Saint Raymond of Penyafort

Feast day January 7

Saints Stories for All Ages

As a lawyer, priest, and preacher, St. Raymond of Penyafort made a significant mark on the history of Spain and the church. His preaching helped re-Christianize Spain after the Moors were overthrown. And his compilation of papal and conciliar decrees was the main source of canon law for seven centuries.

An accomplished lawyer and scholar, Raymond joined the Dominicans at Barcelona in 1222. The 47-year-old novice was assigned to develop a book of case studies for confessors that helped to shape the medieval church’s penitential system. Also a gifted preacher, Raymond had remarkable success evangelizing Moors and Jews. And he traveled throughout Spain rejuvenating the spiritual life of Christians that the Moors had enslaved. Among his main themes were spiritual combat and standing firm in trials. Listen to his voice in this letter:

The preacher of God’s truth has told us that all who want to live righteously in Christ will suffer persecution. . . . the only exception to this general statement is, I think, the person who either neglects, or does not know how, to live temperately, justly and righteously in this world. May you never be numbered among those whose house is peaceful, quiet and free from care; those on whom the Lord’s chastisement does not descend; those who live out their days in prosperity, and in the twinkling of an eye will go down to hell. Your purity of life, your devotion, deserve and call for a reward; because you are acceptable and pleasing to God your purity of life must be made purer still, by frequent buffetings, until you attain perfect sincerity of heart. If from time to time you feel the sword falling on you with double or treble force, this also should be seen as sheer joy and the mark of love. The two-edged sword consists in conflict without, fears within. It falls with double or treble force within, when the cunning spirit troubles the depths of your heart with guile and enticements. . . .The sword falls with double and treble force externally when, without cause, persecution breaks out from within the church, where wounds are more serious, especially when inflicted by friends. This is that enviable and blessed cross of Christ . . . the cross in which alone we must make our boast, as Paul, God’s chosen instrument, has told us.

In 1230, Pope Gregory IX brought Raymond to Rome as his confessor. There Raymond collected all the decrees of popes and councils since 1150. Because they were so well arranged, canonists relied on Raymond’s Decretals until the new codification of 1917.

Characteristically, Raymond tried to dodge ecclesiastical appointments. In 1236, illness saved him from becoming archbishop of Tarragona. But he could not avoid his election as the third general of the Dominicans in 1238. But when he reformed the Dominican rule, he slipped in a clause allowing early retirement of office holders. And he used it to retire in 1240.

But he continued to work 35 more years, focusing on bringing Jews and Moors to Christ. To equip Catholics for this work he introduced the study of Hebrew and Arabic among Dominicans and persuaded Thomas Aquinas to write his Summa Contra Gentes as an evangelistic tool. Raymond told his general that ten thousand Moors had been baptized through the efforts of the Dominicans. He died at 100 years of age in 1275.

from Voices of the Saints by Bert Ghezzi