Pope Francis recently recommended Dante’s tripartite epic poem The Divine Comedy as a fitting “spiritual guide” for the upcoming Year of Mercy. For many, mention of Dante calls to mind only the first portion of his Divine Comedy—the Inferno, depicting his tour of Hell and lurid punishments for condemned souls. The poet’s graphic descriptions of eternal torments—from the fierce windstorms that plague lustful souls, to the thorny trees imprisoning the suicides—have made the Inferno, unfortunately, the most familiar of the series. In popular memory, the Inferno overshadows the two counterparts: Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Heaven (Paradiso).
It is understandable, then, that some may be puzzled to hear that Dante is recommended reading for the Year of Mercy. Dante? The man who wrote about the seven circles of Hell? With the sinners writhing in agony and the gargantuan frozen Satan at the end?
But Dante’s tour of Hell is merely a prelude to his breathtaking, eye-opening journey through the redemptive climb of Purgatory and the divine dance of Paradise. Dante is, as Pope Francis explained, “a prophet of hope, herald of the possibility of redemption, liberation and the profound transformation of every man and woman, of all humanity.” Dante’s trilogy is deeply imbued in a world-shattering vision of God’s mercy in action, of His redemptive grace saving souls who will accept it.
If Dante’s character more than once expresses surprise at who has chosen Hell, he also is frequently surprised at who has accepted the mercy of God. The oft-misused and misunderstood phrase “Who am I to judge” fits well with Dante’s understanding of salvation: only God can pass final judgment on a soul, and our earthly presumptions about others’ salvation can be quite wrong. And while giving plenty of attention to politicians, patricians, and even popes, Dante also filled his Divine Comedy with ordinary people: sinners, repentant souls, and saints. It is not only the famous or the canonized, Dante insists, who receive God’s boundless mercy.
Purgatorio portrays mercy with particular vividness. Filled with hope for heaven, sorrow for sin, and the joy of receiving forgiveness, the souls in Purgatory proclaim the mercy of God with undying zeal. Take this moving scene (from Anthony Esolen’s wonderful translation published by Modern Library Classics), when a soul tells Dante of God’s mercy coming in the final seconds of his earthly life:
And there at once my sight and speech were gone.
I ended with ‘Maria’ on my lips
and fell, and left my flesh to lie alone.
It’s truth I tell—tell it to all alive!
God’s angel took me, and the one from Hell
hollered, “O you from Heaven, why deprive
Me of his soul? He sheds one little tear
and you bear his immortal part away!”
(Canto 5, lines 100-107)
Implicit here in Dante’s vision of God’s mercy is man’s wholehearted repentance. The souls in Purgatory undergo purification gladly, because they are truly sorry for their misdeeds and wholly open to God’s purifying mercy. Mercy opens the gates of Heaven—but is contingent on repentance. Heaven’s gatekeeper tells Dante about the keys: “Peter’s they are, who said that I should err / rather in opening than in keeping shut, / so long as men should kneel before my feet” (Canto 9, lines 127-29).
Pope Francis, in announcing the Year of Mercy, likewise focused on the role of repentance in receiving God’s mercy, reflecting on the story of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’s feet (Lk 7:36-50). He emphasized its two themes of “love and judgment”—two themes around which the Divine Comedy revolves. “In sorrow she showed repentance for her sins,” says Francis, “by her tears, she appealed to divine goodness to receive forgiveness. For her there will be no judgment but that which comes from God, and this is the judgment of mercy … a mercy which goes beyond justice.”
That, in a nutshell, is why Dante is perfect reading for the Year of Mercy: Dante believes any sinner, no matter how lost, can be completely healed by God’s mercy. Receiving mercy should ignite in us a fire of love, of longing to see His face, as one soul in Purgatory explains:
We were all sinners till our latest hour
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
when light from Heaven made us wise to see
Our sins, and we repented and forgave,
Leaving our lives at last in peace with God,
Who now torments our hearts with the desire,
To see His Face.
(Canto 5, lines 53-58)
Just as Jesus explains that those who are forgiven more, love more, so too the souls healed of sin in Dante’s Divine Comedy turn their eyes with even greater love toward God. “Love and forgiveness are simultaneous,” says Francis. “God forgives her many sins, He forgives her for all of them, for ‘she loved much’; and she adores Jesus because she feels that in Him there is mercy and not condemnation.”
God’s mercy completely washes away sin: “Thanks to Jesus, God lifts her many sins off her shoulders, He no longer remembers them,” says Francis, “For this is also true: when God forgives, He forgets.” At Purgatory’s edge, before he enters Heaven, Dante passes through the river of forgetfulness, Lethe, symbolizing how a redeemed soul’s past sins are completely washed away by God’s forgiving love.
That love and forgiveness, part of every soul’s journey toward God, are at the very core of The Divine Comedy. Francis pointed this out by quoting the epic poem’s final line: “We are able to enrich ourselves with [Dante’s] experience in order to cross the many dark forests still scattered on our earth,” the pope said, “and to happily complete our pilgrim story, to reach the destination dreamed of and wished for by everyone: ‘The love that moves the sun and other stars.’”
Dante’s world vision is a vision of love—of an all-consuming love that is the prime dynamic of the universe and moves all things in existence; a Love longs to give itself totally to each human soul. And that Love is the climax of the Divine Comedy and Dante’s journey: the Beatific Vision, the healing sight of what Francis calls the “merciful face of God.”
Pope Francis made no mistake: filled with such powerful images of mercy, Dante’s Divine Comedy is certainly fruitful reading for anyone who, like the sinful woman, hopes to see mercy in the face of God.