St Dominic's Feast Homily - Fr Paul Rowse, OP
The year is 1216 and, despite his best efforts to avoid the height of the Italian summer, the pope has died. Innocent III was so convinced of his office that he gave himself a political vocation as pope. But he had not only been a potentate: as a pastor, he had been concerned to bring people with him. Europe in the thirteenth century was plagued by eccentric Christianities. If Europe was again Christian in every way, then he hoped Asia and Africa and other parts would follow. It’s a worldview we don’t universally share, but it’s where we came from. But with his life’s work half-done, Innocent III died – some would say too soon – on the sixteenth of July 1216. And with his passing it seemed to many that the light had gone out of the Church.
But on the twenty-second of December that year, a new document appeared in the papal out-tray. It was a bull, a letter giving our Dominic’s order the faculty, the permission to preach everywhere. If there were Europeans who were going in for novelty and selectivity, Dominic would bring to them continuity. We might wonder at the timing of that document. When I was younger and even more foolish than I am now, I wondered aloud at table whether the pope just liked a clean desk before Christmas. That was before a more senior friar corrected me: the pope handed down his bull on the winter solstice, from which the days start to lengthen again and light returns to the world.
Don’t get me wrong: the sun still rose and set in the thirteenth century as it does in the twenty-first. Colourful churches and vibrant festivals featured in medieval European life. But the darkness we were founded to enter and the light we were charged to bring to it are symbols in the perennial struggle for truth. In Dominic’s day, there was the wrongheaded idea that all evil in the world comes from an evil god, who was quite interested in the physical world, just as all goodness in the world was credited to a good god, who was rather removed from it. The sun still shines in the twenty-first century, but dark ideas are still found in some people’s heads.
We might examine the dualisms of our neighbours to find places where the light might best be brought. Can we be whatever we want to be, or rather can we strive to reach our full potential? Is choice really the currency of freedom, or is it in fact goodness? Are our bodies such a hindrance to our self-understanding as some suppose, or are they a gift from God and therefore the foundation of the self? Is it truth which is relative, or just perspective? Is science really over all?
Clearly, St Dominic’s work has begun, is underway, and (we pray) continues. He was resolute from the outset. When Dominic heard our Gospel reading, he knew that salt is good for one thing only. This is how he made his order. Dominicans are good for one thing only: truth. Similarly, when he heard the Light himself tell the disciples that they were the light of the world, Dominic felt himself personally addressed to bring light to those in darkness, to make truth bear upon error.
Please pray for us. Pray that we shall have the vocations, fidelity, and courage to be all that the world and the Church needs right now and in the future. May St Dominic show is how all knowledge ultimately harmonises in Christ, and how truth to which he espoused himself can be cherished.