St Dominic and the Preaching of Mercy

St Dominic and the Preaching of Mercy

I consider it truly providential that the Dominican Jubilee to celebrate 800 years of the Order of Preachers should overlap with Jubilee Year of Mercy. St Dominic’s life was characterised by the practise of mercy and, ever since, his example has inspired men and women to follow him in the Order as Preachers of God’s mercy.

St Dominic’s legacy to the Church is an Order that at its best faithfully lives its motto of Veritas (truth). St Dominic realised that the truth was not merely something that we know, but a way of living which saves. He was acutely aware of how many people, even within Christendom, had not properly heard this saving truth and, motivated by mercy, he desired to share this truth with as many as possible. He saw the lie in any attempt to oppose mercy to truth. Pope Francis expresses this same insight when he says: ‘The Church condemns sin because it has to relay the truth: “this is a sin”. But at the same time, it embraces the sinner who recognises himself as such, it welcomes him, it speaks to him of the infinite mercy of God. Jesus forgave even those who crucified and scorned him.’ Mercy does not ignore sin, nor does it reject the sinner.

The accounts of St Dominic’s life are not as full as one would wish, but we learn from them of a hugely impressive character, worthy of emulation. One surprising element of his life is just how reactive it was; there was no single pivotal moment of divine inspiration in which the shape of his life’s mission and the Order became clear to him. We observe a man continually reacting to changing circumstances, and always with mercy and fidelity.

St Dominic was born in the small Spanish town of Caleruega in the early 1170s. At an early age, he was marked out by his parents for a clerical career. Even before the foundation of the Order, whilst he was still a university student in Palencia, we see mercy manifesting itself in his life. There was a severe famine and people were dying of hunger; so Dominic sold everything he owned, including the books which were so precious to him, to provide for the needy, saying, ‘I do not want to study dead skins, while people are dying of hunger’. He saw need, felt compassion, and acted.

Similarly, we know that whilst he was in Rome in 1217, liaising with the Pope on what form the Order would take, he would regularly go and visit the recluses who lived in often appalling conditions in the old walls of Rome. This calls to mind Pope Francis’s visiting of the slums and his constant and necessary refrain that nobody is beyond the mercy of God. As he says, the Church must take God’s mercy to these people now, not wait for them to take the initiative. This is precisely what St Dominic would go on to do.

Travelling with his Bishop whilst still a Cathedral Canon of Osma, St Dominic became aware that, in certain parts of the Church, there was a chasm between what the Church preached and how its clerics behaved. He saw that the answer was not to water down the teaching, but to live it more radically. He was prepared to undertake whatever hardships were necessary to bring the mercy of God to sinners and saw that it was going to be necessary to be increasingly like the Apostles. He had not sold his books in Palencia because he had renounced learning. Nor was his decision permanently to leave his position as a Canon in Osma because he no longer wished to live in one place. Rather, because he saw so much suffering due to sin, he was moved to do something different from what the Church was currently doing.

His compassion for sinners would often result in him spending nights before the Cross, weeping and crying out to the Lord to have mercy on sinners and he was often heard beseeching the Lord, ‘What will become of sinners?’ People were starving for truth and he was determined that they should hear it and he desired that they be converted through love, not coerced by force.

It is worth returning to those books he sold in Palencia briefly. We can be sure that when money was available he would have bought books again, and he always travelled with St Matthew’s Gospel and the Pauline Epistles. From the very outset he wanted the Order to be present in the major university cities. He wanted his friars to be well-educated; for to live as a Christian we must know what Christianity is. Theology is an effort to listen attentively to what God has to say to us, and we do well to listen because He knows us better than we know ourselves and He loves us better than we love ourselves. Theology is at once doctrinal and practical and we cannot separate the two aspects. The truths of dogmatic theology do not fall away in the pastoral realm. Christ is at once Truth and Life and we cannot separate our knowledge of Him from our life in Him.

St Dominic would have recoiled at the notion, held by some, that mercy is nothing more than an absence of justice, whereby the fullness and grandeur of mercy is reduced to the notion of doing nothing in an instance where, but for compassion, there would have been punishment. This is a false notion. God’s gratuitous mercy is not a miscarriage of justice. God’s mercy is active and not a feeling which suspends action.

Over the course of his life, it became increasingly clear to St Dominic that the Church required a permanent preaching mission bringing the truth in love where there is error. As Cardinal Nichols has written, we all long ‘for the embrace of mercy, the love that accepts us as we are, and, at the same time, calls us to become what we are made to be.’ Christian love is demanding because it asks us to do awkward things. Most of us, I hope, would be happy not to stone someone committing adultery. The tough part in our current day and age is inviting them to stop sinning even if on some level they seem happy.

This to me is a great challenge for today’s Dominicans and the Church at large. We need to make the cliché of ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’, a reality. Too often, the Church’s teaching is heard as condemning people, and undoubtedly on occasion, I have spoken the truth in a way divorced from love, at which point it ceases to be the Truth, who is a person and who is Love. At the same time, as Archbishop Charles Chaput points out, we cannot abandon truth, for while, ‘truth without compassion wounds and repels; mercy without truth is a comfortable form of lying.’ Speaking the truth, even when it is uncomfortable is a proof of our love. Yet that truth will only really convince when it is felt to be motivated by love. This was the motivation of St Dominic’s life and we are called to make it ours in this Jubilee and beyond.

This article first appeared in the February 2016 edition of Oremus, the magazine of Westminster Cathedral, and is reproduced with kind permission. The magazine which contains many interesting articles can be accessed here.

Fr Toby Lees is assistant priest at Our Lady of the Rosary and St Dominic's, London.