Reading Dante in the Year of Mercy

Pope Francis’ proclamation of the Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2015-16 coincided with another important event in the world of Italian culture: the 750th anniversary of the birth of the epic poet Dante Alighieri, author of the medieval masterpiece known as the Divine Comedy. This happy coincidence was not lost on Francis, an avid reader of Dante and a former teacher of literature during his early years at a Jesuit high school in Argentina. In May 2015, seven months before the Year of Mercy, Francis delivered a formal message in praise of Dante to Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture. Citing the enthusiasm for Dante of his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Francis lauded the poet as “one of the most illustrious figures not only for Italians but for all of humanity” and urged Catholics to reread his “immortal works” during the Year of Mercy. Indeed Dante, whom Francis calls “a prophet of hope” and a “herald of the possibility of human redemption,” has much to teach Catholics today about the complex dynamics of mercy.

A major theme stressed by Pope Francis in the Year of Mercy has been the transformative power of the human journey of conversion, made possible by God’s boundless forgiveness. In “The Face of Mercy” ("Misericordiae Vultus"), the bull of indiction of the Jubilee of Mercy, Francis retrieves the medieval spiritual practice of pilgrimage, urging Christians to travel to the various Holy Doors of Mercy stationed at major cathedrals and basilicas around the world in order to experience the abundance of divine mercy for themselves. “Life itself is a pilgrimage, and the human being is a viator, a pilgrim traveling along the road,” Francis explains. And to make a pilgrimage is to undertake a journey of conversion: “by crossing the threshold of the Holy Door, we will find the strength to embrace God’s mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others as the Father has been with us” (No. 14). The Jubilee of Mercy, then, has the goal of promoting a more merciful church, more attuned to works of love than to attitudes of judgment.

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Dante’s epic poem, itself staged as a pilgrimage through the three realms of the Christian afterlife set during Holy Week in 1300 (another jubilee year in the church), recounts the author’s own extraordinary journey of conversion. As the pilgrim travels from the “dark wood” of the Inferno, up through the seven-story mountain of the Purgatorio and out past the spheres and stars of the Paradiso to stand before the very face of God, Dante paints a double portrait of human redemption, blending the intensely personal with the broadly universal. The Divine Comedy envisions not only the individual salvation of its author but the global transformation of a world made new, in which readers and society as a whole are led by the poem “from a state of misery to a state of happiness” (Dante, Epistle 13, No. 15). Pope Francis stresses this duality that lies at the heart of the Comedy, arguing that we can read the poem as a “great itinerary” and a “true pilgrimage” that features two separate yet interconnected dimensions of conversion: “personal and interior” as well as “communal, ecclesial, social, and historic.” This journey, as Dante makes explicit from the very beginning of the poem, is initiated, sustained and transformed by divine mercy.

In what follows, I will trace the contours of what we might call Dante’s “itinerary of mercy,” a process that unfolds progressively through the three realms of the Divine Comedy. In the Inferno we learn that it is God’s mercy that first makes possible the pilgrim’s journey home to God; in the Purgatorio we see how God’s mercy transcends all possible boundaries, even those erected by the church, by bringing healing to even the worst sinners; finally, in the Paradiso we consider Dante’s point of arrival, wherethe poet provides us with a striking image of a renewed church, united in diversity and reconciled by mercy.

Inferno: Mercy as the Starting Point for a Journey of Conversion

“God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking His mercy.” Thus in the 2013 encyclical “The Joy of the Gospel” (No. 3) did Pope Francis reiterate his message of mercy, with which he began his papacy during his first Angelus address earlier that year. Mercy, in the view of Francis, changes everything: it creates new relationships and it allows for new paths to emerge where none previously existed. This is precisely the situation that Dante dramatizes in the first canto of the Inferno.

The poem famously begins in medias res, where the pilgrim awakes, midway through the journey of our mortal life, to find himself alone in a dark wood, in which the straight way is lost. Commentators have traditionally interpreted this dark wood allegorically: Dante is lost in a twisted forest of sin and perdition, impeded from pursuing the clear path of moral virtue by three savage beasts—a spotted leopard, a proud lion and a ravenous wolf, representing the vices of lust, pride and avarice—who repeatedly block his ability to ascend the sunlit hill lying beyond the wood. Beyond the allegorical significance of these details, Dante draws our attention to the raw emotion, the sheer terror, confusion and hopelessness that he experiences while spinning helplessly amid the trees: “It is so bitter that death is little more so!”(Inferno, 1.7; I rely on the translation of Ronald L. Martinez and Robert M. Durling). At this precise point, where the journey is nearly over before it begins, a shadowy figure suddenly emerges on the horizon, whom Dante spontaneously asks for mercy:

         When I saw him in the great wilderness,

Miserere—on me,” I cried to him,

“whatever you may be, whether shade or true man!” (Inferno 1.64-68).

The character whom Dante is unable to distinguish as shade or man is in fact the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, who has been providentially appointed by God to lead Dante to salvation. Virgil, who will serve as Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory, offers Dante a way out, an escape from the mire of sin and a second chance at happiness.

What is striking in this passage is that the very first word of spoken dialogue in the poem is the Latin imperative miserere: Dante literally asks Virgil to “have mercy” on his dire condition. The fact that Dante quotes the Latin rather than translate the word miserere into his native Italian suggests that here he is quoting directly from Scripture, specifically the penitential Psalm 51, in which the psalmist (for Dante always King David) begs God to create in him a pure heart and blot out his transgressions. Another detail of the scene, the “great wilderness” in which Dante first sees Virgil at line 64—the Italian is gran diserto, or “great desert” — evokes the biblical story of Exodus, in which God leads the Jewish people from slavery to salvation. The desert, the place of diabolical temptation and human rebellion, nonetheless becomes in the Bible the very locus in which Israel’s identity is forged: it is here that God repeatedly demonstrates his abiding love and fidelity to the covenant.

The Exodus story thus forms a kind of template for Dante’s personal journey: he too must follow the path of conversion traced earlier by the Israelites. By speaking the words of Psalm 51, Dante reveals that he has already been granted the mercy he seeks, for the words he uses are not his own but constitute a gift from God, mediated through Scripture and the church. Dante teaches us here an important spiritual lesson: our very desire to seek mercy is the evidence that God loves us. Indeed that divine grace is already active in our lives. Mercy is God’s invitation to begin again, to trust in his ability to lead us out of the “dark wood” and toward someplace new.

Purgatorio: God’s Mercy Transcends All Limits

“There is a wideness in God’s mercy/ like the wideness of the sea.” These lines from Frederick Faber’s 1854 hymn are an apt description of Dante’s Purgatorio, where a mountain, whose seven terraces prepare souls for reunion with God, rises high above the blue waters of the sea. In this space of moral regeneration and emerging human wholeness, the most salient quality of God evoked by the suffering penitents is his mercy: by their sinful actions on earth they merited damnation, and yet God’s merciful love has rescued them. Dante shows us here a glimpse of God’s mercy in action, which reorients the human person to a fuller, richer life rooted in freedom. Perhaps no figurebetter illustrates this rehabilitation, which Pope Francis calls the “bright horizon which shines in the full dignity of the human person,” than Manfred, whom Dante meets peering out from a cliff by the shores in Purgatorio 3.

Manfred’s fame precedes him. Accused by the 13th-century church of being the Antichrist and excommunicated by two different popes on three separate occasions, Manfred was the illegitimate son of Emperor Frederick II and waged bloody battles throughout his short life for control of the Italian peninsula. He was also thought to be an Epicurean, one who denied the immortality of the soul and the existence of God. Yet Dante’s description of Manfred in the Purgatorio resembles Gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrected body: blond, handsome and smiling, Manfred rises from a promontory to display his glorious wounds.

As he tells Dante of his defeat and bloody death at the battle of Benevento in 1266, Manfred paints a moving portrait of the saving dynamics of God’s mercy:

         After I had my body broken by two mortal

thrusts, I gave myself up, weeping, to Him Who

gladly pardons.

         Horrible were my sins; but the infinite

Goodness has such open arms that it takes

whatever turns to it.

                                                         Purgatorio 3.118-123

Manfred’s horrible sins are redeemed by God’s infinite goodness, which pardons him even though he did not repent until his very last breath. This explains the joyful display of his wounds, which have now become visible, tangible signs of God’s healing mercy.

There is a further critical point that Dante makes with the story of Manfred. The wounded warrior goes on to criticize Pope Clement IV, who reputedly ordered the bishop of Cosenza to secretly exhume Manfred’s mortal remains and transfer them outside the borders of the kingdom. This final, humiliating insult to the excommunicate Manfred’s honor leads him to contrast the wideness of God’s mercy, which pardons even the most heinous sins, with the narrowness of some of the church’s pastors, more concerned with rules and with protecting their own power and privilege than with forgiveness. It is difficult not to detect a trace of this same sentiment in Pope Francis’ “The Face of Mercy,” where he laments that “perhaps we [the church] have long since forgotten how to show and live the way of mercy” (No. 10). With the Manfred episode Dante criticizes as a faithful believer, urging the church, from a prophetic standpoint, to return to its roots in mercy. The poet’s bold call in the Purgatorio echoes that of Pope Francis, who warns that “the church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love.”

Paradiso: A Church Reconciled by Mercy  

Throughout his papacy, Francis has sought to build a more compassionate church by advocating a collaborative spirit that he calls “synodality.” The strategy, which was visible most recently in the 2014-15 Synod on the Family, calls for frank and open discussion among church leaders, especially on matters of contention and disagreement. It entails genuine dialogue and fraternity among participants: boldness and courage in speaking one’s true views, and humility and respect in listening charitably to those who hold different positions. Francis’ hope is that the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, may not simply avoid conflicts but instead arrive at deeper, more essential levels of consensus. Opponents are no longer demonized but instead become free, creative collaborators in the church’s ongoing project of building up the Kingdom of God. This spirit of listening necessarily entails a spirit of mercy: for real dialogue to occur, past harms and insults must be forgiven and bitter conflicts laid away, as a new future of mutuality and harmony is envisioned and brought into being through concrete actions of merciful love.

Cantos 10-12 of the Paradiso, set in the Heaven of the Sun,present an image of the church that wonderfully embodies the spirit of synodality urged by Pope Francis. Here Dante is surrounded by the wise souls, those great thinkers and scholars who devoted their lives to study and debate, illuminating all of humanity with their theological wisdom. Amid these mystics, prophets, and Doctors of the Church we find several figures, such as saints Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, who appear side-by-side with their former rivals, whose views they had once forcefully condemned during their time on earth. Reconciled to their former opponents Siger of Brabant and Joachim of Flora, Thomas and Bonaventure now lead two spinning circles of shining lights whose beauty and harmony Dante compares successively to twin rainbows, a pair of flowered garlands, a group of dancing ladies and a spinning millstone. The implication is not that their earthly disagreements and asymmetries have been canceled out or rendered mute but that their concrete diversity and their real particularities constitute the individual elements that make up a larger, more beautiful unity. Dante represents this reconciled church, in which the formerly discordant voices of sworn enemies now blend into a harmonious conversation of friends, by finally comparing the circle of souls to a celestial clock tower:

         Then, like a clock that calls us in the hour

When the bride of God rises to sing a dawn

song to the Bridegroom, that he may love her,

         Whose one part pulls and the other pushes,

sounding tin tin with so sweet a note that a well-

disposed spirit swells with love:

         so I saw that glorious wheel turning, voice

answering voice, with tempering and sweetness

that cannot be known

         except there, where rejoicing forevers itself.

                                                         Paradiso 10.139-148

It is at this point that Dante’s vision converges with that of Pope Francis: the journey of mercy ends in joy. What had begun as a plea for forgiveness is now a glorious homecoming, a final and definitive arrival in that heavenly community, that space of peace, love and communion where all find their home, where the push-and-pull of tension gives way to the ringing sweetness of shared music. In the Paradiso Dante realizes that “new condition, marked by harmony, peace, and happiness” which for Pope Francis constitutes “the horizon of all authentic humanism.”                

The only title Dante ever gave to his poem was Comedìa, or “Comedy,” which simply indicates that the work has a happy ending. Human happiness: this is indeed the true subject of the Divine Comedy. As we take up Pope Francis’ invitation to reread Dante at the end of this Jubilee Year of Mercy, let us allow ourselves to become fully aware of and to treasure the many ways in which God’s mercy, always active in our lives, has opened up for us the path to joy.

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