Solemnity of St. Dominic 2011

August 8, 2011

For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but following their own desires, will surround themselves with teachers who will tickle their ears.  They will stop listening to the truth and will wander off to fables.  As for you, be steady and self-possessed; put up with hardship, perform your work as an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

These words, which we heard in our second reading from the Second Letter to Timothy, were true in apostolic times; they were true, also, at the start of the 13th century when our holy father Dominic and his Bishop, Diego of Osma, witnessed for themselves the devastation being wrought by the Albigensian heresy among the people of southern France; and they are certainly true in the second decade of the 21st century, in our own day and age.

Bishop Diego and our Father Dominic and others in the Church understood the truly insidious nature of the teachings of the Perfecti, the Catharists, who were leading so many people astray, and how their teachings, taken to their logical conclusions, undermined the essentials truths of our Catholic faith: the Incarnation, the Redemption, the sacramental life of the Church, and the goodness of God’s creation.

The people, however, witnessed the simple, ascetic lives of the heretical preachers and asked themselves: Who is living more like Jesus and His apostles that we hear about in the Gospels?  These fiery zealots who speak to us of the corruption of this world, or these Abbots and Bishops on horseback, with their retinues of servants and lackeys, dressed in yards and yards of the finest fabrics?

It’s important for us to remember, on this Feast of our holy father Dominic, that St Dominic and his Bishop were not the first to try to respond to the errors of the Albigensians when they travelled through southern France and northern Italy around the year 1206 or so.  The Church was already responding…however, not very effectively and with little success.

Here is an account from the Cistercian author, Peter of Vaux-de-Cernai, who wrote a “History of the Albigensians”:

 “On his return from the (Roman) Curia, the Bishop of Osma (Diego) reached Montpelier where he met the saintly Arnold, the abbot of Citeaux, as well as Brother Peter of Castlenau and Brother Ralph, Cistercian monks, all legates of the Apostolic See, seeking to renounce the legacy enjoined upon them out of sheer discouragement, since they could attain nothing or hardly anything in preaching to the heretics.  Whenever they began preaching to the heretics, the latter would taunt them with remarks about the scandalous lives of the clergy; so, if they wanted to correct the way of life among the clergy, they would have to give up their preaching.

“The aforementioned bishop (Diego), however, offered them an effective solution to their dilemma by warning and counseling that, forgetting everything else, they should concentrate all their ardor on preaching.  Moreover, to shut the mouths of their detractors, they should go forth humbly, doing and teaching according to the example of their Holy Master, go on foot without gold or silver, and thereby imitate the manner of the Apostles.”

This vision, of a band of preachers, who taught and upheld the fullness of the Catholic faith, combining their preaching and teaching with an apostolic way of life, in imitation of the Lord and His apostles, was the shared vision of Bishop Diego of Osma and the Subprior of his Cathedral Chapter, Dominic de Guzman. But in God’s Providence, the task of forming such an Order of Preachers was entrusted to Dominic, once Bishop Diego had returned to his Diocese of Osma in Spain and died there shortly afterwards.

Upon the death of Bishop Diego, most of the bishops, abbots and monks who had joined St Dominic and him in preaching against the Albigensians gave up in discouragement and returned to their monasteries.  The Holy See’s unfortunate response at the time was to organize a crusade against the Albigensians.  As one chronicler of the time put it: it was “decided that, if the rebellious spirit of the heretics could not be tamed by the pious measures of truth or pierced by the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God, then at least they would respect the power of the material sword.”  Only St Dominic remained true to the vision of a preaching mission that combined the fullness of the truth of our Catholic faith with a humble, poor, evangelical witness to Gospel values.  In those dark hours, our holy father Dominic probably clung to these words of St Paul to his younger protégé, Timothy: As for you, be steady and self-possessed; put up with hardship, perform your work as an evangelist, fulfill your ministry, because that is, in fact, what he did, against all odds.  And slowly, other men came to join him in his task, empowered by this common vision of a band of apostolic, itinerant preachers dedicated to the preaching of Truth for the salvation of souls, and, as they say, the rest is history.

On this Feast of our holy Father Dominic 2011, we, the Order of Friars Preachers, of the 21st century, not the 13th, have to ask ourselves: what is to be our contribution to helping the Church out of the mess she finds herself in presently, when the Church’s moral authority and credibility has been, to a great extent, vitiated by the very same thing the people of southern France threw back in the face of the papal legates in the 13th century: namely, the corruption of the clergy?  How are we to preach the Truth with conviction, when the ones to whom we are sent are convinced that actually believing in the objective truth of one’s Faith is tantamount to being a fanatic or fundamentalist?

What is to be our response?  Are we just supposed to shut up, become like muzzled dogs, whimpering in our comfortable cages because no one is paying any attention to us?  Or perhaps it’s time to engage in some ear-tickling, by saying the things the people of today want to hear, bypassing or glossing over the demands of the Gospel? To use the phrase of the 20th century American Evangelical theologian, H. Richard Neibuhr: to preach “a God without wrath (who) brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Or perhaps it’s time to engage in a little modern-day crusading, beating our “opponents” over the head, perhaps not with material swords and clubs, but with the bludgeon of indignant appeals to authority and law, to catechisms and codes?

Heaven forbid.

If we are to remain true to our charism, if we are to be of true service to the Body of Christ, right here and now, if we are to be “Light for the Church” as St Dominic was in his own day, then we have to remain true to the shared vision of Bishop Diego of Osma and our holy father Dominic: that vision of a band of preachers of the Truth, the Truth who is Jesus Christ, brothers and sisters living humbly and simply in the freedom of the children of God, free to love God and neighbor, athirst with the desire that each and every person made in the image and likeness of God might come to know his or her true dignity, his or her high destiny, and his or her infinite value in the eyes of God.  We must be personally convinced that the precious Truths of our Catholic faith, as handed down to us from the Apostles, do indeed promote and preserve the true good of the human person and still have the ability to set the captive free from all that seeks to enslave.

 And we must pray, following the example of our holy father Dominic, allowing the Living God to fill us to overflowing in the intimate dialogue of prayer, so that we will have good things to pass on to others, blessings in abundance freely given to us, so that we, in turn, can freely give to others.

And we must repent, repent for our own contributions to the sorry mess the Church finds herself in, repent of our own not-too-infrequent forays into ear-tickling, repent for having let our own love for God and zeal for souls grow cold through the passing of years.

Imple, Pater, quod dixisti, nos tuis juvans precibus.  As we, his sons and daughters, sing to our Holy Father Dominic in the antiphon Spem Miram, “Fulfill, Father, what you have said, and help us by your prayers.”  Amen.

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