For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ But not have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. — Romans 10:13-17
It is said that everyone has a calling, whether or not they are religious people. The saint we commemorate today found not just a calling to the priesthood, but to organization, preaching, education, and motivation. That’s a lot to expect from any one person, but Dominic de Guzman was not just a totally ordinary person. He accomplished a lot during his life, and his influence still remains.
Dominic was born in Castille, Spain, in 1170. He discovered his calling to the priesthood and served in several positions of increasing authority over the next few years. He was chosen to accompany a bishop to France, to a territory which was inhabited by the Albigensians, a heretical sect that believed in dualism, a Lord of Good and a Lord of Evil. Dominic’s conversation with the Albigensian innkeeper on first night in town created not just a convert to orthodoxy, but a recognition for Dominic of the value of discussion, persuasion and logic among those who he had come to evangelize.
He was a gentle man, and is said that he had such a kind and gentle way of administering rebuke that people left his presence feeling happy rather than downcast. That’s quite a thing to say about anybody. It certainly seemed to work in his favor.
The mission of which Dominic was part was not totally successful and was interrupted by an assassination, a death, and a five-year war. The “war” against the cathars (another name for Albigensians) was actually a part of the movement called the episcopal Inquisition, which had begun about 1174 and was aimed specifically at the Albigensians and it is unclear as to whether or not Dominic took an active part.
Dominic had applied to the Pope for permission to form a new religious order in 1215. That request was denied but another was granted a year later. By this time Dominic had about 17 followers and with those followers he took a very bold step. Rather than keeping them clustered in the same community in the same area, he did what Jesus did. He sent them out two by two to establish foundations in France and Italy, notably in Paris and Bologna.
Dominic firmly believed that the way to evangelize and convert was by persuasion and logic rather than force. His preachers were to establish schools of theology near universities and centers of learning. They were to live rather austere lives, including simple habits and going about barefoot, somewhat resembling the most strict subgroup of the Albigensians. They were sent to spread the message and evangelize among those considered heretics.
Dominic established new communities in Spain and was honored by the pope by being given the title of The Pope’s Theologian, a post which has been filled by Dominicans since the death of Dominic in 1221. With the passage of time, however, some of Dominic’s spiritual sons forgot the lessons of gentleness and persuasion by words only and began to favor more forcible means. The tortures were less for the soul of the individual being tormented than for the example to those outside the torture chamber. This was the Pope’s inquisition and targeted not only Albigensians but other groups such as Muslims and Jews.
Violence for the sake of conversion is never a really good idea. People tend to resist being forced to do anything, especially something as personal as changing their religion. Even conversion in the face of danger is not considered a true conversion, and people who used that way to trying to save their lives and the lives of their families often found themselves in the same predicament as if they had never converted at all.
Persuasion gives the opportunity to witness what a change of life can mean. There’s truth in the old proverb, “You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.” Perhaps Dominic never heard that truism, but he seemed to use it as his model of evangelism.
There are many times in our lives where we are told what to do and know we have no recourse. It is a very hard thing to accept, and, as the Monty Python skit put it, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” Inquisition was not a new thing, just perhaps a new name for the process.
Christians facing death in the Coliseum, the beatings and tortures followed by crucifixions, and other torments from the earliest days of Christianity fit the pattern of attempted forced conversion. It has never been easy to retain one’s faith when facing pain or death at the hands of another. If those in the Coliseum had never heard of Jesus, their lives would have never been put in jeopardy. If they had not believed, their lives might not have been a bed of roses, but they would not have faced imminent death on a day-to-day basis. The Albigensians had their own beliefs which the church had declared heretical, and so the church decided to forcibly change them, no matter if it killed them in the process.
Persecution still goes on all around the world. Torture, injury, and death are sometimes the result of the attempt to stop what another group considers heresy. There does not seem to be much room for persuasion and logic, only emotion and action. What are we doing to encourage such behavior? Where we tried persuasion, even very persistent persuasion, rather than guns, swords, or other instruments of barbarity. There are people who need to hear the message, but can’t get beyond the behavior of those who bring the message.
People will not listen to a message and respond to it well if the message is not persuasive and the examples of living the message are not clear. The old saying has it, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Vinegar may add tang to a dish — or a conversation — but too much ruins the whole thing. The inquisition was really a case of excessive vinegar while Dominic’s approach was much more palatable.
In this time where people seem to be shouting past each other without anyone listening to anybody else, perhaps we need a dose of Dominic’s wisdom and practice. His mission was to proclaim to those who had not heard and teach them to call on one who could be believed in.
I think Paul’s message to the Romans was logical and persuasive to Dominic. Maybe we should try it for ourselves?