Book Review of “St. Dominic: The Story of a Preaching Friar”

Book review by:
Sr. Mary of the Sacred Heart Desmond, O.P.
(Monastery of Mary the Queen)

St. Dominic:  The Story of a Preaching Friar
By Donald J. Goergen, OP, Forward by Timothy Radcliffe, OP
Paulist Press 2016

In this new telling of the story of St. Dominic de Guzman, founder of the Dominicans, the image that takes shape is that of a dear friend, a brother, a father, a guide of souls, and yes, also a preacher, an organizer, a diplomat, a wisdom figure. Fr. Donald Goergen, OP writes from long years of a deep relationship with someone who has become a model and mentor in his own life and ministry. Here he shares with us this personal friendship to show us that Dominic can be a close friend of each of us too.

One very important element that comes out so clearly in this story is that St. Dominic did not at the beginning have a specific vision in his mind which he set out to accomplish. He was a humble and observing person who found himself in the midst of a need and simply tried to fill that need. He did not intend, at least for a long time, to found a new Order in the Church. It is interesting to see, as the story unfolds, that the way was not always clear at first and there were many disappointments along the way. He lived a life of obedience and charity, using all his gifts and talents to help souls and bring them to their potential. In this sense he acted as a sort of midwife, an instrument in the hands of God both for individuals and for a new movement in the Church: that of the mendicant preachers.

In the 13th century the world was in transition. Is this not much like the world of the 21st century? In the earlier time the changes in culture were economic commerce, growth of population, urbanization, rise in lay literacy. These were as life changing as some of the scientific and cultural transitions which we face today. A new way of life was needed at that time to use the new knowledge, energies and understandings that were emerging. A new evangelization, a new way of apostolic life was needed. The author shows that Dominic understood this and rose to the occasion.

We see in this book that as a young man Dominic entered the Chapter of Canons in the Cathedral of Osma in Spain. Here he was recognized by the Prior, Diego de Acebo, as a gifted and holy person who could be of much help in drawing others to the love of an observant life. Later when Diego became bishop, he requested that Dominic assist him in some of his duties, one of which was a journey through Languedoc where they encountered deep-seated heresy. This exposure to false doctrine alerted both Diego and Dominic to the need for solid doctrinal preaching.

This account describes the efforts of Dominic in ministry and preaching in Languedoc during very stressful and dangerous times. Toulouse was under interdict and war was ravaging the countryside. Dominic had not joined the crusade, but tried to serve the poor people who were suffering from the strife. Fr. Goergen asks, “Did Dominic unostentatiously move around from town to town, preaching, trusting in the power of truth, holding debates, making some conversions, and fostering peace?” That struck me as very similar to the situations in which our brothers and sisters are ministering today to the people of Iraq and Syria.

The world has usually depicted Dominic as the founder of the Order of Preachers, a world-wide religious institute of women and men at the service of the Gospel. However, Fr. Goergen shows that what probably began as simply a dream of both Dominic and Diego for a diocesan preaching band, gradually grew and developed, becoming a collaborative venture including Bishop Fulk. And the idea which they presented to Pope Innocent was transformed through discussion and dialogue to become a worldwide Order of Preachers. Dominic’s early expectation was to be a preacher, nothing more. But the Divine Will was guiding him through circumstances. As the movement grew and developed he had to provide for a stable organization. This was the task God gave him and in obedience he took up the challenge. But all was done, not from the top down, but in consultation with the Brothers.

Beautifully portrayed by Fr. Goergen is Dominic’s collaboration with women. He shows how Dominic enjoyed working with women and helped them bring about the establishment of a new kind of monastic life. “They were family for Dominic as much as were his friars preachers.”

There is exquisite demonstration in several places of the very human and tender relationships which Dominic maintained with his friends and brothers. Special friendships were a strong part of his manly character which was broad enough to include women as well as men, rich and poor, laity and clerics.

This book is an excellent choice to read in the Jubilee Year of Mercy because St. Dominic constantly preached mercy. He gave his life in efforts to bring misguided souls to the truth and reunite them in the fold of the Church. Condemnation and punishment were not part of his method, but rather kindness, forgiveness, reconciliation.

Meticulous references placed as footnotes do not interrupt the story line, but give the scholarly reader all the further information for delving deeper into the sources. These notes, plus the bibliography for further reading, provide for very fruitful study deeper into the life of this glorious saint who was a contemplative itinerant mendicant preacher, and one who through his own experience can understand our present difficulties and challenges and help guide us in our own lives, our prayer and our ministry.