The Order of Preachers honors St Dominic de Guzman 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 Divine 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.
The Albigensian Heresy
In 1203 to 1206, Dominic, now a canon of the cathedral at Osma, traveled 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 realized the great ignorance of the Faith that existed. Thus, he saw the need for preachers who could explain and defend the true faith.
Servants for Preaching the Word
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 rigors 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 traveled 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.”
The Order Spreads throughout Europe 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 centers 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.
Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP has said that “all through the history of the Order, our study of the gospel and our preaching have had to face the challenge of new ways of seeing the world, new technologies, new intellectual tools.” Today, there are Dominicans in over 100 countries, over 41 provinces and vicariates and some 6,500 friars, 4,000 nuns, 35,000 active sisters, and over 100,000 lay Dominicans in the Dominican Family.