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HOMILY FOR THE SOLEMN PONTIFICAL MASS FOR THE OCTO-CENTENARY OF THE DEATH OF ST. DOMINIC

03 Aug 2021

Livestreamed from St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 3 August 2021

You could call it the Council of the Friars – yet none was there, or only one. “The Great Council”, as the Fourth Lateran was known, included the greatest mediaeval pope, Innocent III, 71 patriarchs and metropolitans, 412 other bishops, around 900 abbots, priors and periti, together with envoys of the emperor and monarchs.[1] In an era of dizzyingly rapid social and cultural change, some sought meaning in the secular wisdom of the universities, some in burgeoning affluence, and others in the ‘new age’ spiritualities of the Cathars, Waldensians and Beguines. The scandal of luxury, immorality and sheer ignorance among the clergy made Europe fertile ground for a resurgence of an ancient dualism. Cathars and Albigenses demeaned the material world, cast doubt upon the Incarnation, Passion and Rising of Christ, denied the efficacy of the sacraments and promise of resurrection, and trivialised bodily moral life. Like those described in our epistle (2Tim 4:1-8), many had “itching ears” and rejected sound doctrine, wandering after myths. Church and society faced a grave pastoral crisis and the old monastic and parish system was just not coping.[2] So Innocent called the Council of Friars.

Images of St Dominic by Blessed Fra Angelico

Lateran IV laid down a reform plan for the Church.[3] In 71 constitutions it restated the Catholic faith and addressed reform of sacramental practice, formation, appointment and conduct of bishops, clergy and religious, Church administration, and relations with non-Latins and non-Christians.[4] But what had all this to do with the friars? Well, present at the Council, was the troubadour-bishop Foulques of Toulouse, along with his peritus, Domingo de Guzmán of Caleruega. For more than a decade he had engaged in preaching and debating in the mission-field of Southern France, alongside Bishop Diego de Acebo of Osma and then Foulques. Some years before, he had founded a religious community of women and some months before, a community of men.[5] What the two contributed to the Council’s discussions is unknown. But some of the canons that emerged were especially simpatico with Dominic’s evolving mission.

The Council insisted that celebrating the liturgy and providing pastoral care require theological education, and directed bishops to be more discerning with vocations and to provide better training. “It is preferable when it comes to the ordination of priests to have a few good ministers than many bad ones, for if a blind man leads another, both will fall into the pit!” the Council fathers said (can. 27) Existing Church law requiring free education for clergy and the poor at cathedral schools was renewed, and metropolitan churches were now required to appoint a theologian to teach scripture and pastoral theology (can. 11).

Canon 10 highlighted the need for a good education in Scripture and Theology for “sound preaching”. Bishops were stretched thin and often too ignorant or busy to provide the needed preaching and catechesis. The Council therefore decreed that “bishops are to appoint suitable men to carry out advantageously the duty of sacred preaching, men who are powerful in word and deed and who will with care go out to the people entrusted to them… and build them up by word and example… [These men are to be] co-operators not only in the office of preaching but also in hearing confessions and enjoining penances and in other matters which are conducive to the salvation of souls.” Whatever Dominic’s aspirations before the Council, he was ready to respond with a new religious order “for preaching and the salvation of souls”.

St Dominic Presenting his Constitutions for Approval by Pope Honorius III in 1216

Good things can emerge from Church synods! From Lateran IV came the mendicant friars: the friars minor, friars preachers, Austin and Carmelite friars, all invented or reshaped in answer to the Council’s bold call for a new evangelisation. Having found their ‘charism’, Dominic’s team spread like wildfire. They took monasticism, learning and preaching to the pulpits and confessionals, the highways, cities and universities, even to diocesan priesthood and lay life. Religious observances, a strong community life, an intellectual bent: all to feed a contemplative life, the fruits of which would be shared with others. Within a few decades there were more than 10,000 Dominican friars and 3,000 more in formation, organised into 590 priories in 18 provinces; there were 141 women’s monasteries; and the Order was attracting many of the greatest preachers, teachers and mystics of the age – as well as a good many eccentrics…

But back in 1215 who could have imagined it? Dominic himself had only six years left, in which to get constitutions written and approved, set up headquarters in Rome, criss-cross Europe establishing new houses, put in place solid formation for his men, continue his care for the Dominican women, and organise general chapters to make all-important decisions for the Order in as democratic a way as possible. In so doing he spent himself completely until, aged only 50, he did what he said would be best for the Order: he died! “Do not weep, my children,” he said on his deathbed after making a general confession, “I shall be more useful to you where I am going than I have ever been in this life.”

Death of St Dominic and Tomb in San Domenico Bologna

The Gospel we are given for this commemoration (Mt 5:13-19) might suggest the life of St Dominic, and so ideally of his sons and daughters, should be salt and light. For the ancients salt was a valuable staple product, used in the cult, as a disinfectant, as a preservative and as a flavour-enhancer.[6] To be salty in their preaching, then, requires Dominicans to offer their all to God in worship, to disinfect souls of sin, vice and the devil, to preserve the Gospels, apostolic tradition and magisterium, and to proclaim with savour that attracts and converts the recipients.

For the ancients light opposed the darkness, exposed reality and enabled people to see; light was a symbol of divine presence and grace, of holiness, salvation and glory, of revelation, wisdom and hope.[7] To be light, then, requires Dominicans to be realists and serve divine revelation, to interrogate and communicate those things with wisdom, to make their common life shine as testimony to others, and thereby to lead people to salvation and glory. Thus in iconography Dominic is commonly displayed with a light shining over his head, pointing to these qualities that made him (and his sons and daughters) light to the world.[8]

And shine they did! In due course his family included characters as diverse as Hyacinth of Poland, Agnes of Montepulciano, Thomas Aquinas, Raymond of Penyafort, Albert the Great, Catherine of Siena, Meister Eckhart, Henry Suso, Vincent Ferrer, Antoninus of Florence, Fra Angelico, Savonarola, Francisco Vitoria, Cajetan, Pius V, Adrian Fortescue, Catherine d’Ricci, John of Gorkum, Bartolome de las Casas, Rose of Lima, Martin de Porres, the Martyrs of Vietnam, Bartolo Longo, Jean-Baptiste Lacordaire, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Pier Giorgio Frassati, Yves Congar, Edward Schillebeeckx and Herbert McCabe to name a few…  There are many things this roll-call shows us, but one is the sheer variety of ways there are to be a preacher-saint. Today, in over 100 countries, 6,500 Dominican friars, 4,000 nuns, 35,000 active sisters, and over 100,000 lay Dominicans bring their own temperaments and gifts to the task of proclaiming the Gospel. 

St Dominic through the eyes of Bellini, Botticelli, Crivelli, Coello, El Greco, Tura and Van der Weyden

In our age another ecumenical council, the Second of the Vatican, had not one Dominican friar but many present, including cardinals, bishops and theologians. That Council and the five popes since called the Church to a newer evangelisation, proclaiming the Gospel with fresh eyes and minds, voices and methods, heroes and audiences. We need new Dominics for this project, ready in Paul’s words to “proclaim the message and insist on it, in season and out, refuting falsehood, correcting error, calling to obedience, but all with patience and with the intention of teaching.” We need people of big minds and hearts to share the Gospel of Truth and Love, salt where the Gospel has lost its savour in people’s hearts, light where the good and true and beautiful are yet to be seen.

“O wonderful hope which you gave to those who wept for you at the hour of your death, promising after your departure to be helpful to your brothers and sisters.”[9] Holy Father Dominic, pray for us!

ANNOUNCEMENT IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE AGNUS DEI

Before Genuflecting

Because current circumstances impede attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Communion, I invite those who are joining us by live-streaming to ask God that by spiritual communion you might receive the graces of sacramental communion. Offer this Mass and your hunger for the Eucharist for the safety of your loved ones, of yourselves and of our world.


[1] Marshall Baldwin, “The Fourth Lateran Council (1215),” in M.W. Baldwin (ed.), Christianity through the Thirteenth Century: The Documentary History of Western Civilization (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1970), 292-344; Wim Blockmans and Peter Hoppenbrouwers, Introduction to Medieval Europe 300-1500, 3rd edn. (Routledge, 2017); B. Bolton, “A show with a meaning: Innocent III’s approach to the Fourth Lateran Council 1215,” Medieval History 1 (1991) 53-67; Daniel Bornstein, Medieval Christianity (Fortress Press, 2007); Leonard Boyle, “The Fourth Lateran Council and manuals of popular theology,” in T. Hoffman (ed.), The Popular Literature of Medieval England (University of Tennessee Press, 1985), 30-43; Norman Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, Revised edn. (Yale University Press, 2015); M. Deanesly, A History of the Medieval Church 590-1500 (Obscure Press, 2013); Marion Gibbs & Jane Lang, Bishops and Reform 1215-1272 with Special Reference to the Lateran Council of 1215 (Frank Cass, 1962); S. Kuttner and A. Garcia, “A new eyewitness account of the Fourth Lateran Council,” Traditio 20 (1964) 115-78; F. Donald Logan, A History of the Church in the Middle Ages 2nd edn. (Routledge, 2012); Joseph Lynch, The Medieval Church: A Brief History, 2nd edn. (Routledge, 2013); Kevin Madigan, Medieval Christianity: A New History (Yale University Press, 2015); John Moore, Pope Innocent III: To Uproot and to Plant (Brill, 2003); Kenneth Pennington, “Reform in 1215:Magna Carta and the Fourth Lateran Council,” Bulletin of Medieval Canon Law 97 (2015) 97-125; James Powell, Innocent III: Vicar of Christ or Lord of the World? 2nd edn. (Catholic University of America Press, 1994); Andrew Reeves, Teaching the Creed and Articles of Faith in England: Lateran IV to Ignorantia sacerdotum  (Doctoral thesis, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto, 2009);Janet Sayers, Innocent III: Leader of Europe 1198-1216 (Longman, 1994); John Shinners & William Dohar (eds.), Pastors and the Care of Souls in Medieval England (university of Notre Dame Press, 1998); Norman Tanner, The Councils of the Church: A Short History (Crossroad, 2001); Jeffrey Wayno, “Rethinking the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215,” Speculum 93(3) (July 2018) 611-37; Chris Wickham, Medieval Europe (Yale University Press, 2017).

[2] Even during the Lateran Council itself, there were violent scenes between partisans of the French bishops and Simon de Montfort and those of the Count of Toulouse.

[3] Constitutions of Lateran IV: http://www.legionofmarytidewater.com/faith/ECUM12.HTM; https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/lateran4.asp

[4] In 71 constitutions or canons it restated the faith of the Church and along the way made a brief reference to transubstantiation (can. 1 & 2). It addressed schism and heresy (can. 2-4), the dignity of the patriarchal sees (can. 5), and reminded bishops of their responsibilities for church order and the morals of their clergy and flock, decreeing annual provincial councils to address these matters (can. 6 & 7). It made provision for better preaching and a more educated clergy (can. 10 & 11). It sought to regularise religious life (can. 12, 13, 57, 59-61 & 64) and clerical conduct (can. 14-18, 42-44, 56, 65-66), churches, sacraments and sacramentals (can. 19-22, 50-52, 62, 63), marriages (can. 50), annual confession and communion (can. 21) and tithes (can. 53-56, 61). It made new provisions for ecclesiastical appointments (can. 23-26, 28-31), the training and upkeep of the clergy (can. 27, 32-34), administrative and judicial practice (can. 8, 35-49), church-state relations (can. 4246) and relations with other Christians (can. 4, 5, 9) and with non-Christians (can. 53, 67-71).

[5] On the life of Dominic and the history and spirituality of the Order: Benedict Ashley, The Dominicans (Wipf & Stock, 2009); Guy Bedouelle, Saint Dominic: The Grace of the Word (Ignatius Press, 2017) and In the Image of Saint Dominic: Nine Portraits of Dominican Life (Ignatius, 2016); Humbert Clerissac, The Spirit of St Dominic (Cluny Media, 2015); Mary Jean Dorcy, St Dominic (Tan, 2009); Donald Goergen, St Dominic: The Story of a Preaching Friar (Paulist, 2016); William Hinnebusch, Dominican Spirituality: Principles and Practice (Wipf & Stock, 2014), History of the Dominican Order, 2 vols. (Alba House, 1966 & 1972)  and The Dominicans: A Short History (Dominican publications, 1975); Bede Jarrett, The Life of St Dominic (Cluny Media, 2018); Paul Murray, The New Wine of Dominican Spirituality: A Drink Called Happiness (Burns & Oates, 2006); Simon Tugwell (ed.), Early Dominicans: Selected Writings (Paullist, 1982) and The Way of the Preacher (Templegate, 1979); Marie-Humbert Vicaire, St Dominic and His Times (McGraw-Hill, 1964).

[6] Salt as a valuable staple product: Ezra 6:9; 7:22; Sir 39:26). As used in the cult: Ex 30:35; Lev 2:13; Num 18:18-19; 2Chr 13:5; Ezra 6:9; Ezek 43:24; cf. Col 4:6. As used for disinfectant: 2Kings 2:20-21; Ezek 16:4. As used as a preservative: Ezra 4:14; Tobit 6:6; Bar 6:28. As used to enhance flavour: Job 6:6; Sir 39:26.

[7] For the ancients light opposed the darkness, exposed reality and enabled people to see: Gen 1:2-3; Ex 10:21; Ps 19:7-10; 119:105, 130; Prov 2:13; Jn 1:4-14; 8:12; Rom 13:12; Eph 4:17-24; 1Jn 1:5-7; 2Pet 1:19. Light was a symbol of divine presence and grace: Ex 10:23; Ps 27:1; 56:13; Prov 6:23; Isa 9:2; Jn 1:4-14; 8:12; 9:5; 12:46; 2Cor 4:6. A symbol of holiness, salvation and glory: Gen 1:3; Job 22:28; Ps 27:1; Isa 9:2; Mt 4:15-16; Jn 8:12; 12:36; 2Cor 4:6; Eph 5:8; 1Thess 5:5; 1Tim 6:16; Jas 1:17; 1Jn 1:5. A symbol of revelation, wisdom and hope: Lk 16:8; Jn 3:19-21; 12:36; 2Cor 6:14; Eph 5:8-9; Col 1:12-14; 1Thess 5:5; 1Pet 2:9.

[8] Cf. Mt 5:14-16; 10:27; Lk 12:3; Eph 5:8; Phil 2:15.

[9] From the antiphon “O spem miram”.


The first Dominicans in Australia, Christopher Dowling and James Corcoran, were amongst the first priests to minister in Sydney. But there was no permanent presence of the brethren in Australia until 1898, when a priory was established in Adelaide, and none in Sydney until 1923, where the friars have been stationed in Helensburgh, Wahroonga and eventually Glebe, from which community they now operate three parishes and two university chaplaincies. Meanwhile the friars spread all around Australia much as they did around Europe in Dominic’s day, and eventually became the Province of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the region of Australia, New Zealand and the Islands.

Dominican Sisters arrived in Sydney in 1867 but went first to minister up Maitland way; they returned in 1894 to establish themselves at Santa Sabina in Strathfield and elsewhere. Together with the friars they began a very successful mission to the Solomon Islands in 1956. As these sisters spread across Eastern Australia, other congregations sent sisters to South and Western Australia. The Dominican Sisters of Malta came with the great wave of migrants to post-war Australia and have been in Pendle Hill-Blacktown since 1965. The Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia came from Nashville in the lead-up to the 2008 World Youth Day and have been in Regent’s Park ever since.

Lay Dominican fraternities in Sydney go back to 1946 or earlier. Add all those touched by the works of the Dominican family in parishes, schools, university chaplaincies, care of the elderly and disabled, the missions and other ministries, and the Dominican family has had a very considerable footprint in this archdiocese, this country and beyond. That is told in the presence of St Dominic amongst the saints in the great North window of this cathedral.

Tonight we pray for Dominic’s 87th successor, Gerard Timoner OP, and all his family around the world, for the fruitfulness of their ministry and growth of vocations. For their many contributions so far, the Church of Australia and especially Sydney expresses its gratitude and congratulates the Order on the eighth centenary of the founder’s death.