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The poet of theologians
and the theologian of poets

· Giovanni Battista Montini and his passion for Dante ·

Paul VIoften asked his private secretary, Msgr Pasquale Macchi, to read aloud to him either a canto from Dante’s Divine Comedy or a chapter from Manzoni’s The Betrothed.

Gustave Dorè, “Dante and Virgil”

Cardinal Paul Poupard, President Emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, recalled this habit of Blessed Paul VIduring a meeting in the Franciscan cenacolo at the Church of Santa Croce in Florence on 17 March to commemorate the 750th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s birth and the 50th anniversary of the Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio written by Paul VI, entitled Altissimi Cantus. It is no accident that this document was preceded by two letters, one written to the Archbishop of Ravenna and the other to the Archbishop of Florence, followed by Paul VI’s personal greeting to the directors and associates of the Dante Alighieri Society given at a General Audience in Rome on 21 January 1966.

Cardinal Poupard noted that Paul VI, just like his predecessor Benedict XV, 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. Paul VIeven set up an endowed chair for Dante studies at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, emphasizing the “ecumenical” aspect of his work. Dante is a universal poet for all people and all times. In fact, his grandeur “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.” At the same time, Paul VInoted that the goal of the Divine Comedy is “preeminently practical and transformative,” the objective being to help man pass from disorder to wisdom, sin to holiness, misery to happiness.

Paul VIthus celebrates Dante as the poet of theologians and the theologian of poets, a “master of exalted lyricism” insofar as his subtlety of mind renders him a sharp theologian, the perfect guide within the sanctuary of poetry. A clear sign of Paul VI’s passion for Dante is the gift he gave to the conciliar Fathers at Vatican ii: a special edition of the Divine Comedy.

Benedict XV, paying tribute to Dante in his encyclical letter In praeclara summorum copia hominum (1921), offers Dante as an exemplary witness to the religious values that contribute to the promotion of human learning and, consequently, how their absence from the formation of young people undermines their maturation and intellectual growth as well as their acquisition of civil virtue. Benedict XV thus wishes Dante to be taken up as a teacher of Christian doctrine, both in the practice of the fine arts and in the development of virtue. In another passage of the encyclical, Benedict XV remarks that the greatest praise that can be given to Dante is that he was a “Christian poet,” in other words, “someone who sang Christian doctrine in an almost angelic voice; a doctrine whose beauty and splendor Dante contemplated with his entire soul.” Calling the Commedy the “Fifth Gospel,” Benedict XV declared that Dante is “the most eloquent bard to sing and announce Christian wisdom.” (Gabriele Nicolò)

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