The sixth canto of the Purgatorio mirrors the sixth cantos of Inferno and Paradiso in which Dante discusses the social order in progressively larger circles—from Florence, to Italy, to the Empire. In Inferno 6, we heard how the rival factions within the Guelfs would bring ruin upon Florence. Paradiso 6 presents a Christian view of the history of the Holy Roman Empire. Here, as we come to Purgatorio 6, Dante will make the longest “digression” (as he calls it in line 128) in the entire Comedia, bewailing the moral and political ruin of Italy.
However, before this grand apostrophe (beginning in line 80 and continuing through the remaining 75 lines of the Canto), Dante presents a theme most apt for our consideration during this Year of Mercy—suffrages for the holy souls in Purgatory. Dante begins this Canto surrounded by these souls “whose one prayer was that others pray, and so advance them toward their blessedness” [lines 26-27]. This bustle of prayer-beggars is typified by the mechanics of the poem, as Dante presents six figures with great rapidity in only some ten lines—do we not feel the holy souls imploring us to pray for them likewise?
It is a reminder to us of the mercy we must show to those who suffer now in the purifying fires. Whether it be through the plenary indulgence granted by Pope Francis for this Year of Mercy (gained by entering through the Holy Doors of our respective dioceses’ Cathedrals), or through other indulgences, prayers and works of mercy, we have the joy of assisting these souls in their journey to heaven. Every day if we liked, we could gain a plenary indulgence—for example, by praying the Rosary in the church or as a family, by reading Scripture for thirty minutes, or spending thirty minutes in Eucharistic Adoration. And there are countless more partial indulgences that we can gain all throughout the day—for example, just simply making the sign of the cross with the intention of gaining the indulgence attached to it. Why not offer these together with other acts of mercy for the benefit of the souls in purgatory who cannot help themselves?
In lines 28-33, Dante puts a theological question to Virgil: Can prayer change God’s will so as to move him to mercy for the souls in purgatory? His pagan guide can only give a partial answer in reply: Prayer is of no benefit to the souls of the damned in hell, but prayer does help the holy souls without in any way cheating the divine justice. “For judgment’s summit is not leveled if in but one instant burning love fulfills what here a man must wait to satisfy” [lines 37-39].
For the fuller answer, we will have to wait for Beatrice in the journey through the heavenly spheres, but we will make a short comment here. Consider that the divine plan is formed outside of time from all eternity, and that from His eternal perspective God takes into account all the prayers of men which he will inspire through the power of the Holy Spirit working in their souls. Now, it is not that prayer changes what God has willed from eternity, but rather God has so desired that he would receive men’s prayers as the means by which he would accomplish his merciful plan in the world. Although the Lord could do all things without the prayers of men, he wants us to be true participants in the work of salvation, and he gives us the grace to pray so that his mercy may be realized in others and in us.
A simple metaphor will serve to illustrate the relation between prayer and the divine will. Imagine that a family is gathered together for the evening meal. The father desires that the son eat a healthy meal and receive the nourishment which his body requires. However, the father will not pass the food (which he already desires to give him) until the child asks for it in the proper manner. Hence, when the son says: “Dad, can I have the potatoes?” The father may well reply, “What do you say?” When the boy responds, “May I please have the potatoes?” (this time using both proper grammar and table etiquette), the father is happy to give the boy a serving of those delectable spuds.
Now, the boy’s request did not change the will of the father, but it is yet true that the food was given on condition of the boy’s petition. Similarly, God desires to give to us and to those we love every good thing, but he waits to bestow these blessings until we should ask for them in prayer. Prayer, then, is not superfluous, but neither does it change God. Rather, prayer is an essential element in the fulfillment of the Divine Mercy for us and for the whole world. (See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, q.23, a.8)
In the second half of this Canto, Dante turns from the power of prayer to the problems of Italy and of the Empire. This is the longest “digression” of the entire Comedy, with Dante suspending the narrative of the story in order to pronounce a condemnation of and lament over the state of Italy. According to his critique, the problems of his world can be reduced to two sources: churchmen becoming too involved in politics and statesmen shirking their duties of governance. These are two themes central to understanding Dante’s vision of society and Church.
Lines 91-96 are the apostrophe to the men of the Church who have meddled too much in secular affairs. For Dante, the scandal of priests and bishops (indeed, even of Popes, like Boniface VIII) seeking power and glory in the world rather than focusing on the glory of God and the salvation of souls has brought destruction and chaos upon Italy and the Empire. Dante has a highly spiritual vision of the Church, with a clear division of realms of power between the Church and the Empire, though both are subject to God. Considering the Church of the modern world, Dante would be pleased by the changes that have occurred since Pope Pius IX recognized the loss of the Papal States in 1870. More and more, the Church stands as a light upon a hill giving moral guidance to all peoples without making use of political or military power to shape the secular affairs of states.
The Holy Roman Emperor, on the other hand, is chastised in lines 97-117. Albert of Austria (1246-1308) was focused far more on the lands of the north but let Italy fall to disorder, anarchy, and ruin. He had never even visited this portion of his kingdom, leading Dante to cry, “Come, cruel one, come” [line 109] and “Come see your people” [line 115]. Dante believes in the system of monarchy and longs for a king who will exercise his authority over his people to govern them and impose order in defense of the common good. Although we live in a world mostly void of kings, we can still sympathize with the harm caused by leaders who are more concerned with their own personal interests or with increasing their popularity abroad than with the affairs of their own nation and the needs of their people.
And yet, all of this strife is placed under the care of divine providence. Dante cries out to God, trusting in the love that was made manifest in Christ, praying that the current struggle may be “the preface to some benefit [God has] planned in the abyss of providence, cut off from our capacity to understand” [lines 121-123].
Fr. Ryan Erlenbush is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, MT, where he is pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in Great Falls and also serves on the Diocesan Priests’ Council and the Diocesan Pastoral Council. Fr. Erlenbush is also the diocesan facilitator for the Extraordinary Form in Eastern Montana.