Canto 24: The Teacher Questions the Student- What is Faith?

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By Jodi Schott

Faith…what is faith? It is a strong belief in God and in the revealed truths of sacred Scripture. This is the topic of canto 24 in which St. Peter himself tests Dante like a teacher tests his student, asking him to give the definition of faith. Dante responds to St. Peter by quoting a famous passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews which, along with most ancient and medieval bible commentators, Dante assumes to have been written by St. Paul. “As the truthful pen…of thy dear brother [St. Paul] wrote it,/ Who put with thee Rome into the good way,/ Faith is the substance of the things we hope for,/ And evidence of those that are not seen;/ And this appears to me its quiddity.” [lines 61-66]

Dante is tested by St. Peter, the bearer of the keys, and we learn from Dante’s response that the key to this test is having a keen understanding of faith, its nature, sources and content. Dante answers St. Peter’s repeated and probing questions about faith, and St. Peter is so pleased with Dante’s response that he encircles Dante three times, literally dancing for joy! [lines 148-154]

What does our society today say about faith? Are we today as excited about faith as St. Peter? Are we as knowledgeable about it as Dante? It would seem that we are focused more on seeing before believing, as for example when a tragedy happens and one utters the phrase: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “Why does God let bad things happen?” Although seeing to believe is not a new phenomenon—we encounter this in the gospel of John with doubting Thomas—it does seem to be contrary to the message Dante provides about faith. The truths of faith stretch towards things hoped for, things so far beyond the range of the sight of our minds that they can only come down to us as gifts from on high [lines 70-78]. There is a discussion about how the visible miracles we read of in scripture make its truths credible [lines 97-111], but ultimately faith is a gift from God and requires us to believe beyond what we can see. This is a hard saying for our contemporaries who tend to doubt all things unless proven with sight or scientific data. How can we lead our skeptical contemporaries to faith? We Christians, imitating Dante the student, could probably stand to gain a more thorough knowledge of our faith. There’s no doubt about that. But I wonder if it isn’t more important for us, like St. Peter the teacher, to get excited and joyful about the transcendent and wonderful truths delivered to us by our faith. Perhaps then a modern world that is so lacking in joy could be evangelized. Isn’t this the main idea of Pope Francis’ Evangelii gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel?

The theological virtue of faith is utterly paramount to our growing in relationship with God, and according to Dante, to our promotion in heaven. So, when it comes to ascending beyond this world and arriving at heaven, it is not intellect, much less sight and experience, but faith, true unconquerable faith that matters—our appreciation of who God is, our knowledge and belief that God exists and that God inspired Scripture. Faith is a doorway to Paradise.

Mrs. Jodi Schott is the Director of Faith Formation at St. Kateri Parish in Irondequoit, NY. She has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies, has worked with children, youth and families in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester for ten years and enjoys teaching others about the faith. She lives with her husband and three children.

 

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