A Panel on Pope Francis’ “Candor Lucis Aeternae”

As visitors flooded campus on the afternoon of Friday, October 1 in anticipation of a top-10 football matchup vs. Cincinnati, faculty and students from the Italian department gathered across campus for “Dante Now,” a celebration of the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death in 1321.

Classes read passages from the Divine Comedy in Dante’s original Florentine dialect, with selections ranging from the Inferno’s famous opening lines (“In the middle of life’s journey…”) to Francesca’s speech in Inferno 5. All classes, like Dante, charted a journey of their own. One group, for example, began near the tunnel to Notre Dame Stadium, then proceeded to the Clark Peace Memorial Fountain, called “Stonehenge” by students. These individual orations culminated in all groups gathering at the Grotto to recite Paradiso 33’s opening lines: Dante’s prayer to Mary.

Approximately 200 students and faculty, with skill levels ranging from Italian 101 to PhD, recited the moment when St. Bernard, Dante’s final guide, implores the Blessed Virgin as the two draw near the beatific vision: “Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son, more humble and exalted than any other creature … you are the one who so ennobled human nature, that He, who made it first, did not disdain to make Himself of its own making.”

This large gathering, made more conspicuous by the scarlet red Dantesque caps and gold laurels, garnered curious attention from the many football fans. Regardless of whether one was familiar with Dante’s life and work, both students and fans alike sensed the rare beauty in the communal act of gathering and reading together.

Following the Prayer to Mary at the Grotto, participants journeyed to a panel discussion on Pope Francis’ encyclical letter “Candor lucis aeternae,” which was published on March 25 of this year in celebration of the Feast of the Annunciation. Francis’s encyclical is the most recent in the papal tradition of encyclicals on Dante, which originated with Leo XIII.

In this letter, Francis praises Dante, whose Divine Comedy is “one of the highest expressions of human genius.” Francis also addressed the inherent tension in the papal celebration of a poet who, in the words of Paul VI, “spoke scathingly of more than one Pope.” Despite Dante’s infernal condemnation, Francis nevertheless emphasizes Paul VI’s praise for Dante’s “filial affection for Holy Church.”

With these tensions in mind, six panelists reflected on Pope Francis’ letter, often mentioning Dante’s influence on their own spiritual and intellectual formation. These reflections were bookended by remarks from two moderators: John Cavadini, professor of theology and director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life, and Theodore Cachey, professor of Italian and director of the Devers Program in Dante Studies.

Therese Cory, associate professor of Thomistic Studies, recounted her rigorous reading of Dante as an undergraduate, this devoted study eventually culminating in her reading of Paradiso’s final canto at the top of Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence. She also highlighted how Dante’s and Aquinas’s works share a fundamental structural principle: both writers understand love as an attraction to attain its natural good with God as its ultimate end.

Rev. Kevin Grove C.S.C., assistant professor of theology, remarked that the “poet of desire” was keenly aware that God’s love is closer to us than our own selves, and thus, to be in union with God is to reflect, rather than to hoard, God.

Susannah Monta, associate professor of English, argued that Dante’s poetry is incarnational. Just as in the Gospel of John, the “Word became Flesh” (i.e., God became human), in Dante’s highly personal journey, the historical and the particular are transformed into a universal journey.

Vittorio Montemaggi, lecturer at King’s College London and former Notre Dame professor, reminded the audience that though Dante places people in Hell, Dante emphasizes the greatness ofGod’s mercy. In our modern world of political polarization, Dante can help us to act with mercy and love.

Cyril O’Regan, professor of theology, pondered Dante’s aesthetics, asking why we find Hell the most interesting part of the Divine Comedy. O’Regan also affirmed how Dante shows that the infinite God is discovered in the subjective human person through beauty.

Clemens Sedmak, director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, used Dante to offer a slight critique of international development theory. Modern institutions operate for the sake of granting more freedom. Dante, however, sees freedom not as an end unto itself, but rather, a condition from which one rises to God.

These six panelists did not reach a clear consensus, with several questions remaining: can we, the Church, claim Dante as “ours?” If so, does this make Dante a prophet? Will there be room left for other, non-religious interpretations of the Divine Comedy?

Despite differing perspectives, panelists agreed on the merits of studying Dante, returning to the encouragement from Pope Francis’ encyclical: “Dante, a prophet of hope and witness to the human desire for happiness, can still provide us with words and examples that encourage us on our journey.”

Luke Stringfellow is a senior Program of Liberal Studies major from Pensacola, FL and a RA in Carroll Hall. He can be reached at lstringf@nd.edu, especially with inquiries as to why Chicago is the last great American city. 

Featured art: Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), “Portrait of Dante”