was taunted by temptations, especially lewd apparitions of demons. Repeatedly she threw herself upon the merciful help of God, affirming, “I trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.” In one of her letters, Catherine recalled that Jesus appeared to her after these trials. She asked Him where He had been in her temptations. He told her that He had been with her and the sign of His presence was that her will resisted the temptations. Catherine came to understand that these temptations were actually God’s way of making her draw closer to Him. She tried to teach this to others, as she did in her letter to a monk in prison: “Think that the goodness of God permits the devils to molest our souls in order to make it humble and to recognize His goodness, and to run back to Him into His sweet wounds, as a little child runs back to the mother.”[1]


Catherine became convinced that following Christ had to involve temptations and struggles: “You, my soul, as a member, ought not to pass by another way than your head. It is not right that under the thorned head there are delicate members.”[2] It was, she came to see, in their struggles, that people grew in virtue: “With what does purity prove itself and with what is it acquired? With the contrary, that is with the annoyance of impurity ….Through the contrary of the virtue, the virtue is acquired….in many storms and temptations.”[3]


After three years of living a solitary life, Catherine had a mystical experience of espousal with Christ, on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, 1368. Christ then instructed her that He wanted her to fly to heaven not only with one wing, the love of God, but also with the other wing, the love of neighbor. Catherine’s biography, written by one of her disciples, the Dominican, Raimondo of Capua, recalls charming stories of Catherine’s works of mercy: her care for the victims of the plague which took the lives of one third of the city, her insistence on providing good wine for the poor, her giving her own tunic to a beggar, her delivering food and wine to a starving family even though she was so sick that she crawled home, her family members locking their possessions away to protect them from her generosity, her attending those sick with cancer, her willingness to nurse a woman who was slandering Catherine’s moral character, and her holding the head of a man as he was executed to keep him constant in his hope.


While serving her neighbors, Catherine continued her intense prayer life. She was so intensely focused on Christ that when she received communion, she became oblivious to everything around her for as long as three hours. At times, the Dominicans at San Domenico, wanting to lock the church and being unable to bring her to consciousness, physically carried her out to the street, without her realizing.


In 1374, the Master of the Dominican Order assigned Raimondo da Capua to be her spiritual director. Catherine had gained a reputation as a peacemaker. She was asked by the leaders of the city of Florence to speak for them with the pope who was living at Avignon, the papal residence in Southern France. While at Avignon, Catherine successfully encouraged Gregory XI to fulfill his wavering resolve to return the papacy to Rome. In December of 1377, after his return to Rome, the Pope sent Catherine to Florence on a mission of reconciliation. On one occasion during her stay in Florence she was attacked by a mob and almost stabbed.


The extent to which Catherine was able to read and write is not known. According to Raimondo, after her unsuccessful attempts to study Latin in order to pray the Office, Catherine received the gift of reading through prayer. This probably happened in 1366, when she was nineteen. Raimondo informs us: “Before she rose from prayer, she was so divinely instructed, that after she rose from the prayer, she knew how to read every word as quickly and easily as someone most skilled. When I witnessed this myself, I was amazed, principally for this reason: I found that when she was reading most quickly, if she were told to read in syllables, she did not know what to say. Indeed, she scarcely recognized the letters.”[4]


Between October, 1377, and November, 1378, Catherine dictated her book, The Dialogue, which is written in the form of a dialogue between God and her soul. In Letter 272, written on October 4, 1377, while she was staying in Val d’Orcia, Catherine describes to Raimondo a particularly vivid vision of Christ as the bridge to God. This letter contains in itself the nucleus of her book, The Dialogue, being similarly constructed around her four petitions with God’s answers.


The fact that the schism is not referred to indicates that the book was finished before she went to Rome. Guiliana Cavallini, who prepared the critical text of Il Dialogo, observes that the book was probably composed over a period of time, with periodic additions without losing the unity of the document.[5]


Catherine’s most extensive writings are her letters. Benedict Hackett, O.S.A., comments: “No woman mystic in medieval times – and there was no shortage of outstanding ones in Germany, the Low Countries, England and Italy itself – equaled her, or can be even compared with her as a correspondent. Certainly, as far as the fourteenth century goes, she ranks second only to Petrarch, an outstanding achievement in itself when one remembers that she had no formal education, and definitely no training in grammar.”[6]


Catherine’s earliest secretaries were her female friends. Later, on occasion, her priest disciples served as her secretaries. Generally, however, her young male disciples did this work. Francesco Malavolti recalls Catherine dictating three different letters simultaneously to Neri di Landoccio, Stefano Maconi and himself: “Indeed, I saw the  servant of Christ, Catherine, by the power of the Holy Spirit, dictate many letters at the same time to many scribes and particularly to three together, not only once but innumerable times through many years…She would dictate now in one way, then in another, now with her head covered, now with her head raised high to heaven, her hands crisscrossed, many times she came into ecstasy, while still dictating.”[7] On one occasion, the three secretaries realized that they had each taken down the same passage as though it were for them. Catherine completed her dictation and when the letters were read back, the section seemed to fit into each letter.


Of the letters she wrote within the last ten years of her life (1370-1380), approximately three hundred eighty-two are extant.[8] These were sent to a variety of people including, among others: two popes, cardinals, bishops, a king, queens, rulers of the Italian states, clergy, nuns, friars, monks, mantellate, her mother and brothers, a married couple, widows, a Jewish man, an artist, a prostitute, and a notorious leader of mercenary soldiers. Suzanne Noffke notes that sixty-seven of Catherine’s letters are to political figures, thirteen to royalty, thirty-eight to civic officials, ten to lawyers and six to military leaders.[9]


Catherine dictated most of her letters although she appears to have written some. Caffarini in the Processus, the collection of interviews for her canonization, recalls Stefano’s account of an instance when Catherine wrote: “Rising from prayer with the desire to write, she wrote with her own hand a letter which the same Stefano sent, in which she concluded, in her own dialect, clearly, ‘You know, my dearest son, that this is the first letter that I ever wrote.'”[10]


The third category of Catherine’s writings is her prayers. Yves Congar, O.P., has called Catherine’s prayers “theology turned into doxology.”[11] Catherine’s disciples were accustomed to hearing her pray vocally. Catherine’s letters and The Dialogue are replete with prayers. In addition to these prayers, twenty-six prayers were recorded by Catherine’s disciples during a period from the vigil of the Assumption in 1376, when Catherine was at Avignon, until January 30, 1380, while she was in Rome. Nineteen of the prayers are from a fourteen month period during her stay in Rome from Dec. 21, 1378, to Jan. 30, 1380. Bartolomeo Dominici, one of her Dominican disciples, described the origins of the written prayers:


Having consumed the host, her mind was lifted up to God, so that she immediately lost the use of her senses…and so daily for nearly three hours and more she remained totally absorbed and insensible…Frequently also, fixed in this ecstasy, while speaking with God, she brought forth profound prayers and devout entreaties in a clear voice… And the prayers for the greater part were put into writing, word for word: some actually by me, and even more by others, when she, as was said, brought them forth in a clear and distinct voice….For in no way did the speech and the sense of the words seem to be of a woman but the doctrine and thoughts of a great doctor.[12]


In April, 1378, Gregory XI was succeeded by Urban VI. The new pope’s harsh attempts at reform alienated a group of the cardinals, who challenged his election some months later. They elected an anti-pope, thus beginning the Western Schism. In November, Pope Urban asked Catherine to come to Rome and to work for peace in the Church. In her letters to Gregory XI and then Urban VI, Catherine writes with great reverence, referring to the pope as “Christ on earth” and even using the affection term “Babbo” or “Daddy.” Yet she is also very direct as to what was wrong in the Church and what the popes needed to do personally. As she continued on in Rome, her health deteriorated. She would drag herself to St. Peter’s to spend her days praying for the Church. After late February of 1380 she was no longer able to walk. Then, on April 29 of that year, she died, surrounded by her disciples.


 The Love of God:


The major theme that runs through all of Catherine’s writings is God’s love for us.  Catherine’s understanding of God’s love is founded on the basic relationship between God and us: the stark truth that existence belongs to God alone. This theological principle is at the heart of Catherine’s spirituality. She frequently repeats this principle, as when, for instance, the Father states in The Dialogue: “Everything is made and created by My goodness, because I am the one who is, and without Me nothing is made, except only sin which is not.”[13]


God is the one who is! It would be difficult to overestimate how important this truth is for Catherine. In his biography of Catherine, Raimondo of Capua, her confessor and disciple, affirms that the primary principle in her understanding was the one given to her by Jesus early in her spiritual life: “You are that one who is not: I am that one who is.”[14]


We are the ones who are not! Our first reaction on hearing that might be that God is telling us that we are insignificant. Yet this simple sentence holds a fundamental truth: God is! Only God exists of Himself! Every one else receives existence as a gift.


Many of us just assume that we exist and that we are entitled to be – but that ignores the obvious. We didn’t give ourselves life. We were given life. Catherine urges her readers to examine the ramifications of that fact. She tells her mother, Monna Lapa, to make an effort to see the generosity of God who has given her life and every gift that follows upon life: “You ought to strive, with true and holy attention, to know that existence is not your own, and to recognize that your being is from God, and the many gifts and graces you have received and receive every day.”[15]


Everything is a gift, everything we have; everything we have had or will have is a gift. There is no reason why we should have anything. This can make us feel very fragile because we don’t have a handle on anything but in another way that can make us feel very blessed. All we need to do is to look around at the people we love in our family. There is no reason why any one of them should be in our lives. We can look around at our homes. There is no reason why we should have any of the things we love. The gifts and graces we receive every day are all given by God.


Our existence is not a haphazard matter of chance; it is a personal and loving gift. Catherine tells us that the reason God created each one of us is that He fell in love with the very idea of us. We read in one of her prayers: “You eternal God, saw and knew me in Yourself, and because You saw me in Your light, then, fallen in love with Your creature, You drew her from Yourself and created her in Your image and likeness.”[16]


God fell in love with the very idea of us! When we are discouraged by life, we wonder what purpose we have on this earth. For Catherine, it is very simple. We are here because God fell in love with the very idea of us. That’s a different way to look at some of the people we work with, or live with, or pass in the streets. They exist because God fell in love with the very idea of them.[17]


As we have seen, Catherine begins with a fundamental philosophical principle, “You alone are who is, and being and every gift beyond being I have from You, which You gave Me and give me for love and not as owed.”[18] Her God is not a distant creator or uncaused First Cause but a God who yearns for those He has created. For Catherine, God is crazy with desire for us; God thirsts for us, God hungers for us.


Love is the only reason why any person exists. She writes: “If we knew ourselves not to exist in ourselves, we would never fall into pride. We have received our existence only from God because we never prayed God that He might create us. He was moved by the fire of His Divine Charity, through the love that He had for His creature, looking upon us within Himself, falling in love with our beauty and with what His hands had made.”[19] God looks into us and sees beauty! Very often that’s not what we see in ourselves. Catherine is overwhelmed by the extravagance of this love, and exclaims: “I confess and I do not deny that You loved me before I was and that You love me unspeakably much, as if crazy for Your creature.”[20]


Catherine reminds us that not only was our life given to us by God’s love but also the fact that we have sprung from our parents’ love for each other: “Realize that the first garment which we had was love, because we were created in the image and likeness of God only through love. And so a person is not able to be without love for he is made only of this love because whatever he has, in soul and in body, he has through love since his father and his mother had given being to their child, that is, of the substance of his flesh, by the grace of God, only through love.”[21]


Catherine sees each person as an image of the Trinity especially in the three powers of the soul, memory, understanding, and will, an idea which has traces in the thought of St. Augustine. Thus, she prays: “You say, eternal Father, that the person who considers himself finds You in himself because he is created in Your image: he has memory to retain You and Your blessings, sharing in this of Your power. He has the understanding to know You and Your will, sharing of the wisdom of Your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and he has the will to love You, sharing the mercy of the Holy Spirit. And so You not only created humanity in Your image and likeness, but also in You in each way You have his image, and so You are in him and he in You”[22]


Since our nature reflects God’s nature, we understand ourselves in God: “In Your nature, eternal Deity, I will know my nature. And what is my nature, inestimable love? It is fire because You are nothing other than a fire of love, and You have given to us from this nature because through a fire of love, You created us. And so You created all the other creatures and every created thing through love.”[23]


Our nature is fire! We were created by love for the purpose of loving. As she tells us in The Dialogue, “The soul is not able to live without love. but always wants to love something since she is made for love because I created her through love.”[24] But we can choose to love God or to love ourselves: “The tree of your soul, is a tree of love because it was created by God through love and so is of love and it is not able to live with other than love, that is with the holy love or with the sensitive selfish love of oneself.”[25]


Catherine is mystified that God would create us, even though God knew the sin of Adam and the suffering that would follow:


In Your light I have known that You have preseen every thing. Then, eternal Father, why did You create this Your creature? I am greatly amazed by this, and truly I see, just as You show me, that for no other reason You made him except that with Your light You saw Yourself constrained by the fire of Your charity to give us being, not stopped by the iniquity that we would commit against You, eternal Father. Then the fire constrained You, O ineffable love. Truly in Your light, You saw all the iniquity which Your creature would commit against Your infinite goodness. You looked as if You didn’t see, but You fixed Your eye on the beauty of Your creature, with whom You have fallen in love as a crazy person and one drunk with love, and with love You drew her from Yourself, giving her being in Your image and likeness. You, eternal Truth, have made clear to me Your truth, that is, that love constrained You to create her. Truly You saw that she would offend You, Your charity did not wish that You might fix Your eye on this sight. Then You lifted Your eyes from this offense which would be, and You fixed it solely on the beauty of Your creature, for if You had set Your primary focus on that offense You might have forgotten the love with which You created us. This sin was not hidden from You, but You fixed Your love on us, because You are nothing other than a fire of love, crazy over what You have made” (Oratio IV).


Catherine not only sees God as a “fire of love” but also as being drunk and crazy with love. Catherine searches for words that will describe the irrational quality of God’s love for us.


Only God really satisfies our nature: “So sensible created things are not able to satisfy humanity because they are less than humanity, but only God is that one who is the Creator and maker of all the created things and that one is able to satisfy [us].”[26]


The realization of this love seems to have increasingly grown in Catherine:


I, Catherine, write to you and comfort you in the precious blood of the Son of God, with the desire to see you burning and inflamed and consumed in His most burning charity, knowing that one who is burned and consumed by this true charity, does not see himself. This is what I wish that you do. I invite you to enter into a peaceful sea, through this most burning charity and deep sea. I have found this now anew – not that the sea is new but it is new to me in the feeling of my soul, in that word, ‘God is love.’ Just as the mirror portrays the face of a man, and the sun his light upon the earth, so this word portrays in my soul that everything is solely love, because it is not done other than for love and therefore He says, ‘I am God, love.’ From this is born a light into the inestimable  mystery of the Word Incarnate, who by the strength of love was given with such humility that it confounds my pride. It teaches us not to look only at his actions, but at the burning love of the Word given to us. This tells us to do as the one who loves, who, when a friend comes with a present, does not look at the hands for the gift which he brought, but he opens the eye of love and gazes at the heart and the affection of his friend. And so He wishes that we do, when the supreme, eternal, more than tender goodness of God visits our soul. Having been visited with immeasurable blessings, immediately open your memory to receive that which the understanding understands in the divine charity. Lift up your will with most burning desire, and receive and gaze upon the consumed heart of the sweet and good Jesus, who is the giver. So you will find yourself inflamed and vested with the fire and the gift of the blood of the Son of God.”[27]


The fact that God has loved us so much already is the proof that God will continue to love us: “He who has loved us before we were and with love created us in His image and likeness, is not able to not love us, and not to provide in our each need, in soul and body.”[28] Everything that God allows to happen to us, happens because of this love:  “[He] Who loved us before we were, because He wished that we share in His supreme and eternal Goodness. And therefore that which He gives us, He gives us for this end.”[29]


God’s tremendous love requires a response from us: “You know that we are all debtors to God because what we have, we have only through grace and through inestimable love. We never asked that He might create us: moved therefore by the fire of love, He created us in His image and likeness, creating us in such dignity that the tongue is not able to say nor the eye to see nor the heart to realize how great the dignity of man is. This is a debt that we have drawn from God, and this debt He wishes should be rendered to Him, that is love for love. The just and fitting thing is that whom he sees to love him, he loves.”[30]


The very purpose of her writings is the salvation of the reader whom she hopes to draw to God by illustrating God’s love: “For the creature loves his Creator as much as he considers himself to be loved by Him. So all the coldness of our heart does not proceed from any other cause save that we do not consider how much we are loved by God.”[31] The appreciation of being loved spurs a progressive movement from imperfect self-centered love to a generous love that imitates God’s love.


This realization of being loved comes about through “continuous prayer,” that includes actual prayer but also denotes a general attitude of openness to God. Self-knowledge is an essential foundation for continuous prayer because through it we realize our dependency on God for existence, as well as our lack of appreciation of God’s goodness.


Since everything that is, except sin, is a gift, the natural response to the giver is love. Catherine instructs us to respond to love with love: “Love, love! See that you were loved before you loved.”[32]


By Dennis Vincent Wiseman, O.P., December 15, 2017


[1] Letter 4, I.


[2] Letter 38, I.


[3] Letter 211, III.


              [4] Raymundus de Vineis da Capua, Vita S. Catharinae Senensis, I, cxiii, 890.


              [5] Giuliana Cavallini, introduction to Catharina da Siena, Il Dialogo della Divina Provvidenza ovvero Libro della Divina Dottrina, ed. Giuliana Cavallini  Siena: edizioni Cantagalli, 1995, xxx.


              [6] Benedict Hackett,  O.S.A., “Catherine of Siena and William of England: A Curious Partnership”, 33.


              [7] Il Processo Castellano, 403.


              [8]  As Suzanne Noffke points out the number of letters differs depending on whether one includes the same letter as it is sent to two different people and whether one considers T371 to be actually a continuation of T373. See  Suzanne Noffke, O.P., The Letters of Catherine of Siena, vol. I, trans. Suzanne Noffke Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000, xiii, n.2.


              [9]  Suzanne Noffke, O.P., Catherine of Siena: Vision, 76.


              [10] Il Processo Castellano, 62.


              [11] Yves Congar, O.P., In Atti del Congresso Internazionale di Studi Cateriniani, Siena-Roma, 24-26 aprile 1980 Roma: Curia Generalizia O.P., 1981, 333.


              [12] Il Processo Castellano, 328-329.


                  [13] Il Dialogo, CXXXIV, 437.


              [14] Raymundus de Vineis da Capua, Vita S. Catharinae Senensis, I, xcii, 885.


              [15] Letter 1, I, 3. Noffke locates this letter between August 20 and October 31, 1377.


              [16] Oratio IV. “Then the soul finds in itself the goodness of God founded with such most burning love because he sees that He loved the soul in Himself before He created it” Letter 32, I.


              [17] Our being is based on God’s gratuity: “Let us see that He is whom is infinitely good, and we are those who are not through ourselves. Because our being and every grace which is given above our being is from Him; we are through ourselves wretched and miserable” Letter 13, I. She also writes: “You know, dearest mother, that we are like a field of the earth, where God through his mercy has thrown his seed, that is the love and the affection with which He created us, drawing us out from Himself, only for love and not for obligation. We never asked Him that He created us, but moved by the fire of His love, He created us that we would enjoy and taste His supreme eternal goodness, and in order that the seed make fruit and nourish the plants, He gave us the water of holy baptism” Letter 138, II. This was written to Giovanna d’Angio, Queen of Naples, in late June 1375.


[18]  Il Dialogo, CXXXIV, 423.


              [19] Letter 223, III, to Iacomo Cardinal Orsini in April 1376, perhaps shortly after Easter, April 13.


              [20]  Il Dialogo, CLXVII, 584.


              [21] Letter IX, VI, 22. Catherine wrote this letter to Bartolomeo della Pace Smeducci da Sanserverino, the Lord of San Severino in the Marches, who was the captain general of the armies of the Italian communes against the foreign mercenaries who were ravaging the cities. This letter is the first of the letters found by Gardner. Noffke locates this letter between November and December, 1375.


              [22] Oratio XVI.


              [23] Oratio XXII.


              [24] The Dialogue, 51.


              [25] Letter 363, V, to Andrea Vanni between November and December, 1379.


              [26] Letter 67, I, to the Convento di Passignano di Valle Ombosa, between January, 1378 and March 1379.


              [27] Letter 146, II, to Frate Bartolomeo Dominici, in Florence, between late June to August 1375.


              [28] Letter 13, I.


              [29] Letter 173, III, to a brother who had departed from the Order, between October 5 and 10, 1377.


              [30] Letter 21, I11.


              [31] Letter 279, IV, 189.


              [32] Letter 28, I, 95.




St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas

 Thomas Aquinas was born in either 1224 or 1225 at the family castle at Roccasecca in what was then the county of Aquino in the general vicinity of Naples in Southern Italy. At that point in history, this area of Southern Italy had fallen under the political control of the Holy Roman Empire. Thomas’ father, Landolfo, was a knight in the service of Emperor Frederick II. His mother was Dame Theodora. He was the youngest of four sons. He had five sisters. When Thomas was five or six he was brought to the Abbey of Monte Cassino, as a child oblate, with the understanding, that he would eventually take vows as a monk. Because of his family’s position, there seems to have been the expectation that Thomas would, in time, become the abbot, as many monasteries chose their abbots from noble families. Having a family member in such a prominent position was also advantageous to the family.

In 1239, because of disruptions within the vicinity of the monastery, caused by a new outbreak in armed hostilities between the Pope and the Emperor, the Abbot suggested to Landolfo that Thomas should continue his education in Naples. He began his studies of the liberal arts and philosophy in the University established there by Frederick II. One of his teachers was Master Peter of Ireland whose writings exhibit knowledge of Aristotle.[1] Knowledge of Aristotle was not common at the time because Aristotle’s works and those of his commentators were only slowly being translated into Latin in the 12th and 13th centuries.

In Naples, Thomas encountered the Dominicans. They had been in Naples since 1231, but because of restrictions against them by the Emperor due to their allegiance to the pope, only two remained in the city. Thomas appears to have taken the Dominican habit in April, 1244, when he was nineteen or twenty. The Constitutions at that time proposed a six month period before making profession but also allowed for the vows to be taken upon entrance. We don’t know how this was applied in Thomas’ case.

Because of concerns about his family’s reaction, the friars sent Thomas away from Naples in the company of the Master of the Order, John the Teuton, who was on his way to a Dominican general chapter at Bologna. Theodora, somehow alerted to the situation, came to Naples to retrieve her son. Not finding Thomas, she sent word to his brothers, who were in the service of the Emperor. Soldiers intercepted the friars early in May. They attempted to remove the habit from Thomas but he resisted. He was brought back to the castle at Roccasecca and kept under virtual house arrest. During the course of the next year, he was able, among other things, to read the entire Bible.

Possibly the pope’s excommunication of Frederick II, caused Aquinas’ family to change their allegiance, and very likely became of Thomas’ resolve to remain a Dominican, the family delivered him to the priory in Naples in the summer of 1245. Thomas seems to have maintained a good relationship with his family throughout his life and would later spend time with his family when he was near Naples, even serving as executor of his brother-in-law’s will.

Thomas studied at the University of Paris between 1245 and 1248 which, at that time, was the theological center of Europe. Thomas appears to have served as an assistant to Albert the Great, a Dominican who held a chair of theology at the University. In 1248, he went with Albert to Cologne where Albert was establishing a studium generale, that is a center of studies for the Dominicans in Germany.

 At that time, there were three levels of lecturers, the biblical bachelor who commented on the Scriptures, then the bachelor of the Sentences who commented on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, and the highest level, the Magister in Sacra Pagina (Master in the Sacred Page). Returning to Paris, Thomas served as a biblical bachelor, whose responsibility was to give “cursory” or briefer lectures on the Scriptures. During this period, he composed commentaries on most of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Lamentations.

 In 1251, John the Teuton, the Master of the Order, asked Albert to suggest a candidate to assume one of the two teaching positions, chairs of theology, which the Dominicans had at the University of Paris. One of these chairs of theology was customarily held by a member of the Province of France and the other by a friar from outside France. At first, the Master was reluctant to accept Albert’s suggestion that he appoint Thomas, probably because of Thomas’ young age. However, when the Master received the same recommendation from Cardinal Hugh of Saint-Cher, a Dominican who had previously held the university chair in Paris, John sent Thomas, in 1252, to take the position as Bachelor of the Sentences.

The Sentences (Sententiarum Libri Quatuor) was a collection of the opinions of the Fathers of the Church on theological questions put together by Peter Lombard (c.1100-1160) between 1155 and 1158. It was the practice for those incipient professors who had completed their service commenting on the Scriptures, to comment on Lombard’s text. This practice continued, in some places, until the sixteenth century. It was during this period in Paris that Thomas composed the bulk of his commentary on the Sentences, the Scriptum super libros Sententiarum.

Thomas had received from Albert a deep respect for Aristotle (384-322 BC), as well as Aristotle’s commentators, the Arab philosophers, Avicenna (980-1037) and Averroës[2] (1126-1198), and the Jewish scholar, Moses Maimonedes[3] (1135-1204). Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., notes that there are approximately 2000 references to Aristotle in Thomas’ commentary on the Sentences, around 1000 to Augustine, around 500 to Pseudo-Dionysius, about 280 to Gregory the Great, and about 240 for John Damascene (d. after 749).[4] Torrell remarks on Thomas’ ability to use diverse sources: “He knew how to take the good where he found it; for the rest, the manner in which he uses his preferred authors does not leave them intact: the inspiration of his own synthesis profoundly transformed these borrowed elements.”[5]

The De Fide Orthodoxa, John Damascene’s (St. John of Damascus) attempt to bring together the major beliefs of the faith, was known to Thomas through a Latin translation done by Richard Burgundio of Pisa around 1150. Torrell reflects on Thomas’ use of John Damascene; “He [John Damascene] is a kind of crossroads for the Fathers of the East. Through him Thomas finds himself reconnected to that whole tradition. And Thomas was probably more attentive to that tradition than were any of the theologians of his time (the Catena Aurea is an eloquent testimony to that).”[6]

Before the introduction of Aristotle into Western Europe, the prevailing philosophical thought inclined towards various Platonic philosophies. Theology relied on faith in what had been transmitted through the Scriptures and the authorities. The contribution of Aristotle was his emphasis on the body-soul unity of the human being, taking seriously the body and the emotions as true elements of human life. Such an approach could have many ramifications because the physical and the emotional aspects had been disregarded by some authors as impediments to true spirituality.

When the University Faculty at Paris attempted to limit the chairs of theology available to the friars,[7] Pope Alexander IV intervened. At the Pope’s instigation, Thomas was invited to give his inaugural lecture in the Spring of 1256. Thomas had not reached the required age of thirty-five, being thirty-one or thirty-two. He experienced great hesitation over proceeding with this step, but later spoke of a dream or vision in which an aged Dominican supplied him with the verse of Scripture on which to comment.

From 1256 to 1259, he served as the Magister in Sacra Pagina (Master in the Sacred Page) at the University in Paris. There were three requirements for the Magister. The first responsibility was legere (to read), that is to comment on the Bible. During his life, Thomas wrote commentaries on slightly more than a half of the New Testament as well as several books of the Old. The second responsibility was disputare, to conduct an active teaching discussion with objections and responses on a given theme. The third duty was praedicare (to preach). The Magister was to give sermons for the University. Twenty of Thomas’ university homilies are extant.

Jean-Pierre Torrell considers that Thomas’ earlier writings are “often invaluable in clarifying his mature work,” although they are little known. Torrell thinks that Thomas explored certain points more fully and more explicitly in his earlier works. Torrell believes that this follows a familiar pattern where writers assume that their readers are familiar with their earlier works.[8]

During the course of this stay in Paris, the troubles that had been brewing between the secular clergy, who had held the posts of masters of theology, and the new arrivals, the Mendicants, came to a head. Before the arrival of the friars, three canons from the Cathedral of Notre Dame held chairs on the faculty and the remaining five chairs were held by secular clergy but by Thomas’ time, the number of chairs had been extended to twelve. Dominic had obtained the services of John of St. Albans, an English secular master, to teach the Dominicans.

In September, 1229, Roland of Cremona became the first Dominican to accept a chair at the University in Paris, during a strike of the secular masters. A second one was obtained in 1230, when John of Saint-Giles, who already held a chair, entered the Order. These chairs were passed down in the Order. The Englishman, Alexander of Hales, who was already a master, entered the Franciscans in 1236, giving the Franciscans a chair as well.

When the Franciscans tried to obtain a chair for St. Bonaventure, the secular clergy strongly opposed the possibility of being outnumbered by the friars and canons. William of Saint-Amour composed a book which insisted that religious should remain in monasteries doing manual labor. During a homily on Palm Sunday, 1259, Thomas was interrupted by an individual attempting to promote Saint-Amour’s book to the congregation. In response to this controversy, Thomas composed his works defending the Mendicant vocation. Eventually, the Pope intervened on the part of the Mendicants.

In June, 1259, the General Chapter, appointed a committee of five friars, including Thomas and Albert, to devise a program of study for the Order, which would include the study of philosophy. Thomas seems to have been located in Italy between 1259 and 1261. During this time, he completed his theological work that he began in his last year in Paris, the Summa Contra Gentiles, which is considered his second most important writing. Torrell emphasizes the importance of this earlier work: “In this first great work of his maturity, Thomas was not driven by the (perhaps excessive) desire to be concise that characterizes the Summa Theologiae. We therefore often find in the earlier Summa fuller explanations that help us to follow the text more easily.”[9]

Between 1261 and 1265, he served as the lector at the priory at Orvieto, in Italy, teaching Dominicans. There he composed his commentary on Job. Pope Urban IV resided at Orvieto between 1261-1264. In 1264, Pope Urban instituted the feast of Corpus Christi for the entire Church. Thomas seems to have composed an Office for the feast, which is no longer used.

He is generally acknowledged to be the author of three Eucharistic hymns, Adoro Te, probably written in Orvieto, as well as Pange Lingua, which is currently used during the Holy Thursday procession, the last two verses are sung at Benediction, Tantum Ergo, and the sequence for this feast, Lauda Sion Salvatorem.

Pope Urban IV asked Thomas to compose the Catena Aurea, a verse by verse commentary on the Gospels, derived from the comments of the Fathers of the Church. In his Catena aurea, Thomas makes references to fifty-seven Eastern writers and only twenty-two Latin ones, demonstrating Thomas’ exposure even to Eastern Fathers.[10]

Thomas began his commentary on Matthew while in Orvieto. Torrell calls attention to Thomas’ habit of seeking the primary sources: “Thomas, along with Albert, his master, from whom he no doubt learned this habit, belonged to that rare category of authors who are not content with florilegia (the anthologies of quotations that were available to the medievals) and frequently have recourse to the sources.”[11] Torrell notes Thomas’ concern to find the intentio auctoris, the intention of the author, in such writings.[12]

In 1265, Thomas was sent by the Roman provincial chapter to Rome to found a studium, which seems to actually be a studium personnale, in other words, one centered on his teaching, possibly at Santa Sabina. During Thomas’ stay in Rome, he wrote extensively. Thomas had apparently been concerned about the lack of understanding of dogmatic theology that he had encountered among the Dominicans, while he served as the lector in Orvieto. While at Rome, he seems to have attempted a revision of his commentary on the Sentences but decided to begin a new comprehensive work of theology, which was his greatest work, the Summa Theologiae. He worked on this during his last seven  years. The Prima Pars was completed before he left Rome in September, 1268.

Thomas taught at the university in Paris between 1268-1272, still writing a number of serious works, some of which concerned disputed issues. While at Paris, he completed the Prima Secundae in 1271 and the Secunda Secundae between 1271 and 1272.

Some of Thomas’ works were in response to requests of others, especially Dominicans. Torrell observes that twenty-six of Thomas ninety writings were written because of requests. Torrell notes: “Despite heavy teaching and writing responsibilities, Thomas never neglected these demands of intellectual charity, and in this lies one of the elements of his sanctity. For anyone seeking the means he adopted, the secret is not to be found in austerities or in special devotions, exterior to his intellectual life, but in the very concrete exercise of his intellect.”[13]

An interesting note on Thomas’ usual (but not perpetual) patience in controversy concerns a dispute with the Franciscan, John Pecham. We are told: “Bartholomew of Capua learned from several Dominicans that John and Thomas confronted each other in a dispute at Paris and that ‘dictus frater Iohannes exasperaret eundem fratrem Thomas verbis ampullosis et tumidis, nunquam tamen ipse frater Thomas restrinxit verbum humilitatis sed semper cum dulcedine et humilitate respondit.'”[14]

While in Paris, Thomas completed his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. He worked on his commentary on the Gospel of John probably between 1270 and 1272. Torrell describes this commentary as “The theological work par excellence by Saint Thomas”[15] and states that it “offers some of the most developed examples of his theological exegesis.”[16]

Among the other writings of Thomas are a number of Quodlibets, lectures that were given by the masters in Advent or in Lent addressing topics raised at will by those attending. Torrell offers us an interesting insight in Thomas’ belief in the seriousness of the vocation of theologians from an Easter Quodlibet of 1269:

There are those whom we can compare to manual laborers who are especially employed in the care of souls, for example, in administering the sacraments and in other similar tasks. But those who are compared to the architects here are the bishops who direct the task of the earlier group and arrange the way in which they ought to accomplish their office; that is why, furthermore we call them ‘bishops,’ which is to say ‘superintendents.’ Similarly, the doctors in theology are also architects, who research and teach how others ought to work toward the salvation of souls. Speaking absolutely, it is better to teach sacra doctrina – and more meritorious, if this is done with a good intention – than to consecrate oneself to a particular care of this or that individual. This is why the apostle says of himself: Christ has sent me not to baptize but to preach (1 Corinthians 1:17), although to baptize is the work most fitting for the salvation of souls. Saint Paul also says: Recommend the faithful who are capable of it to instruct others in their turn (2 Tim. 2:2). Reason itself demonstrates that it is more profitable to instruct in the knowledge of salvation those who can make progress in it, both for themselves and for others, than to instruct the simple who can profit only for themselves. However, in case of imminent necessity, bishops and doctors ought to leave their proper office to dedicate themselves to the salvation of particular souls.[17]


During this stay in Paris, Thomas produced commentaries on Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, and Ethics. Thomas employed, at times, as many as three or four secretaries, making copies of texts he would need and also taking dictation. Torrell reports from the account of Evan Garvit that: “after dictating to him and to two other secretaries that he [Thomas] had, sitting to rest for a bit, he fell asleep and continued dictating even while sleeping.”[18]

Foremost among Thomas’ secretaries was Reginald of Piperno, called his socius continuus, who seems to have assisted him with most of his writing and was with him at his death. Those who have examined Thomas’ original compositions report that his handwriting is difficult to decipher, to which the regular secretaries must have become accustomed. One assistant, William of Moerbeke, a Flemish Dominican, searched out or created translations into Latin of the  Greek Fathers or Aristotle.

The Roman Province requested that Thomas organize a studium generale for their province. Thomas returned to Naples. Thomas left Paris in 1272, when the university went on strike. During this period, Thomas worked on his commentary on the Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Psalms 1-54. Thomas also composed the part of the Tertia Pars that dealt with the Life of Jesus. Torrell offers us the description given by Bartholomew of Capua of Thomas’ day:

Every day, Friar Thomas celebrated Mass early in the morning in the chapel of Saint Nicholas. Another priest immediately followed him, who celebrated Mass in turn. After hearing it, [Thomas] took off his [priestly] vestments, and immediately gave his course. That done, he began writing and dictating to several secretaries. After that, he ate, returned to his room where he attended to divine things until rest time. After rest, he began again to write, and it was thus that he ordered his whole life to God.[19]

Thomas frequently was lost in thought, even in public gatherings. To bring him back out of his absorption, his friends would pull strongly on his cape. During Mass on Passion Sunday, 1273, his ecstasy was so prolonged that he had to be brought out of it by those present.

Sometime around December 6, 1273, Thomas had some experience saying Mass. After this event, he told Reginald that he could not continue writing: “Everything I have written seems to me as straw in comparison with what I have seen.”[20]

Thomas was working on the Tertia Pars when he ceased writing after his experience on December 6, 1273, while in Naples. In the fourteenth century, others sought to complete his work by adding a Supplementum, which collected his opinions on the unfinished questions chiefly from his earlier work, the Scriptum super Sententias, the commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences.

As his body became weaker, Thomas was sent to the home of his sister, Theodora, to rest and then returned to the priory. At the end of January or the beginning of February, 1274, Thomas set off with Reginald for the council that Gregory X had called at Lyons. On the way, Thomas walked into a fallen tree and banged his head against a branch. Thomas stopped to rest at the castle of his niece, Francesca. When the doctor asked if there was anything he would like to eat, Thomas asked for herring.

After a few days, Thomas was brought by horse to the Cistercian abbey at Fossanova. After confessing to Reginald, and receiving viaticum, Thomas made a profession of faith in the Eucharist. The early biographers recount these words:

I receive You, price of my soul’s redemption, I receive You, viaticum of my pilgrimage, for love of whom I have studied, watched, labored; I have preached You, I have taught You; never have I ever said anything against You, and if I have done so it is through ignorance and I do not grow stubborn in my error; if I have taught ill of the sacrament or the others, I submit it to the judgment of the Holy Roman Church, in obedience to which I leave now this life.[21]

Having received communion, Thomas died on Wednesday, March 7, 1274. Thomas was first buried at the monastery at Fossanova and the monks refused to allow his body to be moved. In 1369, at the order of Urban V, his body was given to the Dominicans in Toulouse and is presently in the church of the Jacobins. (The Dominicans were called Jacobins in France because their first house in Paris was St. Jacques.)

Thomas’ work was criticized by those who were suspicious of the employment of reason as a tool in theology in the manner which characterized those who favored the Aristotelian philosophy. Such criticisms seemed to have brought an end to Thomas’ influence when, on March 7, 1277, Stephen Tempier, bishop of Paris, issued a condemnation of propositions, which included some held by Thomas. On March 18 of the same year, the Dominican archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Kilwardby, also condemned some of Thomas’ propositions without naming him. Some were disturbed that, at times, Thomas sided with a pagan philosopher, Aristotle, over Augustine or other Fathers. Some criticized Thomas’ appeals to reason rather than resolving all matters by faith.

The Dominicans reacted by defending Thomas. At the 1286 General Chapter, the Order insisted that, while every one did not have to agree with all of Thomas’ teaching, they had to defend it as an acceptable theological opinion. The 1309 General Chapter made Thomas’ teaching official for the Order.

Thomas was canonized at Avignon on July 18, 1323. There is a story, seemingly apocryphal but insightful nevertheless, that when Pope John XXII was asked about Thomas’ miracles, he replied that every answer that Thomas gave was a miracle.[22] The condemnation of his propositions was revoked by the Bishop of Paris on February 14, 1325.

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.,  December 15, 2017.

              [1] Aristotle (384-322 BC) from Stageira in Thrace had studied under Plato in Athens. After Plato’s death, he became the tutor to Alexander the Great. Later he returned to Athens, and inaugurated the Peripatetic school of philosophy.

              [2] Averroës or Mahommed Ibn Roschd was an Arabian philosopher and astronomer born in Cordova in 1126. His commentary on Aristotle’s writings was one of the sources of medieval knowledge of Aristotle before the original works of Aristotle were translated into Latin from Greek.

              [3] Maimonedes (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), a Jewish philosopher, was born in Cordova and worked in Cairo.

                  [4] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 41.

              [5] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 129.

[6] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 83.

[7] The Franciscans and Dominicans were called mendicant because they begged for their support.

[8] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 58.

[9] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 31.

[10] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 127.

              [11] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 140.

              [12] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 238.

              [13] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 49-50.

              [14] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 184, note 20.

              [15] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 200.

[16] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 121.

              [17] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 209-210.

              [18] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 242.

              [19] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 244.

              [20] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 289.

              [21] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 293.

              [22] Simon Tugwell, O.P., Albert and Thomas (New York: Paulist, 1988), 259.