- Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals (Lk. 10:4)
A popular story has it that, while in Rome seeking papal approval for his newly founded Order of Preachers, Dominic Guzmán was given a tour of the treasures of the Vatican by Pope Honorius III. At one point during the tour, the Pope is said to have remarked, “Peter can no longer say, ‘I have neither silver nor gold.’” “No,” replied Dominic in agreement, looking straight at the Pope and picking up the papal reference to Acts 3:6, “and neither can he say, ‘Rise and walk.’”
The story, factual or not, immediately calls attention to St. Dominic’s commitment to poverty. But ultimately, I think, it affirms the saint’s charism of effective preaching.
Poverty is important, according to St. Dominic, because effective proclamation of Jesus’ good news and salvific name requires it. It was St. Dominic’s view that the official missionaries’ reliance on ecclesiastical pomp and dignity accounted for their notorious lack of success with the Albigenses. His own experience had left him convinced that the clergy’s wealth was a major reason for their lack of credibility. In the first place, the Albigenses, who stressed poverty and austerity, already considered the preachers’ display of wealth to be a sure sign of the falsity of their message. In the second place, ecclesiastical wealth gave the appearance that the church was more interested in making itself great and powerful, in amassing wealth, and seeking its own glory, than in proclaiming the good news, witnessing to Jesus and in reflecting God’s glory. Such an appearance made the ordinary folks and the common workers indisposed to hear churchmen.
Concerned, then, about effective preaching and convinced that preaching and poverty belonged together, St. Dominic went forth among the Albingenses, tout simplement, routiere pauvre et chantant, in the words of Soeur Sourire’s popular 1962 song. For St. Dominic, as it was for St. John the Baptist, to witness joyfully and radiantly to the Lamb of God meant to renounce self-aggrandizement, wealth and pomp: the Lord’s witness is not even worthy to untie the Lord’s sandal strap; the Lord ranks ahead of the witness who makes him known; the Lord must increase and his witness must decrease. As the Servant himself, whom he served, showed God’s glory, so St. Dominic would show only the Servant’s glory and would wait to be made glorious only by the Servant. Unlike Pope Innocent III who ordered a military campaign against the Albigenses in retaliation for the murder of a papal legate, and thus unleashed five years of bloody civil war, massacre and savagery in southern France, St. Dominic would not rely on pompous display of wealth and on violent exercise of power. The gospel—God’s truth, grace, peace, holiness—has the power, Dominic firmly believed, to draw people gently to itself. Accordingly, he reformed his own life and preached the gospel in poverty, simplicity and humility. En tous chemins, en tous lieux, says also Soeur Sourire’s song, il ne parle que du bon Dieu, il ne parle que du bon Dieu.
But if St. Dominic knew what to say throughout his tireless journeys of preaching and proclaim it effectively, it appears it was because he listened first. He might well have echoed at one time or another St. John the Baptist’s admission that he did not know the Lamb of God at first. But John was spoken to by the Holy Spirit to whom he obviously listened. And Dominic, for his part, contemplated the Scriptures, as a well-known painting portrays him to be doing, and reflected on them. The favorite books he carried around were apparently the Gospel of Matthew and the Letters of Paul. Yet Dominic sold even these precious books to feed the hungry, saying in justification of his decision, “I will not study on dead skins when people are dying of hunger.” St. Dominic listened to Jesus, speaking in the Scriptures and in the poor as well.
Poor and attentive Dominic—barefoot and begging, committed to the poor Jesus who came to share our helplessness and to be baptized on our behalf—admitted, as did St. Peter, his lack of material means. And he was able to proclaim effectively as well, along with St. Peter, Jesus’ good news and name of salvation and say, “Rise and walk.” And accounts tell us too that Dominic became known as a worker of wonders especially in the city where Peter, in the view of a wealthy successor, could no longer say, “I have neither silver nor gold.”