Today we honor St. Dominic, a Castilian born in 1170.
We had Dominican nuns, dressed in white, at the Catholic school the six in our family attended. The original St. Dominic from boyhood had the priesthood as his goal, but as a late teenager, when famine struck Castile, Dominic left school, and one by one he sold his books and gowns to feed the poor.
After a good harvest, Dominic returned to school and reached the priesthood where he was engaged mainly in singing the daily office in the cathedral choir. Then, he was called upon for an odd mission. He was named companion to a diplomat being sent to Denmark to bring back their princess to marry Castile’s prince.
He and his diplomat were turned back on receiving word that the young princess had suddenly died. Then, on their return through southern France they came upon an odd aftermath of the Crusades.
The nobles of the region of Languedoc as a unified band of Crusaders had returned from the Middle East transformed into Cathars. Following Zoroasterism they recognized Ahriman, a second creator responsible for bringing evil into the world. In opposition to Ahriman they rejected fighting, eating meat, and sexual activity beyond what was needed for sustaining their numbers. .
Passing through Languedoc Dominic confronted a scandalous situation. The king of France, desirous of bringing the riches of Languedoc into his kingdom, had received a commission from the pope to carry on a holy crusade against heretical Cathars. Dominic had to witness French soldiers slaughtering a great number of Cathars whose beliefs would not let them fight back. That experience led to Dominic’s accepting an appointment as Grand Inquisitor for Languedoc.
Now, “Inquisition” is the dirtiest word in our language, but with Dominic and his group of priests it became a force for good. Adopting the strategy of “If you can’t beat them, join them,” they presented themselves to the Cathars as kindly celibates who abstained from meat and strong drink.
From that they went on to charming the Cathars with their daily hours of chanting the Psalms and sacred hymns, and little by little they brought the Cathars to share in their belief in the one all-powerful, all loving God who created nothing but goodness.
Through their preaching by both word and example, Dominic’s band came to be known as the Order of Preachers. The name of each Dominican priests and nuns is followed by the letters O.P.,