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The Birth of St Dominic

Gregory DiPippo

The Church traditionally celebrates the feasts of the Saints on what it has from time immemorial called their “dies natalis”, Latin for “birthday.” This is a specifically Christian technical use of the term, in that it really means the day of their death, which is to say, the day on which they are born into eternal life in heaven. However, some Saints cannot be celebrated on the anniversary of their death, since it coincides with another feast; these are usually assigned to next free day on the calendar. Such a one is Saint Dominic, the founder of the Order of Friars Preachers, who died on August 6th in the year 1221. That date has been occupied since at least the mid-7th century, first by the feast of Pope Sixtus II, who was martyred for the Faith in 258, in the 11th month of his papacy, and more recently, by the feast of the Transfiguration. Dominic is therefore moved forward to today on the calendar of the Novus Ordo, which happens to be the anniversary of his earthly birth in the year 1170.

Despite his success as the founder of one of the Church’s greatest religious orders, and that Order’s well-deserved reputation for learning, we have no writings from the Saint himself besides a handful of letters. The earliest biographical information about him comes from a book called the “Libellus de principiis Ordinis Praedicatorum”, written by his successor as the head of the Dominicans, Blessed Jordan of Saxony, whom Dominic had personally had recruited. Here are a few excerpts about Dominic’s youth; note that Jordan’s Latin is not at all lacking in rhetorical sophistication, as is often unjustly said of the whole of his age.

“… fuit quidam adolescens, nomine Dominicus, in … villa, quæ dicitur Chaleruega, oriundus, quem ab annis puerilibus parentum suorum, specialiter autem cujusdam archipresbyteri avunculi sui diligentia nutriebat. Hunc primitus in usu ecclesiastico erudiri fecerunt, ut quem sibi Deus vas electionis futurum præviderat, in ipsa adhuc puerili ætate, velut testa recens exhiberet (a quo nec postmodum immutaretur) sanctitatis odorem.

Postmodum autem missus Palentiam, ut ibi liberalibus informaretur scientiis, quarum studium eo tempore vigebat ibidem; postquam eas, ut sibi videbatur, satis edidicit, relictis iis studiis, tamquam in quibus temporis hujus angustias minus fructuose vereretur expendere, ad theologiæ studium convolavit, cœpitque divinis vehementer inhiare eloquiis, utpote dulcioribus super mel ori suo.

Itaque in iis sacris studiis annos transegit quatuor, per quos hauriendis sacrarum Scripturarum rivulis tam incessanter, tamque avide inhiabat, ut præ discendi infatigabilitate noctes pene insomnes perageret, et veritatem, quæ auribus ingerebatur, profundo mentis repositam sinu, tenaci memoria retineret. Ea nempe, quæ facilitate capiebat ingenii, piis irrigabat affectibus, et ex iis salutis opera germinabant. Beatus in hoc sane juxta Veritatis sententiam dicentis in Euangelio: Beati, qui audiunt verbum Dei, & custodiunt illud. …

Iste fuit ab ipsis cunabulis indolis valde bonæ, et jam magnum aliquid insignis præconizabat infantia, quod futurum maturiori præstolaretur ætate. Non se cum ludentibus miscuit, nec cum iis, qui in levitate ambulant, participem se præbuit; sed instar placidi Jacob vagos Esau cavebat excursus, sinum matris ecclesiæ ac domestica sanctæ quietis tabernacula non relinquens. Juvenem simul ac senem aspiceres, quoniam et paucitas dierum loquebatur infantiam, et senem jam ipsa conversationis maturitas et morum constantia prædicabat.”

(Saint Dominic, and Episodes from His Life, ca. 1305, by Giovanni da Taranto. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0)

“… there was a boy named Dominic born … in the town of Caleruega (in north central Spain), who was raised from childhood under the care of his parents, and especially of one of his uncles, who was an archpriest.

They had him taught in the ways of the Church from an early age, so that he, whom God had destined to be a vessel of election, was from his earliest years pervaded with an odor of holiness which never left him in later life.

Afterwards, he was sent to Palencia for instruction in the liberal sciences, the study of which flourished there at that time. When he was satisfied that he learned them sufficiently well, he gave them up, as if he feared to spend his limited time in this world less fruitfully, and turned to the study of theology, and began to gaze with mighty eagerness upon the word of God, as something sweeter than honey to his mouth.

Therefore, he passed four years in these sacred studies, during which he drank with such unending eagerness from the streams of the Sacred Scriptures that, in his untiring desire to learn, he spent his nights with almost no sleep at all, retained with a sharp memory in the very depth of his mind the truth. Indeed, the things which he easily understood were watered by the pious bent of his mind and blossomed into salutary works. Truly was he blessed in this, according to the statement of Truth in the Gospel: “Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.” (Luke 11, 28)

From his earliest days he had a good disposition, and his infancy heralded a greatness which his future would reveal. He did not engage in play or join those who walk in frivolity, but, after the example of gentle Jacob, he avoided the wanderings of Esau, not leaving the bosom of Mother Church and the familiar tabernacles of a quiet, holy life. You could see at once the child and the man, since the fewness of his days spoke of his childhood, and the maturity of his conduct and firmness of character already bespoke the adult man.”

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