St. Dominic arrives in France – His first journey to

Rome – Interview at Montpellier


At that time, Alphonso III., king of Castile, was meditating a marriage between his son and a Danish princess, and entrusted the negotiation of the affair to the Bishop of Osma, who, taking with him Dominic, set out for the North of Germany towards the close of the year 1203.  In passing through Languedoc, both were deeply grieved at beholding the alarming success of the Albigenses.  On reaching Toulouse, where they had to pass the night, Dominic perceived that their host was a heretic; and although time pressed, he was anxious to be of service to the poor deluded man under whose roof they then were.  Jesus Christ has said to His Apostles, “When you come into a house, salute it, saying, Peace be to this house.  And if that house be worthy, your peace shall come upon it; but if it be not worthy, your peace shall return to you.”[1]  The Saints, to whose minds all the words of Jesus Christ are ever present, and who know the power of a benediction given even in secret, regard themselves as God’s ambassadors to every creature whom they meet, and strive to part from none until they have implanted in his heart some germ of grace.  Dominic did not rest content with merely praying for his host, but passed the night in converse with him; and the ready eloquence of the stranger made so deep an impression on the heretic, that he returned to the faith before the dawn of day.  Then another wonder occurred; touched by the conquest he had just effected in the cause of truth, and also by the sad spectacle of he ravages made by false doctrine, Dominic then first conceived the idea of founding an Order in defense of the Church, the mission of which should consist in preaching.  This sudden resolve took lasting possession of his mind; and now that the secret of his future career was revealed to him, he quitted France, as if that land, jealous that this great man owed her not his birth, had nevertheless obtained from God this favor, that he should not tread her soil in vain, and that to her he should be indebted for the decisive counsel of his life.


After much fatigue, Don Diégo and Dominic reached their journey’s end; and finding the Danish Court favorably disposed to the alliance desired by Castile, they at once returned with these tidings to King Alphonso, and again set forth with larger retinue to escort the Princess to Spain; but she died during the interim, and Don Diégo, finding himself relieved of his mission, sent a courier to the king, and turned his own steps to Rome.


At that time there was no Christian but desired, ere death, to press with his lips the shrines of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul.  Even the poor came on foot to visit these distant relics, and receive, at least once, the blessing of the Vicar of Jesus Christ.


Don Diégo and Dominic knelt side by side at that tomb which governs the world; as they raised their foreheads from the dust, a second happiness awaited them – a happiness exceeding all other that a Christian can experience on earth – that of beholding the Pontifical See filled by a worthy occupant.  Such was Innocent III.  What were the feelings awakened in them by sight of the Universal City, history does not record.  They who come to Rome for the first time, bearing with them the grace of Christianity and the charm of youth, know the emotion that Rome awakens; others would not comprehend it so readily; and I admire the sobriety of those ole historians who, when they knew the impotence of language, wisely kept silence.


The Bishop of Osma intended to ask a favor of the Sovereign Pontiff.  He had determined to resign his see and consecrate the remainder of his days to evangelizing the Cumans, a barbarous people dwelling on the confines of Hungary, and renowned for their cruelty.  Innocent III. Refusing to accede to this heroic demand, Don Diégo entreated that he might, while still retaining his bishopric, be permitted to go on his missionary work, but the Pope persisted in his refusal, and commanded him to return to his diocese.  The two pilgrims re-crossed the Alps in the spring of 1205, and although intending to proceed at once to Spain, they gratified their pious wish of visiting on their way one of the most renowned monasteries of Christendom; and taking a long and circuitous route, knocked for admittance at the gate of the Abbey of Cîteaux.


The spirit of St. Bernard still dwelt there; and if the same poverty no longer reigned, there were other virtues, which so won the heart of the Bishop that he expressed to the monks his wish to receive their habit.  This request was at once complied with, and the monastic garb in some degree consoled him for being unable to go forth as a poor missionary to the Cumans.  Although Dominic refrained from following his friend’s example, he carried away feelings of deep esteem and affection for the monks of Cîteaux.  After a short sojourn at the abbey, they both resumed their journey; and following, most probably, the banks of the Saone and the Rhone, arrived at Montpellier.


Three men who played an important part in the affairs of the Church at that epoch were then assembled beneath the walls of Montpellier.  Arnault, abbot of Cîteaux; Raoul and Pierre de Castelnau, monks of the same Order.  Pope Innocent III. Had appointed them Legates Apostolic to the provinces of Aix, Arles, and Narbonne, with full powers to follow the course they judged best for the repression of Heresy.  Their legateship, of more than a year’s duration, had hitherto been unsuccessful.  The Count of Toulouse, governor of those provinces, openly supported the heretics; the bishops refused to aid the Legates, one from cowardice, another from indifference, and a third because he was a heretic too.  “The clergy had incurred the contempt of the people to such a degree,” says Guillaume de Puy-Laurens, “that the name of ecclesiastic had passed into a proverb like that of Jew, so that instead of saying, ‘I would rather be a Jew than to that,’ many would substitute the word ‘ecclesiastic.’ On appearing in public, they would carefully brush their hair so as to conceal their tonsure, which they made as small as possible.  The Knights very rarely destined their own sons for the ecclesiastical state, but presented the sons of their retainers to those churches of which they received the tithes, and the Bishops conferred orders on whom they could.”[2]  Innocent III. Had not concealed from his Legates the extent of this evil; in a letter dated May 31, 1204, he said, “Those called by St. Peter to share his charge over Israel do not keep watch over the flock by night, but sleep, and come not to the rescue of Israel from the hands of the Midianites.  The shepherd is become a hireling; he feeds not the flock, but himself; he seized the wool and the milk of the sheep; abandons the fold to the ravages of the wolf, and offers no resistance to the foes of the house of God.  Hireling as he is, he flees from evil that he could destroy, and treacherously becomes its protector.  The majority have deserted the cause of God, and of the remainder, few render Him any service.”


The three Legates were men of strong faith and noble character, but, abandoned by all, were unable to effect anything either by authority or persuasion.  In those provinces not a single bishop would support them in exhorting Count Raymond VI. to remember the glorious conduct of his ancestors.  Their conferences had been unsuccessful with the heretics, who always cited the deplorable lives of the clergy, quoting our Lord’s own words, “By their fruits ye shall know them.”[4]  In spite of their energetic character, the Legates became dejected, and bitterly felt how impossible it is to withstand, unaided, the torrent of human passions when directed against the truth; and under the weight of this conviction they were deliberating at Montpellier.  Their unanimous decision was to give the Sovereign Pontiff an exact account of the state of things, at the same time resigning in to his hands an office, the duties of which they could fulfill neither with honor nor profit.  But man’s necessity is God’s opportunity.


During the last thirty years Providence had been preparing an answer to the cries of His servants and the insults of His enemies, and now the hour for deliverance had come.  At the very moment that the Legates were making their sorrowful resolutions, they learnt that Don Diégo, Bishop of Osma, had just arrived at Montpellier.  They sent a message entreating him to come and see them: Don Diégo at once acceded.


I shall allow the Blessed Jordain de Saxe to continue the narrative: “The Legates received him with respect, and begged his advice, knowing that he was a holy man, and full of zeal for the faith.  He, endowed as he was with the gift of circumspection and skilled in the ways of God, began to inquire concerning the manners and customs of the heretics.  He observed that they made converts by their persuasive manners, by preaching, and by an exterior of sanctity, while the Legates were surrounded by a numerous and stately retinue.  He replied, ‘My brothers, you must change your course of action.  It seems to me impossible to convert, by words, men who set such store by example; they seduce simple souls by the outward appearances of evangelical poverty and austerity, and whole you present the contrary spectacles you will edify but little; you will do much harm, and you will never touch their heart.  Oppose example to example: to feigned sanctity oppose true piety: it is only by a marked humility that one gains the victory over the feigned sanctity of false apostles.  Thus it was that St. Paul’s boasting opponents obliged him to remind them of his own virtues, austerities, and the continual perils to which his life was exposed.’  The Legates rejoined, ‘Most excellent father, what do you advise us to do?’ He replied, “Do as I do;’ and at once, filled with the Spirit of God, he called his attendants and ordered them to return to Osma with his equipages and sumptuous retinue.  He only retained a few ecclesiastics, and declared his intention of remaining in those parts to render service to the faith.  He also retained near his person the Superior Dominic, whom he highly esteemed and loved; this was Brother Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers, and who from that moment called himself no longer sub-prior, but Brother Dominic; truly a man of God, as his purity of life and zeal for the commandments testify.  The Legates, moved by the counsel and example they had received, at once consented; dismissed their baggage and attendants, and keeping only such books as were necessary for controversy, went on foot in a state of voluntary poverty, and under the guidance of the Bishop of Osma, to preach the true faith.”[5]


How marvelously and patiently God brought about this issue! On the shores of a river in Spain, two men, differing in age, receive an abundant outpouring of the Spirit of God.  One day they meet, attracted by the odor of their mutual virtues, like two rare trees planted in the same forest, whose branches bend to meet each other.  Then, when a lengthened friendship has blended their thoughts and days in one, an unforeseen will summons them from their native land, least they through Europe, from the Pyrenees to the Baltic, from the Tiber to the hills of Burgundy, an, unconsciously to themselves, they arrive at the exact moment to give to three men, whose courage had almost failed, a counsel that changes the face of affairs, saves the honor of the Church, and prepares for her, in the near future, a legion of apostles!  The enemies of the Church have never read her history attentively, or they would have remarked the inexhaustible fertility of her resources, and the marvelous adaptability of the same.  She resembles that giant, sprung from the earth, who from his very fall received fresh strength; misfortune does but restore her pristine virtues, and in losing the power lent her by the world, she but recovers her own native power.  The world can only deprive her of that which it has bestowed, namely, participation in the benefits arising from riches, rank, secular honors and protection; vestments these, woven by impure hands, which, as the tunic of Dejanira, the Church must never wear save above the sackcloth of her native poverty.  If gold, in lieu of being the handmaid of charity and the ornament of virtue, prove detrimental to the one or the other, then must gold perish, and the world, in spoiling the Church, does but restore to her the nuptial robe, the gift of her Divine Spouse, of which none can deprive her.  For how robe her who possesses naught, or how spoil her whose treasure poverty is?  It is in voluntary renunciation that God has made the strength of His Church consist, and no mortal hand can robe her of that treasure.  This is why crafty persecutors have sought less to despoil, than corrupt the Church; most subtle this ruse, if God permitted the evil to be universal.  But from corruption springs forth life, and from her very ruins conscience awakes to vitality.  Mystic circle, of which god holds the secret, and by which He governs all.


What could appear more hopeless than the religious condition of Languedoc in the year 1205?  The Prince a violent heretic; the majority of the Barons favoring heresy; the Bishops utterly negligent of their duties; and some of them, as the Bishop of Toulouse and the Archbishop of Auch, stained with open crime; the specious show of virtue assumed by heresy; and even those were dispirited in whose strong pure hearts unshaken faith had its home.  Two passing strangers suffice to change all.  They will revive the courage of the Apostolic Legates, confirm the wavering, console the strong souls, rouse the Episcopate from its lethargy; a great Bishop will rule the see of Toulouse; and if success is not decisive, it will nevertheless be sufficiently marked to show on what side are reason, sound judgment, devotedness, and the assurance of a divine cause.



[1] St. Matthew X. 12, 13.

[2] Chronicle, in the prologue.

[3] Letters of Innocent III., book vii. Letter 75.

[4] St. Matthew vii. 16.

[5] Vie de St. Dominique, ch i. n.16 &c.


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Text from the 1880 Burns and Oats edition

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