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The Glory of St. Dominic

This year marks a special year dedicated to the “Preacher of Grace,” which began with the Epiphany 2021 and will end on January  6, 2022. It marks eight centuries from the dies natalis, the day of heavenly birth of Saint Dominic de Guzmán (Caleruega, Spain 1170 – Bologna, Italy, August 6, 1221), the Founder of the Order of Preachers, also known as Dominican Friars.

Pope Benedict XV (1854-1922), formerly Archbishop of Bologna, which preserves the body of the Saint, dedicated the magnificent encyclical Fausto Appetente Die to that light of holiness:

The Order of Preachers,  founded by him, has ever been the stout defense of the Roman Church. And so not only did he strengthen the temple in his time, but he provided for the continuance of the defense. The words of Honorius III in approving the Order seem prophetic: “looking to the brethren of thy Order as the future champions of the Faith and the true lights of the world” (2).

The founder of the Dominican Order imposed on his confreres the tireless study of Christian doctrine. Thus, by founding the houses of his order very close to the universities, his “white” friars could better devote themselves to culture.

The very wisdom of God seemed to speak through the Dominicans when there rose up among them such heralds and defenders of Christian wisdom as Hyacinth Polonus, Peter the Martyr, Vincent Ferrer, and such miracles of genius and erudition as Albert the Great, Raymond de Penafort, Thomas Aquinas, in whom especially, a follower of Dominic, God “deigned to enlighten his Church” (7).

Besides this we may add Catherine of Siena, who, overcoming incredible difficulties, persuaded the Pope to return from Avignon to Rome after an interval of seventy years.

Another great merit of St. Dominic is that of having instituted the Marian Rosary. As Leo XIII states in Supremi Apostolatus Officio:

Guided, in fact, by divine inspiration and grace, he foresaw that this devotion, like a most powerful warlike weapon, would be the means of putting the enemy to flight, and of confounding their audacity and mad impiety. Such was indeed its result. Thanks to this new method of prayer—when adopted and properly carried out as instituted by the Holy Father St. Dominic—piety, faith, and union began to return, and the projects and devices of the heretics to fall to pieces. Many wanderers also returned to the way of salvation, and the wrath of the impious was restrained by the arms of those Catholics who had determined to repel their violence (3).

Like an echo of Benedict XV’s voice, Father Daniel Ols, a French Dominican friar of the convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, offered a synthesis of St. Dominic in 2014: his greatness lies in the fact that he understood the necessity of preaching, that is, of teaching the truth. St. Dominic was struck by heresy, that is, by the fact that people went towards the error, thus jeopardizing eternal life. This anguished him and made him understand the need, at a time when the bishops no longer preached and the lay clergy were of crass ignorance, to found an order of preachers who would teach the truth.

Unfortunately we see in the modern commemoration made by the Dominican Order, a completely different music being played. “We will celebrate St. Dominic,” wrote the Master of the Order, Fr. Gerard Francisco P. III Timoner, OP in the Letter of January 31, 2020, “not as a saint alone on a pedestal, but a saint enjoying table fellowship with his brothers, gathered by the same vocation to preach God’s Word and sharing God’s gift of food and drink.” The “social justice” aspect of the saint is being emphasized to the exclusion of the spiritual element.

But in the beauty created to praise the saint, it is the spiritual above all that has created great works of art and made souls reach to the heavens by grace. Thus does Dante call Dominic “of Christian faith, the holy athlete.” The supreme poet of the Divine Comedy writes about the Cherubic Patriarch:

…Dominic became his name; I speak of him
As one whom Christ chose as the worker in His garden
…Through his love of the true manna, he
became, in a brief time, so great a teacher
that he began to oversee the vineyard
that withers when neglected by its keeper.
…Thus he, with greatest force,
struck where the thickets of the heretics
offered the most resistance
(Paradiso XII, 56, 70-72, 84-87, 100-102).

Turning to music, the Neapolitan composer Antonio Braga (1929-2009), a disciple of the French composer Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), wrote San Domenico di Guzmán, a “mystic tale” for narrator, solo voices, chorus, and orchestra, based on his own libretto. With Giorgio Albertazzi (1923-2016) as the narrator, the oratorio was first performed on June 12, 1997, at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, conducted by Carlos Piantini (1927-2010).

Here we find the main stages in Dominic’s life: in the first part, his birth in Spain into a noble family of Old Castile and preaching against the Albigensian heresy, which in the south of France was creating a disturbance. In the second part, the foundation of the Order of Preachers in Tolouse, the meeting with St. Francis and his death in Bologna.

As eclectic as his maestro Milhaud, Braga combines in the same score elements taken from different historical styles, such as: one of the more than 400 Cantigas de Santa Maria, the great Marian songbook dated to 1284 and attributed to Alfonso X the Wise, king of Castile and Leon; a lyric by the Provençal troubadour Bernard de Ventadour (c. 1152-1195); the narrator who declaims against a background of percussion instruments and the chorus, a procedure that Milhaud often uses; the popular rhymes for music and dance of a fifteenth-century strambotto; a Parisian chanson, which especially in the first half of the sixteenth century was very popular in the French court of the Valois.

Those saddened by the tenor of the Jubilee dedicated to St. Dominic Guzmán, might be consoled by Braga’s homonymous oratorio.

Photo credit: The Virgin Appearing to St. Dominic by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1737-1739).

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