Correctly referred to as the Order of the Friars Preachers (Ordo Praedicatorum, or O.P.), this mendicant order is more commonly known to us as the Dominicans. Founded in 1216 by Saint Dominic, they were originally established to convert the Albigensian heretics of southern France.
Drawn from all walks of life, the early members of the group traveled throughout the countryside preaching and evangelizing, especially to the Albigensians. In 1215, Dominic received the group’s first endorsement from the local bishop, and one year later, received the pope’s formal approval and blessing.
In 1217, the order adopted the Augustinian Rule along with some other monastic guidelines. In the years that followed, many of the friars were sent throughout France, Italy, and Spain to preach, attract new candidates, and found new houses. In 1220 and 1221, the Dominicans held two general chapters during which they continued to work out further details about the order’s government. During these meetings, they voted to place special emphasis on corporate and individual poverty.
The Dominicans were very innovative in their approach to the contemplative and active life: they accepted many of the principles of monastic life as well as those of the regular clergy. Although they maintained a strong adherence to daily prayer and liturgy, they did not isolate themselves from the world as they would preach to the people daily. This bold new philosophy helped advance the initiatives of the mendicant orders.
Since they did not reside in monasteries, nor spend much of their time doing manual labor, they were often found to be present in or around universities, as they placed much importance on the development of the intellect. In time, they became known for their academic work and were the recipients of high positions within universities. With their keen intellect and strong fidelity to orthodoxy, the Dominican theologians earned the title Domini Canes (Watchdogs of the Lord).
As the Dominicans grew in their membership, so did the number of their houses. By the end of the thirteenth century, they had not only expanded to include more than thirteen thousand friars, but could also be found throughout Europe. In that century alone, the Dominicans also produced two of the greatest intellectual giants in the history of the Church: Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Albertus Magnus. The Dominicans not only contributed enormously to the intellectual life of the Church, but also to its overall spiritual well being. Like the Franciscan Order, they sent missionaries to Africa, the Middle East, northern Europe, and the Far East.
Unfortunately, after such a glorious century, the Dominicans experienced a period of decline. Since much of this was due to its rule of poverty, it was further complicated, in 1303, by Pope Boniface VIII’s command for them to restrict some of their privileges. However, the order received a boost, in 1475, when Pope Sixtus IV rescinded the order’s law regarding corporate poverty.
With a new spark and general renewal about discipline and studies, the Dominican Order again began to grow as they opened new houses in Spain and Rome. By doing this, they were able to accelerate the implementation of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s teachings under their own gifted Dominican theologians.
Unfortunately, like most of the other religious orders, they suffered major setbacks during the Reformation and the French Revolution. However, unlike other orders, they received the brunt of it. They were singled out both because of their traditional excellence in learning as well as their fierce loyalty to the Holy See. In the nineteenth century, they began to recoup under the leadership of Jean Baptiste Henri Lacordaire.
Today, the Dominican friars number some 6500 members around the globe. Dominican nuns, founded in 1206 by Saint Dominic, are also found throughout the world today. They are involved in many different apostolic activities, including perpetual adoration, education, hospital work, and the perpetual rosary. Dominicans are most easily recognized by their white habits, which feature a large rosary that hangs from their leather belts. Their habits also include a scapular, white mantle, black cowl, and a black cape.