The 800th anniversary of the death of Saint Dominic de Guzman in Bologna, Italy, was celebrated on August 8, 2021.1 His spiritual sons and daughters will surely tell us about the many blessings that he and his Order of Friars Preachers have offered to the Church and the world throughout the coming year. Those blessings include Dominic’s witness of personal holiness and powerful preaching, as well as eight centuries of brilliant Dominican saints and blesseds, including Saints Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, Vincent Ferrer, and a number of popes, martyrs, and laymen. But Saint Dominic’s legacy includes women as well.
Who was Saint Dominic? Dominic de Guzman was born into a noble and wealthy family in Spain in 1170, and he would probably be quick to point out the effect of a particular woman on his life: his pious mother, Blessed Joan of Aza. Known for her deep faith as well as her beauty, Joan named her youngest son after Saint Dominic of Silos since he was conceived after she had made a pilgrimage to the saint’s shrine, hoping for a fourth child. Joan died when Dominic was only about twenty years old, but those who knew her began referring to her as a saint soon after her death—and her love of God had already inspired Dominic to find the future direction for his life.
Dominic studied theology and philosophy, became a priest, and then became an Augustinian canon. According to a famous story, he was traveling with his bishop in a region of France where most Catholics were followers of what is now called the Albigensian heresy. While staying at the home of a local leader, he realized that his host followed that heresy—until Dominic spent the entire night talking to the man and convincing him of the truth. Dominic founded his religious order for the purpose of “preaching and the salvation of souls”, just as Dominic himself tried to accomplish at dinner that night, and he and his followers have been trying to lead people to Jesus Christ ever since.
The first female followers of Saint Dominic lived in cloistered monasteries and performed (as they still perform) an invaluable service to the order: they prayed. As other contemplative orders have also shown over the centuries, the pure gift of worship of God and intercession for the world is a powerful and beautiful offering to Him. Dominic’s nuns also taught young girls. The many congregations of Dominican sisters who currently serve as teachers show that this charism is alive and well today. But Saint Dominic also helped other women, specifically those who had been drawn into the Albigensian heresy.
In every day and age, heresies never market themselves as heresies. Instead, proponents of false teachings become convinced (or at least appear to be convinced) that their ideas are the true Gospel and that everyone else—including the Church—is mistaken. In Dominic’s day, the heresy of Catharism, sometimes referred to after the Albi region of France where it became most widespread, portrayed itself as the true faith. This religion had some of the trappings of Christianity, but it was based on the dualistic notion that the spiritual world was good, while the material world was evil. Albigensians had their own convents filled with devout men and women who fasted, prayed, and lived ascetic lives, just like Catholic monasteries, but the reasons behind the strict discipline of the Albigensians were completely different. A Catholic nun abstains from luxuries to make more room for God in her heart and to train her body and soul in virtue; an Albigensian nun abstained from food so that her good, spiritual nature would rule over her wicked, physical body. Followers of Albigensianism also created a two-tier system of the “Perfect”, a select group of people who treated their physical bodies as the enemy and boasted about their extreme asceticism, and the ordinary members of the religion, who did not follow such extreme practices, but who were taught to think of euthanasia as a positive good and having children as something necessary but basically evil.
The effects of these gross distortions harmed both men and women, but Albigensian nuns were a particular problem. Once Dominic and his followers had convinced Albigensian nuns of the falsehoods in their beliefs, how were they to live their lives as religious? Dominic founded monasteries for former Albigensian nuns so that they could continue in religious life but be guided by the Church’s teaching about the value of our material world. In this case, the importance of helping former heretics learn to recognize false teachings and change their lives accordingly—something Dominicans are particularly good at—was essential in leading these women to live faithful lives.
Then there are the Dominican saints. Even non-Catholics know about the great Thomas Aquinas, and most Catholics recognize the name of Saint Catherine of Siena. But Catherine of Siena was pious from a young age. How did it help Catherine to be a lay tertiary in the Dominican order?
Besides the obvious advantages of the structure, hierarchy, and support of other people within Dominic’s order, being a Dominican tertiary is probably the reason Catherine is often referred to now as a “papal advisor”. Catherine was a fourteenth century woman from a middle-class family with no formal education or political power. She was not invited to counsel the pope; she simply wrote to him anyway. Her love for Jesus Christ and the Church and her personal tenacity were surely valuable, but she was also eminently reasonable and wise beyond her years, which made it very difficult for popes to ignore her.
Like Catherine of Siena, Saint Catherine dei Ricci (d. 1590) received amazing mystical experiences. Like Catherine of Siena, Saint Rose of Lima (d. 1617) endured abuse from her own family for her piety. Like Catherine of Siena, Blessed Oseanna Andreassi (d. 1505) cared for the poor and was unafraid to delicately correct friends and family members who failed to behave in ways befitting a Catholic. The charism of the Dominican order, with its emphasis on seeking understanding about God as well as personal virtue, helped all of these female Dominican tertiaries become holy despite temptations to pride and their own difficult circumstances.
Contemporary women who have been drawn into the false teachings of our own culture, as well as devout women who want to draw ever closer to Christ, regardless of their state of life, can be thankful for Saint Dominic. And we can ask for his intercession to help us bring the good news of Jesus Christ to our families, friends, and the troubled world today.
1 Saint Dominic died on August 6. However, August 6 is the traditional date for the celebration of the Transfiguration of the Lord, so Dominic’s memorial is currently celebrated on his birthday, August 8.
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