When my husband and I were dating, we used to make an occasional date of driving an hour away from our hometown for Saturday night Mass at a particularly lovely Dominican church. While I tend to forget a lot of the homilies I’ve heard over my life, there was one given at this church by a Dominican priest that I remember well.
He began by talking about that quote that a lot of people attribute to Saint Francis of Assisi – “Preach the Gospel every day. When necessary, use words.” This priest was very unimpressed with this quote. He went so far as to say that he greatly doubted Saint Francis ever even uttered it. The words were probably put put into the saint’s mouth centuries later.
Certainly Saint Dominic and his Order of Preachers (as the Dominicans are known) would have disagreed with this Saint Francis misquote. As we celebrate Saint Dominic’s feast day this week, now is an excellent time to consider his life, his work, and just what he would have thought about using words to preach the Gospel.
A comfortable but holy early life
Dominic was born in Spain in 1170 to parents who were members of the nobility. Legend has it that, while she was pregnant with him, his holy mother dreamed about a dog jumping out of her womb and carrying a fiery torch in its mouth. She said that the dog and his torch “seemed to set the earth on fire.”
As a young man, Dominic studied theology and the arts, excelling at both. But when Dominic was in his early twenties, those around him were suffering from famine. He sold his belongings (even the books he loved studying!) to assist those in need. At the age of 25, he decided to make his self-inflicted poverty permanent by joining the Benedictine order.
The fight against heresy
Around this time, there were several heresies popping up and gaining traction within the Church. The Albigensian heresy in particular was a sect that was stealing a lot of followers from faithful Catholicism. The Albigensian heresy taught that all physical things were evil, even the human body itself. This heresy was in direct opposition to true Church teaching that God created man and all things good.
While the Church was doing its best to oppose the spread of this heresy, particularly through devotion to prayer and fasting for this cause, more was needed. Preaching was needed.
Dominic’s example of prayer and self-discipline caught the attention of Albigensians, who often saw true Catholics as being lax or worldly. From that starting point of a good example, Dominic moved on to debate, preach, and ultimately convert many of these people.
He realized that even more was needed: an order devoted specifically to preaching and to education, so that Catholics would not be so easily led astray by such false teachings. In 1215, Dominic founded his own religious order devoted to these things. Pope Honorius III called Dominic’s order the “Order of Preachers”.
Preaching in our own lives
Maybe you balk and cringe at the word “preach”. You’re not alone – none of us want to be too “preachy” and have others think ill of us. I know I’ve often felt this way before. That’s probably why I squirmed a bit upon first hearing that homily.
The alleged Saint Francis quote that insinuates we don’t need to use words that often is comfortable. It tells us to just live a good life and people will often get the idea from that alone. In my life, this concept often manifests itself when my husband tells me about interactions he has with coworkers. Others make crude jokes or say sacrilegious things. But they’ll excuse themselves when they realize he’s nearby.
But when he tells me of these types of occurrences, I realize that his coworkers only even think to apologize because he’s made his faith clear and obvious to them. He’s told them he’s Catholic, and he takes every opportunity that pops up to tell them the why and how of it.
I wish I could say I’m always that courageous, but I’ve missed plenty of good preaching opportunities in my day. During our engagement, my worldly Starbucks co-workers would hint at their confusion over the fact that I didn’t live with my fiancé. However, I let the subject pass me by several times without explaining.
The preaching opportunities of the single life
The time of dating and being single is one of the richest times we have to “preach” the Gospel using words to our friends – and even potential dates! The way we live out the single life as faithful Catholics is so different from the way most of the world is living. Preaching is often very necessary.
We can set a good example in things like chastity, unwillingness to “hook-up” and the like all day long, and we should. But our companions won’t have a clue as to why we live this way unless we tell them.
Without words, it could very well look like we’re living a life of pointless, self-inflicted difficulty. When in reality, the meaning and the purpose behind a life of chastity and a pursuit of holiness is very significant. Let’s turn to Saint Dominic’s intercession as we strive to let no opportunity to preach the Gospel pass us by. Saint Dominic pray for us, especially when our witness is uncomfortable, difficult, and requires words.