This year we celebrate the Year of Dante, marking 700 years since the poet’s death on September 14, 1321. It is fitting that Dante died on the day when we commemorate the triumph of the Holy Cross, as he narrates the drama of salvation as it plays out concretely over the course of life, showing its eternal significance. The unparalleled achievement of his Divine Comedy stands as one of the greatest artistic and cultural achievements of the whole Christian tradition. Dante truly deserves the epithet of the “supreme poet” as he weaves classical literature, Catholic theology, and medieval culture into a complete and seamless vision of life.
Splendor of Light Eternal — Pope Francis fittingly used these words to begin his apostolic letter, marking this year’s centenary: “Dante knew how to express with poetic beauty the depth of the mystery of God and love.” The Pope invites us to read Dante’s Comedy as “an epic journey, indeed, a true pilgrimage, personal and interior, yet also communal, ecclesial, social and historical,” inasmuch as “it represents the paradigm for every authentic journey whereby mankind is called to leave behind what the poet calls ‘the threshing-floor that maketh us so proud’ (Par. XXII, 151), in order to attain a new state of harmony, peace and happiness.” Francis picks upon the heart of Dante’s poetic journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven as representing conversion — his own, as he began lost in the woods, midway through his life, and also ours, guiding us to reflect on the eternally lasting consequences of our choices.
Joining a chorus of papal praises, Francis certainly was not the first pope to point us to Dante. The great Florentine has always been considered a master of the Christian imagination, translating the Church’s theology into powerful, poetic images. Pope Benedict XV spoke of his great glory in being “a Christian poet, to have sung with almost divine notes those Christian ideals that he so passionately contemplated in all their splendour and beauty.” St. Paul VI reminded us that “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.” If it is true that Dante belongs to us, as part of our great patrimony, we need to lay hold of his verses, allowing them to uplift us and inform our own imaginative meditation.
St. John Paul II points us to the ultimate reason why we should read Dante. We can follow along with his transcendent pilgrimage, allowing him to guide us in moving our hearts toward heaven: “Trasumanare: to pass beyond the human. This was Dante’s ultimate effort: to ensure that the burden of what is human would not destroy the divine within us, nor that the greatness of the divine would cancel the value of what is human. For this reason the poet rightly interpreted his own personal history and that of all humanity in a theological key.” Pope Benedict XVI agreed that Dante can guide us to contemplate the eternal, bringing us before the origin and end of all things: “The cosmic excursion in which Dante, in his ‘Divine Comedy,’ wishes to involve the reader, ends in front of the perennial Light that is God himself, before that Light which is at the same time ‘the love that moves the sun and the other stars’ (Par. XXXIII, v. 145). Light and love are one and the same. They are the primordial creative powers that move the universe.”
Adding to this powerful testimony from the popes, I would urge you, before the Year of Dante ends, to start reading the Divine Comedy! There are many translations available, although I would recommend Anthony Esolen’s (The Modern Library), as he understands Dante’s theological and artistic vision and provides helpful notes on Dante’s many literary and historical references. Some readers complain that Dante wrote too much about his own contemporaries and the political intrigues of Florence in which he was entangled. Yet, it is in these details that we find his great cultural penetration. He could draw on the classical tradition, with Virgil as guide, alongside of the Catholic faith, and use both to penetrate the dynamics of human relationships, society, and politics, showing just how intertwined they are with the next life.
In the Divine Comedy, the supreme poet sets out on a pilgrimage, not just to visit the afterlife, but to save his own soul, finding a path through the “dark wilderness.” He finds many people he knew along the way — in torment, purification, and glory — who teach him the importance of human choice in shaping our eternal destiny. Dante’s poetic genius humanized theology to awaken an imaginative vision that could see into the soul to read the transcendent stakes of our choices. For that reason alone, we should enter his verse, to gain greater insight into our souls and to penetrate there the direction of our own pilgrimage through this dark wilderness of life.