On this nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, as we like to call it, while other Catholics around the world are hearing readings from the Book of Kings, the Letter to the Ephesians, and the Gospel of John – which continues the very long teaching on Jesus as the Bread of Life – Dominican friars, sisters, and laity are celebrating the Feast of St. Dominic. He died on the Feast of the Transfiguration in 1221, so the observance of his feast was moved to a nearby date – sometimes August 4th, and presently August 8th, which happens to fall on a Sunday this year.
Dominic Guzman is a fascinating character, who with St. Francis of Assisi, is considered one of the greatest saints of the Middle Ages. Like St. Francis, he experienced a radical change of life in his early middle age. He was already a priest of the diocese of Ozma in Spain. In 1203, he was accompanying his bishop, Diego, on a mission to Denmark when they encountered a faltering preaching band of monks from the Abbey of Fontfroide, who were attempting to counter the widespread alternative Christianity (today we would call it a heresy) that came to be known as the Cathars (“Pure Ones”) or Albigensians.
Diego assumed the direction of the preachers, insisting on adopting simplicity of life, gospel poverty, and humility – characteristics of the Cathars themselves for the most part, but not the monks. On their return trip, Diego and Dominic paused in the south of France to see how the preaching mission was going. And it was still not going well.
Diego took charge of the mission, urging the Cistercian abbots to send back their baggage trains and costly apparel in order to counter the appeal of the Cathars, most of whom lived poor and simple lives. (They were also supported by wealthy and powerful nobles, including the counts of Toulouse.) Diego himself had to return to his diocese in Spain, but he left Dominic behind to organize and direct the efforts of the preachers.
Bishop Diego intended to return but died suddenly in 1207. The Cistercians withdrew, and Dominic was left on his own in France to continue the mission. He was never very successful in converting any Cathars, but he managed to gather around himself a band of similarly dedicated preachers. For several years, they developed a simple style of life and toured the region engaged in evangelization. The work was difficult enough but made more difficult by the drawn out military campaign waged against the Cathars by troops from the north who joined a crusade called by Pope Innocent III after the assassination of the papal legate in a dispute with the Count of Toulouse. Dominic himself had no part in any military action, which would have filled him with horror.
The war dragged on until 1255, more than thirty years after Dominic’s death. In the meantime, realizing the need for a permanent mission, Dominic and his friends decided to appeal to Rome for permission to begin a new and different kind of order to promote evangelization in southern France and northern Italy. Supported by Bishop Fulque of Toulouse, Dominic journeyed to Rome in 1215, where he was favorably received by Pope Innocent, who was open to church reform on many levels. After a year of consultation with his associates, Dominic returned to Rome and gained approval of a new and radically different order in the Church – an Order of Preachers.
Reliable histories can fill in the rest of the story. What struck me recently about the founding of the Order concerns the Cathars, those “Good Christians” as they called themselves. Like many radical sects, they had a number of quirks, including forced suicide as form of self-martyrdom. What most disturbed the more orthodox Christians of the day was their extreme dualism.
Although living in one of the most beautiful and fertile parts of southern Europe, the Cathars believed that the natural world was inherently evil, having been created by a secondary, evil god. Whether or not this was owing to some influence of residual Manichaeism in eastern Europe that made its way west, that teaching denied fundamental tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition – not only the unity of God, but the goodness of Creation.
Having gazed out over the beautiful fields of the Aude from the little church in Fanjeaux, where Dominic established his first base of operations, I can only imagine how he must have felt when confronted by such a devaluation of the natural world, of Creation. Today, something like that disregard of the goodness, beauty, and also the fragility of nature over the past two centuries has brought the world to the brink of environmental disaster.
The real horrors of the Albigensian Crusade should not overshadow the deep, underlying cause of the conflict, a strange defiance of the opening refrain of the Book of Genesis: “And God saw that it was good.”
Pope Francis’ amazing encyclical “Laudato Sí” calls us to renew our appreciation of the goodness, beauty, and vulnerability of the natural world, and especially to take action to preserve and protect it. I think St. Dominic, surveying the wonders of the fields and forests below the village of Fanjeaux perched on its little hill, would understand completely.