St. Raymond of Penafort

Dominican Friar, Master of the Order, and Patron Saints of Lawyers

Article courtesy of the Dominican Nuns at Corpus Christi Monastery, Menlo Park, CA.

One of the windows in the nuns’ choir in Corpus Christi Monastery. Each window depicts a symbol or emblem of a Dominican saint.

A few minutes’ drive (or walk) from our monastery is a  community of our brothers, living and serving under the patronage of St. Raymond of Penyafort. The community of friars serves St. Raymond of Penyafort parish and school, Stanford University, Vallambrosa Retreat Center, and provides chaplaincy to our monastery. We are ever more grateful for the tireless service they offer the community, and our community as well. Truly, they faithfully give themselves to the glory of God and salvation of souls in the example of their patron. So who was St. Raymond of Penyafort?

St. Raymond of Penyafort is a shining example of a person living daily a life of quiet fidelity, humility, and sanctity. The Church remembers St. Raymond as an exemplar confessor and for his contributions to canon law. His brothers and sisters in the Order remember him for his steady and tireless giving of himself and the fruits of his contemplation, even well past the age we would think a person entitled to “retire.” For St. Raymond, “to live was Christ” (Phil. I:21).

In a castle near Barcelona, in the quiet, sleepy countryside of medieval Catalonia, lived the Penyafort family. It was here that St. Raymond was born and grew. As a child, he was dedicated by his parents to serve the Church and at an early age was sent to school in Barcelona. Upon completing his education, he began to teach in Bologna, but after a few years, decided to continue his studies. Possessing a brilliant mind, he eventually set his sights on specializing in canon law, and so moved to Bologna, Italy, which had the preeminent university for law at that time.

Stained glass from the church of St. Vincent Ferrer in New York. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Upon completing his doctorate, he began to teach in Bologna. In those days, professors and students negotiated tuition fees – students paid for each class taught by the professor. However, St. Raymond believed that knowledge was a gift from God, so he never demanded payment for his classes from his students. In fact, he was horrified that some of his colleagues demanded such high payments from their students that they lived in relative luxury, while some students were so poor, one would have to stay home while another went to class wearing the only set of clothes they had between them! Nonetheless, the city of Bologna was so afraid of losing St. Raymond to a rival school, the governing officials voted to give him an annual stipend.

As a young professor, St. Raymond wrote many works, useful to his contemporaries and colleagues, and which are still the object of study. But his most notable written work for the Church was compiling the Decretals of Gregory IX. The Decretals were the code by which the discipline of the Church was directed from day of their promulgation, September 5, 1234, until May 19, 1918, when the Code of Canon Law became effective. In other words, for over six hundred and eighty-three years the collection of the Decretals made by St. Raymond was the authentic source of legislation in the Church.

When he was forty-seven, the year after St. Dominic’s death, St. Raymond donned the white habit of a Dominican novice and began a new mode of life. His entering the Dominicans caused a huge stir in the university city of Bologna, as well as a sudden surge of new vocations to the Dominicans. As a Dominican, he became Master of the Order after the death of Bl. Jordan of Saxony and compiled the Liber Constitutionum Ordinis Fratrum Praedicatorum, the Dominican Constitutions. Later, he encouraged St. Thomas Aquinas to write his Summa Contra Gentiles. As a missionary and apostle, he co-founded, with St. Peter Nolasco, the Order of Our Lady of Ransom (for the redemption of Christian captives). Yearning to convert the peoples of the East, he founded schools in Barcelona and Tunis for the study of oriental languages.

St. Raymond on the façade of our church. All rights reserved.

After two years of intense labor as Master of the Order, citing ill health, St. Raymond begged to be allowed to resign as Master. Though his resignation was eventually accepted (and the accepting friars were penanced severely for letting him go), St. Raymond continued to labor for the Order and Church. He was appointed, at different times, as confessor to the pope and king, and as papal penitentiary, he pronounced on difficult cases of conscience. He wrote various works for the guidance of confessors and canonists, and in art, he is pictured holding a key, the symbol of confession.

St. Raymond of Penyafort, pray for us!

P.S. – Give up on the life event depicted in our stained glass window? St. Raymond was always consulted by King James I of Aragon in every important affair of state. Toward the end of his life, St. Raymond accompanied King James I to an island to obtain the conversion of the Moors. However, King James also brought with him his mistress. St. Raymond reproved the king several times, but to no avail. Refusing to be part of the royal entourage, he began looking for a ship to take him back to the mainland. But, every captain had been forbidden under penalty of death to give him passage. Undaunted, St. Raymond said to his fellow friar, “You will see that the King of Heaven will confound the wickedness of this earthly King and provide me with a ship.”

With that, he walked to the seashore, removed his black cappa and cast one part upon the water and fastened the other part to his staff. Kneeling on the part floating on the surface of the water, he invited his fellow friar to do likewise; but the friar declined. Making the sign of the cross, St. Raymond pushed off from shore and quickly sailed away on his cappa. He made the voyage of 180 miles in six hours, faster than any ship at that time. When he reached shore, a crowd had gathered, seeing him on the water. He stepped on land, picked up his cappa and put it back on his shoulders, as dry as if it had never touched water. He walked to the convent, which was locked; but suddenly, he was inside the cloister without anyone seeing how he got in, or hearing him.

When news of the miracle reached King James, he sincerely repented and gave up his sinful life, and he and St. Raymond became friends once more.