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Pope Francis celebrates Dante: Prophet of hope and poet of mercy
A portrait by Raphael of Dante Alighieri25 March 2021. Pope Francis releases an Apostolic Letter entitled "Candor lucis aeternae" marking the 700th anniversary of the death of the great Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, and highlights the relevance, timelessness and depth of faith in Dante’s masterpiece: “The Divine Comedy".

By Isabella Piro


700 years from his death in 1321, when exiled in Ravenna from his beloved Florence, Dante still speaks to us. He speaks to the men and women of today, asking to be read and studied, but also to be listened to and imitated in his journey towards happiness, that is, the infinite and eternal Love of God. Thus writes Pope Francis in his Apostolic Letter "Candor lucis aeternae - Splendour of Light Eternal," published on 25 March, the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. The date is not accidental: the mystery of the Incarnation, stemming from Mary's full and total acceptance of God’s plan, the Pope says, is "the true heart and inspiration of the entire poem" for it effected the prodigious exchange whereby God enters our history by becoming flesh, and humanity “is taken up into God, in whom it finds true happiness.”

The Popes and Dante

Divided into nine paragraphs, the Apostolic Letter begins with a brief excursus into the thoughts of various Pontiffs regarding Dante. Then, Pope Francis dwells on Alighieri's life, calling it a "paradigm of the human condition" and emphasizing the "perennial timeliness and importance” of his work. In fact, it is “an integral part of our culture,” the Pope writes, “taking us back to the Christian roots of Europe and the West.  It embodies that patrimony of ideals and values that the Church and civil society continue to propose” still today as “the basis of a humane social order in which all can and must see others as brothers and sisters.” 

Innate desire for happiness

There are two main pillars in the "Divine Comedy" – the Pope explains - namely "an innate desire in the human heart" and "fulfilment in the happiness bestowed by the vision of the Love who is God.” This is why Dante is a "prophet of hope": because with his work he urges humanity to free itself from the "dark forest" of sin to find "the right path" and thus reach "the fullness of life and time in history" and "eternal beatitude in God".  The path indicated by Dante, a true "pilgrimage" - the Pope points out - is "realistic and within the reach” of all, because "God’s mercy always offers the possibility of change and conversion".

Dante's women

The Apostolic Letter also gives prominence to three female figures of the "Divine Comedy": Mary, the Mother of God, representing charity; Beatrice, representing hope; and Saint Lucy, representing faith. These three women, who represent the three theological virtues, accompany Dante at different stages of his pilgrimage, demonstrating that "we are not saved alone", but that the help of those who "can support us and guide us with wisdom and prudence" is necessary. What moves Mary, Beatrice and Lucy, in fact, is always divine love, "the source of salvation and joy", "to renewed life and thus to happiness".

Dante and St. Francis of Assisi

The Pope then dedicates another paragraph to Saint Francis, who in Dante's work is depicted in the "white rose of the blessed". He sees “much in common” between the Saint of Assisi and the Supreme Poet: both, in fact, addressed the people, the first "went out among the people", the second choosing not to use Latin, but the vernacular, the language of all. Both, moreover, open themselves "to the beauty and worth" of Creation, a mirror of its Creator. A brilliant artist, whose humanism "remains timely and relevant," Alighieri is also – he affirms - "a forerunner of our multimedia culture, because in his work "word and image, symbol and sound, poetry and dance converge to convey a single message.”

A message for all

The Pope goes on to congratulate those teachers who “passionately communicate Dante’s message and introduce others to the cultural, religious and moral riches contained in his works“ and he asks that this "heritage" not remain locked up in classrooms and universities, but be known and spread thanks to the commitment of Christian communities and cultural associations. He also calls upon artists to "to give voice, face and heart, form, colour and sound to Dante’s poetry by following the path of beauty which he so masterfully travelled," so as to spread "a message of peace, freedom and fraternity". A task, the Pope says, that is as relevant as ever in this historical moment, “over clouded by situations of profound inhumanity and a lack of confidence and prospects for the future.” The Supreme Poet - the Apostolic Letter concludes - can therefore "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”.