One of the most influential figures in Christian history in the second millennium, St Dominic invigorated the Church during one of those periodic times when man’s imperfections had led it down the wrong roads and so inspired heresy.
Born in 1170 in Calaruega, Castile, he studied at the University of Palencia and was (it is thought since the details are sketchy) ordained there.
Joining a monastery known for its strict adherence to the rule of St Benedict, in 1203 he accompanied his local bishop to Languedoc, which was then overrun by the Cathar heresy.
Although following the murder of a papal legate, the Cathars were brutally defeated by Simon de Montfort’s Albigensian crusade and Dominic preached against the heresy, there is no suggestion he had any involvement in any of the brutality that took place at the time. (At the famous massacre at Béziers 20,000 people, Cathars and Catholics, were slaughtered by the northerners, whose leader is supposed to have responded to the point that they were about to kill lots of non-heretics by saying: “Kill them all, God will know His own.”)
By all accounts Dominic did not have much success with the heretics, but did set about reforming the Cistercians and founded an institute for women deep in Albigensian territory.
In 1214 De Montfort (father of the English political leader in the Barons’ War) gave him a castle at Casseneuil. Dominic, along with six followers, founded an order devoted to converting the Cathars, and though canonically approved, failed to win approval at the Lateran Council of 1215. It was only a year later that Pope Honorious III allowed him to set up the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans.
From there he travelled all over Spain, France and Italy attracting new members and building houses, and gaining many converts. Part of the attraction was Dominic’s appeal to learning and the mind, and he is today the patron saint of astronomy. But perhaps the one everyday thing he most changed for Catholics was use of the rosary, which he and his order helped to spread.
Influenced by the Benedictine vows of his youth, Dominic lived an austere life, abstaining from meat and observing periods of fasting and silence. He always, according to one chronicler, “selected the worst accommodations and the meanest clothes” and “never allowed himself the luxury of a bed”. He would also walk barefoot, “however sharp the stones or thorns, he trudged on on his way”.
Before Christmas 1218 Dominic arrived at Bologna, where he established a convent and he settled in a nearby church, where he died in 1221, “exhausted with the austerities and labours of his career” .
In the last moments of life he asked his followers to “have charity, to guard their humility and to make their treasure out of poverty”. He was canonised in 1234 and his remains, buried in a simple coffin, were moved to a shrine in 1267.