A Divine Comedy in 2021
Pope Francis has proclaimed 2021 as the Year of St. Joseph, which involves a host of good things, including plenary indulgences. He has also designated this year to be specially focused on the family, including special study of Amoris Laetitia on its fifth anniversary. We’ll see how that works out. (The Vatican is mistaken if it has calculated that the controversy has diminished, let alone gone away, about that document’s hints that couples living in what is objectively adultery may subjectively be in a state to receive Communion.)
I have no authority to proclaim anything about anything. But if someone were to ask me, I’d suggest that 2021 also be a Year of Dante, who died 700 years ago on September 13, 1321 of malaria, which was the COVID of his time. I looked into the question and see that Italy has already done that. But many people outside Italy need what Dante can give. We’re all sick and tired of the daily grind of viruses, Twitterized politics, and Church controversies at the moment and could use something that will ground us in something both deeper and quite different. And something to lift us up a bit.
Dante has been a personal passion of mine since I was a teenager. But I’d recommend studying him (I’ll propose how we might do that together below) because in his work you find a comprehensive synthesis of the Biblical, classical, and medieval worlds – which is to say most of what went into the foundations of our Western civilization – the civilization that’s undergoing demolition on several fronts just now. And all presented in a brilliant poem, maybe the greatest poem ever written, culminating in what few poets would dare attempt: a presentation of the Beatific Vision.
Dante himself says that “heaven and earth put a hand” (ha posto mano e cielo e terra) to his poema sacro. And he means that. Besides the large intellectual and spiritual territory that The Divine Comedy covers, it also engages a wide swath of sacred and secular history, including many individuals, great and not, living or dead in his day. This is not some airy, insubstantial poet’s tale; it encompasses the lowest, the highest, and everything in between in “our life’s journey” (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita), as he says in the very first verse of the Comedy.