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Great Dominicans: St. Raymond of Penyafort

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

When a great legal mind and a deeply pastoral heart come together, something special is bound to happen.

Raymond of Penyafort (ca. 1175 – 1275) was one of the great legal minds of his time. Born in a village near Barcelona, he was trained as a canon lawyer and occupied the chair of canon law in Bologna, at that time the place to be for anyone interested in law.

In Bologna Raymond met the Dominicans, and joined the order at the age of 47. He went back to Barcelona, but Pope Gregory IX had heard of his juridical talent, and asked him to come to Rome for an important task. For some centuries, papal decrees had been multiplying and were scattered over a unhelpfully great number of collections: Raymond was to rearrange and bring order in canon law. In 1234 the work was finished, and Pope Gregory publically thanked “our dear Son, brother Raymond” for his work. The “Decretals of Gregory IX” as they became known, are an exceptional collection of canon law: they remained the standard in the church for almost 700 years, until the Codex of Canon Law was published in 1917.  

After the work on the Decretals was finished, Raymond returned to Spain, but could not stay there very long: in 1238 his Dominican brothers chose him as the third Master of the Order. Although he was by now over 60 years old, he set out on foot to visit all the houses of friars and nuns of the Order. In the meantime, he drafted a new set of constitutions for the order, in which he included a resignation clause for the Master. When the constitutions where accepted by the next general chapter of 1240, he immediately took advantage of that option and stepped down.

Raymond is well known for his Decretals, and we Dominicans know him as our third Master, but there was another side to brother Raymond. In Barcelona, he wrote the “Summa de casibus poenitentiae”, an handbook to help his Dominican brothers with questions that might arise in hearing confessions. In contrast to existing handbooks for confessors, Raymond did not just give a list of sins and suggested penances, but discussed pertinent doctrines and laws of the church to help the understanding of the confessors.

In his years in Rome, Raymond was the confessor of Pope Gregory IX. Back in Barcelona, he became the confessor of King James of Aragon, and was known for his wise counsel. A look at his other works confirms Raymond’s deeply pastoral heart: he wrote a book on marriage, in which he stressed the centrality of free consent, and in which he diverges from a mainly legal approach to discuss the goods of marriage. He also wrote a book settling sensitive cases of conscience.

Looking at these works, it is hard not to think of Raymond as a teacher of Christian freedom: teaching confessors insight in how to free people from the bondage of sins, teaching the centrality of freedom in the love that binds people together in marriage, and writing on conscience, what the church later would call “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man” (Gaudium et Spes 16). Freedom from sin, freedom to give oneself to another in love, freedom of conscience: Raymond of Penyafort put his great legal mind at the service of this “freedom of the children of God”. For this, he is rightly remembered as a great Dominican.  

Br Stefan Mangnus O.P.


Anonymous commented on 10-Nov-2015 09:06 AM
That is such an interesting and stimulating post. Thank-you Brother Stefan.

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