Bl. John Dominici

(1356?-1419)

There have been many cardinals in the church, but few of them have been declared blesseds or saints. Some of them have led discreditable rather than holy lives. Others have been able but worldly. Of the rest, they have deserved praise, but have usually fallen short, like most of us, of heroic sanctity.

John Dominici was one cardinal who merited to be proclaimed “blessed.”

Born to Domenico Banchini of Florence, Italy, John adopted as his surname “Dominici”, in honor of his father (“John of Dominic”). Around 1373 he entered the Order of Preachers (Dominicans). Given a careful education at Florence, Pisa, and Paris, he was ordained a priest and named, first, assistant prior (1381); then, prior (1385-87),of the convent of S. Maria Novella in Florence. Next he was appointed a lector (teacher) of the Dominican students at SS. John and Paul priory in Venice. An able executive and a strong advocate of the Dominican reformist movement then under way, John personally reformed the priories of Venice, Chioggia, and Citta di Castello. He also founded a Dominican convent of nuns at Venice. Finally, he was named vicar general of all the reformed Italian priories. Friar John thus became the leading promoter, under his zealous superior, Bl. Raymond of Capua, of Italian Dominican reform.

In addition to administrative work, Father John became engaged in the spiritual revival of the Catholic laity. At first his efforts at preaching were impaired by a tendency to stammer. However, he was a good friend of St. Catherine of Siena, and it was to her prayers that he attributed the loosening of his tongue. No longer a stammerer, he went on to become one of the most influential preachers of his day. He also wrote many scriptural, theological, and spiritual books, articles and hymns. Deeply interested in the education of youth, he was one of the first to caution a careful choice of the classical writers that the current humanists were using as textbooks in their liberal arts courses.

During much of Fr. Giovanni’s life, the Church was in the throes of the Great Schism of the West–that tragic state in which there were at first two, and eventually three, bishops who claimed to be pope: one in Rome, one in France, and one in Pisa. For a long time, nobody was able to untie this triple knot. Blessed John was to become largely responsible for its ultimate solution.

All along, John had sided with the Roman line of popes. In 1406 he attended the papal conclave that elected Gregory XII in this line. Gregory came to admire the talented Dominican, and chose him as his confessor and advisor. Eventually, he named him titular archbishop of Ragusa; on April 23, 1408, he created him cardinal priest of the Roman parish church of San Sisto; and finally he appointed him papal legate to Poland and Hungary. After that the pope sent him as his representative to the Council of Constance, which was held in 1414-18 to address the problem of the three papal claimants. Cardinal Dominici had already persuaded Gregory that the question could be settled only if all three “popes” resigned. Gregory had him read his letter of resignation to the Council Fathers.

The Council of Constance then received the reluctant resignation of the Pisan “pope” and forced the French claimant to retire. It then elected Cardinal Odo Colonna as Martin V on November 11, 1417. Finally there was again only one pope.

Pope Martin also held Cardinal Dominici in high esteem. In 1418 he sent him as papal ambassador to Bohemia and Hungary. It was a most difficult assignment. The Bohemians were furious because the Council of Constance had condemned the teachings and the person of the Bohemian priest, John Huss. Though asked by the pope to do so, Wenceslaus, King of Bohemia, refused to place any restrictions on Hussite adherents. The crestfallen Cardinal John therefore went to Hungary. He had not been in Buda long, however, before he caught a fever and died.

International statesmen sometimes seem to us to be engaged in glamorous work. Ambassadorial assignments were for Dominici not a crown but a cross. But he carried the cross loyally, and it carried him. Long venerated informally as “blessed”, Cardinal John Dominici was confirmed in that title in 1832 by pope Gregory XVI.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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