The History of the Order of Preachers

The Order of Preachers honours St Dominic de Guzman (c.1174 – 1221), who was born in the small Castilian village of Caleruega, as its founder but, as fr Simon Tugwell OP notes, “the Order was not simply his personal brainchild and he was not, and never claimed to be, its sole inspiration or even the primary embodiment of its nature and ideals.” Rather, Dominic was raised up by Providence to bring to birth a new movement within the Church – itinerant mendicant friars – and he accomplished this by engaging with the needs of his time and in collaboration with other people. “It was always with his brethren and with the authorities of the Church that he shaped the nascent Order of Preachers.

In 1203 – 6, Dominic, now a canon of the cathedral at Osma, travelled with his bishop, Diego through the south of France and encountered the Albigensians (or Cathars) who taught that the physical world is evil. As fr Isidore Clarke OP says, this heresy “devalued not only our own humanity, but also Christ’s and the sacramental life of the Church.” After an all-night debate in Toulouse with an Albigensian inn-keeper whom he converted, Dominic was moved by compassion and realised the great ignorance of the Faith that existed. Thus, he saw the need for preachers who could explain and defend the true faith.

So began the friars’ life of itinerant mendicancy, with their base at the newly-founded monastery of nuns at Prouille. After Diego’s death in 1207, Dominic assumed responsibility for this community of nuns and eschewing the violence which was then being waged against the Albigensians, Dominic devoted himself to preaching and the rigours of the apostolic life which he had begun with bishop Diego.

In Languedoc, where Dominic called himself “the humble servant of the preaching”, a small band of co-workers had joined him and in 1215, Bishop Fulk of Toulouse approved the foundation of a new religious order. “Concern for the Faith was the main concern of the new Order”. Later that year, he travelled with Fulk to Rome to meet Pope Innocent III. The pope advised Dominic to adopt an existing Rule as new rules were forbidden by the Fourth Lateran Council. In 1216, Dominic and his brethren adopted the Rule of St Augustine which he had already been keeping as a canon of Osma. fr Vladimir Koudelka OP notes that “they chose the Augustinian Rule, not for what it contains, but for what, by virtue of its universality, it does not contain. This enabled them to specify in the customs which they added to the rule the goal of their order and the new means for attaining their goal, without contradicting the rule.

On 22 December 1216, Pope Honorius III approved the foundation of the St Dominic’s community and took them under papal protection. Finally on 21 January 1217, Pope Honorius III issued a second bull to Dominic which crowned the first and completed the confirmation of the Order. Whereas the earlier bull had confirmed the Order, it had left much unsaid. The new bull conferred on the new Order a ‘revolutionary’ name and office – an order of preachers rather than just an order comprised of people who are preaching. The pope thus addresses Dominic and his sons as “Friars Preachers” and entrusts them with the preaching mission. Dominic had obtained, explicitly and officially, what he had first petitioned from Innocent III: “An Order which would be called and would be an Order of Preachers.”

Having obtained confirmation of his Order from Pope Honorius III, on 15 August 1217 St Dominic placed his trust in God and dispersed the sixteen brethren that then comprised the Friars Preachers to Paris, Spain, Rome and Bologna, and the pope commended the universal mission of the Dominicans to the bishops in 1218.

From the beginning, friars have been drawn to urban centres and, in distinction from the monks, preached the Gospel to city-dwellers. As fr Anthony Ross OP said, “the Black Friars lived in contact with the bustle of life in towns and cities, although some monastic elements of prayer and silence were retained in the domestic life of their communities”, thus combining the Dominican elements of contemplation and apostolic ministry.

However, St Dominic did not just choose cities but university towns, for there his friars could study, engage with new ideas and recruit new friars. fr Simon Tugwell notes: “Dominic’s policy is clear: it was from the great universities of Europe that he wanted his order to radiate.

On 5 August 1221, the day of St Dominic’s death, thirteen friars, despatched by the General Chapter and bound for Oxford, reached the shores of England.

The friars were generally welcomed by the populace wherever they went although they met with stiff resistance from some secular clergy and university theologians. Nevertheless, the friars clearly met the needs of rapidly expanding city life and the intellectual challenge of the new universities, and St Dominic’s strategy of expansion, which was ably continued by his successor, Bl Jordan of Saxony, was immensely successful. Between 1217 and 1222, the Order had established 40 priories in 8 provinces. By the end of the thirteenth century there were 404 priories and almost 15,000 friars including a province in the Holy Land.

Of course, the state of the Order is closely related to the vicissitudes of the Church – a pattern seen in our own province – but Dominicans down the centuries have remained faithful to Dominic’s vision and the example of the early Dominicans. The roll call of Dominicans down the centuries who have strived to continue and develop this mission of preaching and the salvation of souls shows the Catholic breadth and multi-faceted beauty of Dominican life.

The Order in eight centuries has encompassed theologians and philosophers like St Albert and St Thomas Aquinas, Garrigou-Lagrange and Chenu, Congar and Schillebeeckx, mystics like St Catherine of Siena, Tauler and Meister Eckhart, artists like Bl Fra Angelico and Michelangelo, humble saints like St Martin de Porres and St Agnes of Montepulciano, reformers like St Antoninus and Pope St Pius V, and prophetic preachers like St Vincent Ferrer, Savonarola, Bartolomé de las Casas, Francisco de Vitoria, Lacordaire and Gustavo Gutierrez.

In every age, Dominicans have been moved by compassion and tried to respond to the signs of the times, always conscious that every generation needs to hear afresh the message of God’s love and friendship with humanity.