The Gospel Beyond Idle Gossip: Pope Francis’ Dante

Antonio Spadaro, SJ

 Antonio Spadaro, SJ / Pope Francis / Published Date:23 April 2021/Last Updated Date:19 May 2021

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As provincial of the Argentine Jesuits, Pope Francis asked his confreres to allow themselves to be “founded” in the Lord to avoid being “led astray” by other ideas and doctrines that do not build up but rather “undo the solid foundation of a priestly heart: doctrines that do not nourish God’s faithful people. Dante’s reflections here remain relevant today.”

The then-Father Bergoglio next quoted Dante’s Canto XXIX of Paradise (109-114): “Christ did not to his first disciples say, / ‘Go forth, and to the world preach idle tales,’ / But unto them a true foundation gave; And this so loudly sounded from their lips / That, in the warfare to enkindle Faith, / They made of the Evangel shields and lances.” And he continued: “But seductive and disruptive doctrines, instead of being shields and spears, actually weaken the heart of the holy faithful people of God, so that the sheep, meanwhile, poor witless ones, return / From pasture, fed with wind: and what avails / For their excuse, they do not see their harm?” (J. M. Bergoglio, Nel cuore di ogni padre, Milan, Rizzoli, 2014, 125). Here Dante takes issue with those preachers who fill the faithful with chatter rather than with the Gospel, unlike the way in which Jesus engaged with his disciples.

Robust words: a mission of prophecy (and denunciation)

In these verses from Dante, the future pontiff clearly saw the difference between the word of true foundation and idle chatter. On this difference he has based his understanding of the pastor’s mission. His Apostolic Letter, Candor Lucis Aeternae, on the occasion of the seventh centenary of the death of the Supreme Poet, March 25, 2021, confirms his earlier concerns and describes “the mission of the Poet, prophet of hope,” whose verses are robust words opposing idle talk.

Francis is direct in his discourse and involves the Petrine ministry. In fact, he grasps the direct comparison between his predecessor Boniface VIII and Dante in the Commedia where St. Peter himself motivates the Poet to live out his prophetic mission courageously. And he does so precisely in contrast to the negative testimony of the unworthy pastors of the Church. After a tremendous invective against Pope Boniface, Peter addresses the Poet as follows: And you, my son, who through the mortal depths / return below, open your lips, / and do not hide what by me is not hidden (Par. XXVII, 64-66). Peter, the first pontiff, as Francis reminds us, invites Dante to open his mouth without hiding anything from fear, proclaiming aloud what he has not kept hidden.

Francis comments: “Dante’s prophetic mission thus entailed denouncing and criticizing those believers – whether popes or the ordinary faithful – who betray Christ and turn the Church into a means for advancing their own interests while ignoring the spirit of the Beatitudes and the duty of charity toward the defenseless and poor, and instead idolizing power and riches (cf. Par. XXII, 82-84).” Yet, even as he denounces corruption in parts of the Church, “Dante also becomes an advocate for her profound renewal and implores God’s providence to bring this about (cf. Par. XXVII, 61-63).” We are talking about what Bergoglio has always called parrhesia, the evangelical candor that speaks out clearly and courageously.

Francis identifies Dante as the poet of parrhesia who is opposed to chatter: his verses are born from evangelical inspiration and, as St. Paul VI had already written in the Letter Altissimi Cantus, published for the seventh centenary of Dante’s birth, they are full of prophetic criticism, to the point that his voice “rose lashing and severe against more than one Roman pontiff, and had harsh reproaches for ecclesiastical institutions and for people who were ministers and representatives of the Church.” In Dante Francis sees the evangelical reform of the Church, which can only be poetic, that is, performative, creative and prophetic.

The word that liberates from the ‘dark forest’

In this sense, the beauty of poetry has no greater or lesser claim than to “radically change” humanity, which has lost its way. Dante found himself involved in heated conflicts. The painful vicissitudes of the Poet began in the conflicts between Guelphs and Ghibellines, and between White Guelphs and Black Guelphs. Exile, fragility and mobility were the distinctive marks of a human condition “which is presented as a journey, inner before external, which never stops until it reaches the goal.” His becomes “a journey of liberation from every form of misery and human depravity (the ‘forest dark’), while at the same time pointing toward the ultimate goal of that journey: happiness, understood both as the fullness of life in time and history, and as eternal beatitude in God.”

“The journey that Dante presents,” writes Francis, “is not illusory or utopian; it is realistic and within the reach of everyone, for God’s mercy always offers the possibility of change, conversion, new self-awareness and discovery of the path to true happiness.” This is seen, for example, in the emperor Trajan, a pagan who nonetheless is placed in heaven (cf. Par. XX, 43-48; 94-99), or in the words of King Manfred, excommunicated but placed by Dante in Purgatory, who recalls his own end and the divine judgement as follows: ‘But Infinite Goodness hath such ample arms / That it receives whatever turns to it” (cf. Purg III, 118-123): a perfect synthesis of Francis’ vision of God’s mercy.

A word in short supply

Candor Lucis Aeternae comes after interventions by various predecessors of Francis. In particular, the encyclical In Praeclara Summorum of Benedict XV (1921) and the Apostolic Letter Altissimi Cantus of Paul VI (1965). Francis himself had already written about Dante both in a Message for the 750th anniversary of the Poet’s birth (2015) and in a Discourse on the occasion of the Dante Year (2020). Here our intention has not been to give an account of all these reflections, but simply to place brief emphasis on Bergoglio’s response to the Divine Comedy centered on the “prophetic mission of the Poet’s verses,” founded both on the parrhesia of the poetic word and on the liberating power of the journey on which Dante takes his readers.

Francis concludes his reflection by setting the inspiration of the Poet against the backdrop of a historical moment like ours, “overclouded by situations of profound inhumanity and a lack of confidence and prospects for the future.” Dante thus becomes “a prophet of hope and witness to the human desire for happiness,” a help “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)”.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 5 art. 4, 0521: 10.32009/22072446.0521.4