“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.
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).”