Pope Francis: The Incarnation is the ‘heart and inspiration’ of Dante’s Divine Comedy

Dante portrait by Domenico di Michelino September 12 2005 Credit Jim Forest CC BY NC ND 20 CNA 3 19 15 Dante portrait by Domenico di Michelino./ Jim Forest (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

In a letter for the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, Pope Francis said that the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation is the “true heart and inspiration” of Dante’s great poetic work, the Divine Comedy.

“The mystery of the Incarnation, which we celebrate today, is the true heart and inspiration of the entire poem,” Pope Francis said, writing on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation.

The Divine Comedy “effected what the Fathers of the Church call our ‘divinization,’ the admirabile commercium, the prodigious exchange whereby God enters our history by becoming flesh, and humanity, in its flesh, is enabled to enter the realm of the divine, symbolized by the rose of the blessed,” he said.

Pope Francis issued the apostolic letter Candor Lucis aeternae on the occasion of “Dantedì,” the Italian name for Dante Day.

Dante Day is part of a year-long celebration of the great Italian poet and philosopher, who died in 1321.

Pope Francis said that with his letter he wanted to join previous popes “who honored and extolled the poet Dante, particularly on the anniversaries of his birth or death, and to propose him anew for the consideration of the Church, the great body of the faithful, literary scholars, theologians and artists.”

March 25 is the date many scholars believe marked the beginning of Dante’s journey in the Divine Comedy.

“On this anniversary,” Francis said, “the voice of the Church can hardly be absent from the universal commemoration of the man and poet Dante Alighieri. Better than most, Dante knew how to express with poetic beauty the depth of the mystery of God and love.”

“His poem, one of the highest expressions of human genius, was the fruit of a new and deeper inspiration, to which the poet referred in calling it: ‘the Poem Sacred / To which both heaven and earth have set their hand’ (Par. XXV, 1-2),” he continued.

The pope said that “in Dante we can almost glimpse a forerunner of our multimedia culture, in which word and image, symbol and sound, poetry and dance converge to convey a single message.”

“But the work of the supreme poet also raises provocative questions for our own times. What can he communicate to us in this day and age? Does he still have anything to say to us or offer us? Is his message relevant or useful to us? Can it still challenge us?” Francis asked.

According to the pope, Dante invites us to be his companions on the journey: “If Dante tells his tale admirably, using the language of the people yet elevating it to a universal language, it is because he has an important message to convey, one meant to touch our hearts and minds, to transform and change us even now, in this present life.”

“A message that can and should make us appreciate fully who we are and the meaning of our daily struggles to achieve happiness, fulfillment and our ultimate end, our true homeland,” he wrote, “where we will be in full communion with God, infinite and eternal Love.”

“Dante was a man of his time, with sensibilities different from ours in certain areas, yet his humanism remains timely and relevant, a sure reference point for what we hope to accomplish in our own day.”

In the first part of his letter, Pope Francis gives an overview of the statements that popes of the last century have made about Dante, such as Benedict XV’s encyclical In praeclara summorum, published for the 600th anniversary of the poet’s death, and St. Paul VI’s apostolic letter Altissimi cantus.

Pope Francis quoted from Altissimi cantus: “There may be some who ask why the Catholic Church, by the will of its visible Head, is so concerned to cultivate the memory and celebrate the glory of the Florentine poet. Our response is easy: by special right, Dante is ours! Ours, by which we mean to say, of the Catholic faith, for he radiated love for Christ; ours, because he loved the Church deeply and sang her glories; and ours too, because he acknowledged and venerated in the Roman Pontiff the Vicar of Christ.”

He noted that St. John Paul II often referenced Dante in his speeches, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI frequently drew points for reflection and meditation from his poetry.

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Pope Francis also used an image from Dante’s Paradiso in his first encyclical, Lumen fidei, and marked the 750th anniversary of the poet’s birth with a message in 2015.

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1262. He married Gemma Donati, with whom he had four children. Political unrest and disputes in Florence led to the poet’s perpetual exile from his beloved city in 1302.

In 1315, he was sentenced to death with his adolescent children. His final place of exile was Ravenna, where he died on September 13-14, 1321.

“Reviewing the events of his life above all in the light of faith, Dante discovered his personal vocation and mission. From this, paradoxically, he emerged no longer an apparent failure, a sinner, disillusioned and demoralized, but a prophet of hope,” Francis said.

He explained that even as Dante denounced corruption in parts of the Church, he also advocated renewal, imploring God’s providence to bring this about.

Dante reminded his readers that freedom is not an end in itself, but “a condition for rising constantly higher,” the pope said. “His journey through the three kingdoms vividly illustrates this ascent, which ultimately reaches heaven and the experience of utter bliss.”

According to Pope Francis, Dante’s work also contains a “splendid treatise of Mariology.”

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He said: “With sublime lyricism, particularly in the prayer of St. Bernard, the poet synthesizes theology’s reflection on the figure of Mary and her participation in the mystery of God: ‘Thou Virgin Mother, daughter of thy Son, / Humble and high beyond all other creature, / The limit fixed of the eternal counsel, / Thou art the one who such nobility / To human nature gave, that its Creator / Did not disdain to make himself its creature’ (Par. XXXIII, 1-6).”

The pope noted the important presence of women in the Divine Comedy, including the Virgin Mary, Beatrice, and St. Lucy. He also highlighted Dante’s inclusion of St. Francis of Assisi, who is portrayed in Canto XI of the Paradiso, the sphere of the wise.

“St. Francis and Dante had much in common,” he said. “Francis, with his followers, left the cloister and went out among the people, in small towns and the streets of the cities, preaching to them and visiting their homes. Dante made the choice, unusual for that age, to compose his great poem on the afterlife in the vernacular, and to populate his tale with characters both famous and obscure, yet equal in dignity to the rulers of this world.”

He suggested that another common feature of the two was their sensitivity to the beauty of creation as the reflection of its Creator.

“We can hardly fail to hear in Dante’s paraphrase of the Our Father an echo of St. Francis’s Canticle of the Sun: ‘Praised be thy name and thine omnipotence / By every creature…’ (Purg. XI, 4-5),” he noted.

“Dante,” he concluded, “can help us to advance with serenity and courage on the pilgrimage of life and faith that each of us is called to make, until our hearts find true peace and true joy, until we arrive at the ultimate goal of all humanity: ‘The Love which moves the sun and the other stars’ (Par. XXXIII, 145).”