Paul VI: Dante ‘Embraces Heaven and Earth, Mystery of God and Affairs of Men’

Blessed Paul VI, along with predecessor Benedict XV, had great esteem for the Italian poet, whose 750th birthday is this year.

Dante portrait by Domenico di Michelino September 12 2005
Dante portrait by Domenico di Michelino September 12 2005 (photo: Jim Forest (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

With this year marking the 750th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s birth, the Vatican is taking a closer look at the author of the Italian masterpiece the Divine Comedy and his impact upon the popes of the 20th century.

“Dante is a universal poet for all people and all times,” according to a March 17 article by L'Osservatore Romano that expounds upon the esteem that Paul VI, along with predecessor Benedict XV, had for the Italian poet.

Blessed Paul VI, elected to the papacy in 1963, was beatified in October 2014 by Pope Francis.

Once describing him as a “master of exalted lyricism,” Paul VI, who shepherded Vatican II to its close, following the death of its founder, Pope St. John XXIII, so appreciated the works of Dante that he gifted a special edition copy of Divine Comedy to each of the Council Fathers. December of this year will mark 50 years since the close of Vatican II, the ecumenical council that began in 1962.

Born circa 1265, Dante Alighieri was the leading Italian poet of the Middle Ages. He is best known for penning the Divine Comedy, an epic poem widely considered to be among the world's most important literary works. Completed about a year before the Florentine author's death, in 1321, the three-part story, rich with political as well as theological allusions, famously recounts a journey through the various levels of hell, purgatory and heaven.

In 1965, the same year as the close of Vatican II, Paul VI published the motu proprio Altissimi Cantus, in which the pontiff highlights the Medieval poet's significance.

In the Divine Comedy, the pope writes in the document, Dante “embraces heaven and earth, eternity and time, the mystery of God and the affairs of men, both sacred and profane teaching, as well as the understanding made possible by divine revelation and the light of natural reason.”

Believing him to be “the poet of theologians and the theologian of poets,” according to L'Osservatore Romano, Paul VI would go on to establish a chair for Dante studies at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, with an emphasis on what he saw to be the “ecumenical” elements of the poet's writings.

Paul VI's love for the Italian master was such that he was even known to have requested that his private secretary, Msgr. Pasquale Macchi, read aloud excerpts from the Divine Comedy, as well as Alessandro Manzoni's masterpiece The Betrothed, according to Cardinal Paul Poupard.

Cardinal Poupard, president emeritus for both the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, spoke at a March 17 meeting in Florence to commemorate the anniversary of Dante's birth, as well as the 50th anniversary of Altissimi Cantus.

Paul VI's predecessor Benedict XV (1854-1922) was also an avid follower of Dante's writings, referring to the Divine Comedy as “the fifth Gospel.”

Both popes “believed that the beauty of Dante’s work consists in both the manifold way it brilliantly reveals truth and in its use of a wide range of artistic devices,” the cardinal posited, according to the Vatican newspaper.

In his 1921 encyclical, In Praeclara Summorum, Benedict XV refers to Dante as “the most eloquent bard to sing and announce Christian wisdom.”

“Who can deny that, at that time, the behavior of some members of the clergy was reprehensible, deeply disturbing to a soul as devoted to the Church as Dante’s?” the early 20th-century pope wrote.

Dante was a “Christian poet,” he said, “someone who sang Christian doctrine in an almost angelic voice; a doctrine whose beauty and splendor Dante contemplated with his entire soul.”

Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851

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