Canto 33: The Love That Moves the Sun and the Other Stars

finalBy Aaron James

Claudio Monteverdi’s 1643 opera The Coronation of Poppea portrays a civilization ruled by a very different kind of love than Dante encounters at the culmination of the Paradiso. Set in first-century Rome, Poppea recounts the reign of the emperor Nero, who announces to his shocked advisers, “I care nothing for the senate and the people”. By the end of the drama, he has arranged for all those who oppose him to be exiled or killed, leaving him free to divorce his wife and marry his lover, a courtesan named Poppea. The rise of Nero and Poppea, we learn, has been orchestrated by Amore, the allegorical figure of Love, who intervenes in the drama to rescue Poppea from an assassination attempt by a jealous former lover. “Sleep, Poppea, earthly goddess,” Amore sings, “you are saved from rebel’s arrows by the love that moves the sun and other stars.”

Readers of Dante will recognize that the librettist of Poppea is quoting the final line of the Paradiso, one of the best-known lines of the entire Comedy, and the intent is clearly ironic: we are meant to be shocked to hear Dante’s hard-won insight into God’s providential ordering of the universe reduced to a catch-phrase and applied to characters so utterly lacking in virtue. And once we recover from the initial shock of this juxtaposition, we are likely to recognize that this is sometimes our own experience. By faith, we know that God’s love controls the movements of the celestial bodies, but it is all too easy for us to hold this belief as a pious abstraction, while we allow our own actions to be moved by less elevated forces. Most of us are not as dramatic in our transgressions as Nero and Poppea, but none of us can honestly claim, with Dante, that “Already were all my will and my desires / turned—as a wheel in equal balance—by / The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” [lines 143-145]

Such penitential thoughts seem out of place at this summit of the Paradiso; hasn’t Dante left such thoughts of sin and purification behind on his journey out of hell and purgatory? The answer, of course, is yes and no. The modern reader who has followed Dante this far through the hundred cantos of the Comedy, dutifully referring to the notes for explanations of the poet’s more obscure references, can hardly be blamed for feeling a sense of accomplishment. Yet Dante’s final line is not only a grand, culminating vision of God’s governance of the universe, but also an invitation to start the journey again, linking us subtly back to the two earlier canticas, both of which also ended with the word “stelle.” The stars are first shrouded from view in the subterranean world of the Inferno, appear later as objects of aspiration in the Purgatorio, and finally emerge as part of the perfect order of God’s creation in the Paradiso. Each of these three viewpoints will ring true for us earthbound readers at one time or another, making it profitable to return to the Comedy throughout our lives.

In an address to a meeting of the pontifical council “Cor Unum” in January 2006, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI offered a reflection on Dante’s image of a love that “moves the sun and other stars.” The image of love as controlling the motion of the universe, Benedict pointed out, was hardly original to Dante: Aristotle wrote of eros as the power that moves the world. What is new in the Christian conception of love, instead, is its concreteness. “The eros of God is not only a primordial cosmic power; it is love that created man and that bows down over him, as the Good Samaritan bent down to the wounded and robbed man, lying on the side of the road that went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” God’s love, Benedict insists, “has a human face and—we may add—a human heart.”

It is this human figure, of course, that Dante glimpses as he gazes upon the Trinity, visualized by Dante as three interlocking rings of light. Having ascended bodily into heaven, Christ has not abandoned the human nature that he assumed in the Incarnation; in some manner that Dante cannot begin to understand, the humanity of Christ is joined forever to the triune Godhead. And this is why it is finally Mary who intercedes for Dante, allowing him to be granted this fleeting glimpse of God. As St. Bernard points out, it was Mary who made the Incarnation possible:

     “Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son,
     humbler and loftier past creation’s measure,
     the fulcrum of the everlasting plan,
     You are she who ennobled human nature
     so highly, that its Maker did not scorn
     to make Himself the creature of His creature.
     In your womb was the flame of love reborn,
     in the eternal peace of whose warm ray
     this flower has sprung and is so richly grown.” (l. 1-9)

The apparent contradictions of Bernard’s hymn to Mary remind us of the impossibility of expressing what Dante wishes to describe: Mary is both mother and daughter, both humble and lofty. Where the mellifluous St. Bernard is forced into paradox by the mystery of the Incarnation, Dante despairs of ever being able to communicate his brief vision of God. Dante the poet strings along image after eloquent image to describe his inability to articulate what Dante the pilgrim saw: the vision is gone like a dream forgotten upon awakening [lines 57-59], and vanished like the lost oracles of the Sybils [lines 65-66], so that his words are as weak as those of a small infant [lines 106-108]. Yet, as Dante would have known, we have it on the testimony of the Psalmist that God has perfected praise “out of the mouths of babes and infants” (Ps 8:2). The very vagueness of Dante’s description of the beatific vision reminds us that here we are brushing up against the very limit of human desire, “the quarry whom all these untiring huntsmen pursue, the candle to which all these moths move yet are not burned” (C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image).

This journey through the Comedy was inspired by Pope Francis, who commended Dante as a guide through the Extraordinary Year of Mercy now coming to a close. In accordance with the Year of Mercy, we might identify the human figure seen by Dante as he gazes at the Trinity with the “face of mercy” invoked by the Pope in his bull Misericordiae vultus. “The mission Jesus received from the Father,” writes Pope Francis, “was that of revealing the mystery of divine love in all its fullness. . . His person is nothing but love, a love given gratuitously.” What Dante saw at the end of his journey is therefore accessible to those of us who are still lost in the “dark wood” of this life: through that same love that moves the celestial bodies, we can approach God with the certain hope of receiving grace and forgiveness.

Dr. Aaron James is director of music at St. Mary’s Church in Auburn, NY, and an Instructor of Music History at the College Music Department of the University of Rochester. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, where he earned two doctoral degrees: a Doctor of Musical Arts in organ performance, and a Ph.D. in historical musicology. His research focuses on the Latin motet in the mid-sixteenth century.

Posted in Paradiso

Canto 31: Earthly Diversity Come to its Fulfillment in the Heavenly Rose

main-canto-31By Sebastian Mahfood

In Canto 31 of the Paradiso, Dante’s understanding of the structure of the rose strengthens as he notices that there are two celestial soldieries of the Church Triumphant present before him—the first is seated and includes all the saints, and the second is in flight between God and each individual saint. This second soldiery is comprised of angels whom Dante likens to “a swarm of bees who in one motion dive into the flowers, and in the next return the sweetness of their labors to the hive…” [lines 7-9]. These fly “ceaselessly to the many-petaled rose and ceaselessly [return] into that light in which their ceaseless love has its repose.” [lines 10-12] The pollen that they are spreading is the ardor of God’s peace and mercy.

Notice, reader, what we’re seeing here. St. Thomas, the Angelic doctor, teaches us that the angels have no common nature. Each one is like a snowflake, entirely unique and totally different from any other one. A look at their activity, then, is revealing. These angels are moving back and forth between God and the great stadium of disembodied saintly human souls who together constitute the Mystic Rose. The angels are ministering to the needs of the saints. They are the great intermediaries between man and God, having been known as His messengers by those on earth and here demonstrating that they continue that work in heaven.

Each unique angel was designed by God to minister to a particular quality of each human person. We have already seen the gradations of grace each soul is capable of receiving over our time in the first eight spheres of Paradise, but what we have not yet been shown is the great diversity that enables society to work. This is later explained by St. Catherine of Siena who said that the reason God creates us in such diversity is so that we will come together relationally due to the importance of sharing our gifts with one another in the community within which we were formed. We have already seen from the suicides in the seventh circle of hell that the injustice they committed was not to themselves but to the community whose social fabric was torn apart by their self-slaughter. Heaven, here, is modeling the importance of this diversity vis-à-vis the unique traits of character found in each human person.

We know that our human souls, which are spiritual in nature, are the form of our material bodies and, remembering Statius’s explanation from Canto 25 of the Purgatorio, re-form all their senses from the air after our deaths. Angels do not need senses as an aid to their reason because they do not reason but simply intuit. Nor do angels have memory, for their minds are not divided into past and present moments. All the same, we are, in some sense, superior to angels if God created them primarily to minister to our needs.

This realization should put to rest all Manichean arguments concerning the evil nature of the material world. If we matter, then matter matters, and if matter matters enough for us to be resurrected in our material bodies, then matter must be as important as spirit as far as we are concerned. All the more important does our stewardship of the earth and its resources become! The soul, after all, is the form of our material bodies, as Dante has made clear, and it is the soul that seeks rest in God no matter its state.

This swarm of bees with which Dante begins the canto, for that reason, should not give us too much pause. They are messengers of God, so it makes sense that we would see them, in their natural hive, performing that function, moving between God and man with the fullness of God’s love as their active principle. As much as they serve God, we also have to note that they additionally serve man and are subservient to us in that regard. After all, their Queen—the Blessed Virgin Mary—is, after all, a composite being, both material and spiritual, while they themselves are simpler beings with no material nature.

Mary has more than a thousand festive angels dancing about her, and is smiling at their play. So ineffable is Mary’s beauty and bliss that Dante does not even try to describe it (we have the idea that Mary outshines Beatrice to the degree that Beatrice’s heavenly state outshines her earthly beauty). As Dante gazes, he realizes that Bernard’s own zeal and ardor strengthen his, sending new fire through him in a way similar to how our witnessing others sitting with us in Eucharistic devotion strengthens our own resolve in prayer.

Surely, there’s something about Mary that is important for us to know, and we have come into fullness of knowledge at this point as we behold our Mother and remember that this entire journey has been a Marian one in the sense that it was due to her influence that Virgil was commissioned to bring Dante to this point. For what purpose did she do that? The answer is simple. She did for Dante what she does for each of us—point us to her Son, Jesus Christ, Who is both justice and mercy.

Dr. Sebastian Mahfood is a Lay Dominican of the Province of Saint Albert the Great, and serves as Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, CT. Through the Catholic Distance Learning Network, he sponsors the Digital Dante contest (, which each year awards a Dante medallion to the person who submits the best digital interpretation of some aspect of Dante’s Divine Comedy. He lives in St. Louis, MO, with his wife, Dr. Stephanie Mahfood, and children, Alexander and Eva Ruth.

Posted in Paradiso

Canto 29: Heavenly Messengers

mainBy David Wallace

With “her eyes fixed / upon the Point whose light [Dante’s] eyes could not bear,” Beatrice explains to the Pilgrim the nature and origin of the angelic hosts of Heaven [line 9]. She perceives Dante’s desire for the One “where every where and every when is centered” [line 12]. God is beyond space, beyond time; “for neither ‘after’ nor ‘before’ preceded” God’s creative act upon the primordial waters of Genesis [lines 20-21]. Beatrice makes reference to a minority opinion among the Church Fathers that the angels were created before the material universe. St. Jerome was of this opinion [lines 37-39]. Yet Beatrice goes on to argue for what was the majority opinion among the Fathers and the medieval theologians—that the angels were created along with the material universe. For if the purpose of the angels was to move the celestial spheres, it is fitting that they would not exist without performing the function for which they were created: “for reason does not grant that that which moves should long exist without its proper end, to move.” [lines 44-45]. This implies that the material heavens, at least, would have been created along with the angels.

Having shown Dante the celestial hierarchy from seraph to angel in the previous canto, Beatrice goes deeper and explains the angelic origin of sin and death: “The reason for the Fall was the accursed / presumption of the one you saw below / crushed by the weight of all the universe” [lines 55-57]. This of course is a reference to the angel Lucifer, whom we saw at the end of Inferno, placed in the center of the universe and therefore bearing all its weight. It was his pride that brought sin and death into human history. In contrast to the pride of Lucifer, we have the humility of the holy angels who did not fall. These were able “to recognize their great intelligence / as coming from the Goodness of their Lord” [lines 59-60]. Humility and obedience—these are the prerequisites for holiness. These unfallen angels are those who still move the celestial spheres

Beatrice launches into an aside, a digression that eats away at the precious time that Dante has, but one so necessary for him to hear—one that we must also hear! Noting how preachers of the Word, are “so carried away…by putting on a show of wits!” [lines 86-87], in their misunderstanding of the angelic beings, their poor preaching and poor instruction “provokes the wrath of Heaven” [line 88]. Setting aside God’s Word and misinterpreting it and twisting it, these are dangerous things! Beatrice laments the indifference shown to those who engage in the work of evangelization and to those who receive the Word of God and do it [lines 91-93]. Sowing the seed of the Word of God is toil and labor indeed, work that unties the knots of Adam’s disobedience which brought toil and suffering in the first place.

Some preachers, says Beatrice, contrive their own false truths in order to “make a good impression” [line 94]. God’s little ones, his own flock, become the victims: “So the poor sheep, who know no better, come / from pasture fed on air” [lines 106-107]. “Of the Gospel” they hear “not a word!” [line 96]. The Gospel means the “good news” or “glad tidings” of Christ’s victory over sin and death. In Latin, we are talking about “the evangel”, and it makes its first literary appearance in the Vulgate translation of the prophet Isaiah: “Super montem excelsum ascende, tu qui evangelizas Sion; exalta in fortitudine vocem tuam, qui evangelizas Jerusalem.” “Ascend upon a high mountain, you that evangelize Sion: lift up your voice with strength, you who evangelize Jerusalem” (Is 40:9).

Those who bring God’s glad tidings to the poor, who bind up the brokenhearted, who proclaim liberty to the captives, who open the prison doors, who proclaim the Jubilee of the Lord’s favor, they are the ones who share in Christ’s victory over our twin enemy of sin and death. Today, we continue that battle as we live out our baptism and confirmation. The Second Vatican Council teaches us: “The baptized are more perfectly bound to the Church by the sacrament of Confirmation, and the Holy Spirit endows them with special strength so that they are more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith, both by word and by deed, as true witnesses of Christ” (LG 11). Further on, Lumen Gentium says, “The lay apostolate, however, is a participation in the salvific mission of the Church itself. Through their baptism and confirmation all are commissioned to that apostolate by the Lord Himself” (LG 33).

And then we have Pope Paul VI’s Apostolicam actuositatem: “Indeed, by the precept of charity, which is the Lord’s greatest commandment, all the faithful are impelled to promote the glory of God through the coming of His kingdom and to obtain eternal life for all men-that they may know the only true God and Him whom He sent, Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 17:3). On all Christians therefore is laid the preeminent responsibility of working to make the divine message of salvation known and accepted by all men throughout the world” (AA 3).

May we, as members of the Body of Christ commissioned to spread and defend the Word, never be those described by Beatrice, who “go forth to preach wisecracks and jokes, / and just so long as they can get a laugh” [lines 115-16]. Rather, may we always turn “to the road of truth” [line 128] and proclaim in our lives, our deeds, and especially our words the “Eternal Goodness” of God and His love for us, for that Goodness is “Itself, remaining One, as It was always” [line 145]. In this way, along with the angels, we will be heavenly messengers.

Mr. David Wallace is Director of Religious Education at St. Bernadette Catholic Church in Springfield, VA, and a lecturer in catechetics and evangelization at the Christendom College Graduate School of Theology. He lives in Front Royal, VA, with his wife and their five boys.

Posted in Paradiso

Canto 28: The Eyes of Our Hearts and the Powers of Heaven


By David Wallace

With the help of Beatrice the Pilgrim Dante now sees the physical universe from a spiritual point of view. Seeing through each of the celestial spheres, Dante beholds the “Pure Spark of Being” on which depends “all nature and all of the heavens.” Beatrice then guides him through the angelic choirs responsible for governing each of the nine spheres. This canto offers modern readers with two points for reflection: seeing the universe with the eyes of faith and recognizing the angelic world around us.

Saint Paul reminds his Ephesian readers—and us of course—that in Christ and through the Holy Spirit we have had the “eyes of [our] hearts enlightened” (Eph 1:18) so that we can perceive the hoped-for rewards of Heaven won for us by the One who sits “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (v. 21). The eyes of our hearts are illumined by the same fiery light of God’s love which Beatrice describes as the cause of the great speed of the innermost circle: “Love’s fire burns it into motion” [line 45]. Dante cannot grasp why his earthly conception of the universe doesn’t correspond to what he now beholds from this spiritual perspective: “it still has to be made clear to me why / the model and the copy are at odds, / for on my own I fail to understand” [lines 55-57]. Are we too guilty of failing to see our lives and the world around us with the eyes of our hearts enlightened?

Saint Paul tells us that we have “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). Do we go about our business with the mind of Christ? Do we live our lives, run our errands, feed and clothe and educate our children with the mind of Christ? Do we love our spouses with the mind of Christ? Do we read Scripture and pray in, with, and through the mind of Christ so that our hearts might burn within us as He opens the Word of God to us (cf. Lk 24:32)? The Psalmist prays, “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105); do we allow God’s word to shed light on our life’s path and direct our actions so that we can say with Dante, “I saw the truth shine like a clear star in the heavens” [line 86-87]?

Seeing the world with the eyes of faith also requires a conscious awareness of the angelic powers around us. Beatrice explains that the circles which move the heavens are the choirs of angels as traditionally ordered by Pseudo-Dionysius of the Areopagite, understood in the ancient Christian mind to be the same Dionysius converted by Saint Paul and taught the things of heaven by the Apostle. The seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, and angels—this is the celestial hierarchy, the names of whose members are remembered in the Eucharistic Preface at each Mass: “And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim…” It is they whom we join in singing the Thrice-Holy Hymn of victory. “I heard them sing ‘Hosanna,’ choir on choir, / to the Fixed Point that holds each to his ubi, / the place they were and will be forever” [lines 94-96].

Jesus taught his disciples not to forsake the little children, for “in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 18:10). Each one of us has a guardian angel. Are the eyes of our hearts open to their actions in our lives? Do we ask for their light, their protection, and their guidance? Are we aware of the spiritual combat that goes on around us in this fallen world which follows “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:2)? Finally, as we near the conclusion of this Jubilee Year of Mercy, when we have focused our attention on bringing the Lover of Mankind, the Philanthropos, to our fellow man, have we heeded the instruction of the Epistle to the Hebrews? “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (13:2).

Mr. David Wallace is Director of Religious Education at St. Bernadette Catholic Church in Springfield, VA, and a lecturer in catechetics and evangelization at the Christendom College Graduate School of Theology. He lives in Front Royal, VA, with his wife and their five boys.

Posted in Paradiso

Canto 27: Remembering Heaven on Earth


By Colleen Trevissani

As Canto 27 opens, we find Dante enjoying the rapturous tones of a celestial choir singing glory to the Holy Trinity. The heavenly song fills him with a joy and bliss that is inebriating. His head is reeling and feels all his senses feeding into this experience. His footing is not sure and yet he is excited and enlivened to move forward. He experiences a high like no other as he views this next aspect of Heaven. But he is not drunk on new wine, nor were the apostles in their time. In Acts 2:15, it is the experience of Pentecost. In that situation, the Apostles too are experiencing a taste of heaven, a breaking through of God into our world.

I have been blessed to have seen glimpses of this breaking in of God. In my teaching and youth ministry experience, I have known youth who are blissful themselves. Their faces shine even when in a time of distress. These beautiful people offer me a glimpse of that heavenly choir that Dante sees. The heavenly light shines through them, and I get a little bit of that heady feeling when I see this light. Their joy is contagious and I catch it.

But even as I have experienced God’s presence in this world and have seen heaven on earth in those to whom I minister, I continue to seek short term happiness. I lose sight of the end game in favor of a short term pleasure. Dante condemns the people of his time for this shortsightedness of seeking false highs. St. Peter’s voice condemns those in ecclesiastical leadership. They have given into the seduction of power plays. They have sought office for their own gain. They have divided people to grow their own side and to line their own pockets at the expense of others.

What is happening in Dante’s time is not foreign to us. In the world and unfortunately sometime even in the Church, people compete for followers, increase divisions and exploit others for their own greed. We have political campaigns that center on separating “us” from “them” and promote the building of walls to keep people out. Banks encouraged people to make risky loans leading to the mortgage crisis. Even more recently they have set up bank accounts without permission to meet quotas and increase business value.

In our lives too, we seek short term gains over true and lasting happiness. We are tired and choose to stare at the screen, rather than do something like read or even sleep—things that will bring us a more substantial peace and health. We stress eat rather than journal or jog or pray. Yet, the mercy of God brings us back to the path to true happiness. Again and again, God places in my life these glimpses of heaven. I see it in my own heart, and I see it in the light shining through others.

We need these breakthrough moments to sustain us on the journey. I think we see this in the lives of saints, including the very recent story of St. Teresa of Kolcutta, who after experiencing the light and clarity of a blissful “call within a call” to serve the poorest of the poor, experienced the felt absence of God for the remaining years of her life. She held on to the memory of that light and bliss until she might experience it again, as we believe she is now experiencing it fully and completely in heaven.

In some of our youth ministry reflections we talk about our highs and lows and some of our closest moments to God. Youth share of the experiences where they see God come close, or see a foretaste of the heavenly vision. Just as a youth ministry group-reflection or a spiritual direction relationship helps us notice and recall these times of connection with God, the memory of these glimpses helps bring me back to the light. In times of struggle or when faced with darkness, I recall the headiness of those blissful experiences of God and am encouraged to keep going. As Helen Keller wrote, “Keep your face to the sun and you will never see the shadows.”

Ms. Colleen Trevisani is a lay minister and certified teacher, with experience teaching from Pre-K to college. She has ministered in the areas of liturgy, music, retreats, faith formation and youth ministry. She has an MDiv and an MEd in Inclusive Education. Currently the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at St. Kateri in Irondequoit, NY, she lives with her husband and two small boys in Henrietta, NY.

Posted in Paradiso

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


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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Canto 23: Keeping Focused on the Vision of God


By Fr. Justin Miller

Paradiso 23 has been called “Gabriel’s Song.” Gabriel indeed makes an appearance by coming down from heaven like a “little torch” of “Angelic Love” to announce the blessedness of Mary’s womb. Yet, this archangelic messenger plays a rather small role in the canto.

As a whole, the canto centers on Dante’s encounter with Christ the Beatific Vision and his diverse diversions therefrom. The manner in which their dialogue and later diversions ensue—the ineffable Christ beckoning Dante to gaze upon his smiling face—captures both the subject and the style of the canto. The verses frolic forward to show Christ’s invitation frustrated by Dante’s inability to comprehend or consistently contemplate His Lord. Via the poetic techniques of enjambment and a cascading narrative of a circulate melodia (see commentary in Barolini’s “The Undivine Comedy,” p. 223-9), Dante’s attention is consistently diverted away from Christ. It is as if the verse journeys from Christ the source to His creation and back again to Christ in a forceful movement that inspires through beauty in lyric and theology.

Dante begins with this encounter with Christ—here metaphorically pictured as heaven’s sun—but cannot keep his gaze fixed on the Lord. At first his attention turns from Christ to Mary, and then to the angels and the archangel, and finally to Beatrice and other saints before concluding with an allusion to St. Peter in the final verse. Dante can receive and live Christ’s invitation to behold His glory for only so long before he turns his gaze to creation—that which merely reflects the glory of Christ’s light.

Those who follow Christ and seek to one day behold the Beatific Vision are surrounded by many would-be “lights.” We remember that even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). In our attempt to fix our gaze on Christ and contemplate His beauty and truth, we find that a multitude of screens vie for our attention, and we must dodge a dizzying array of distractions in our world. Would that poetry as spiritually uplifting and lyrically beautiful as Dante’s were our average daily media intake. If it were, our attention might more consistently begin with Christ and divert first to other beautiful things in His creation like Mary, the angels and saints. Instead, it is all too easy to allow proud and vain narratives of our world to drive our attention’s gaze away from Christ and His heavenly call for our lives. Often we are found oscillating between various entertainments in a flutter of our largely unrecognized futility. All the while the loving gaze of Christ beckons us to recollect ourselves and turn to His face.

As is fitting for us pilgrims on this earth, it is the journey that can save us, the journey of faith. Just as the verses of Paradiso 23 run one into another with Christ as their apex and origin, in prayer and perseverance we can run the race of our faith and allow God’s grace and our good, virtuous habits to train us to gaze ever more fully upon the glory of Christ. We can choose our destiny, the destiny that Christ has already chosen for us. These daily choices will require our openness to and dependence on grace. Because what else is there? Will we choose to spend our days on our phones, internet, or watching TV instead of gazing upon the face of the Beloved for all eternity? May we instead put down our devices, turn our attention away from the screens of our life, and turn towards the true light—Jesus Christ our hope of glory. It is in journeying with Christ and to Him—even if it means allowing our ADD-inflicted wills to be crucified—that we will one day be able to behold His glorious gaze and contemplate the Beloved with Mary and all the angels and saints.

Fr. Justin Miller is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester and was just recently ordained on June 4, 2016. He is parochial vicar at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Penfield, NY and also at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Webster, NY. He has degrees from St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY, and Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Posted in Paradiso

Canto 22: Rebuilding the Monastic Ideal


By Joel Morehouse

One of the greatest losses of World War II was the historic monastery of Monte Cassino, destroyed by Allied forces during the early months of 1944. Despite lack of evidence, Allied forces dropped 1,400 tons of heavy explosives on the fifteen-century-old monastery, being convinced that the German front was using the structure for observation. After the tragedy of this loss, the monastery complex was entirely rebuilt according to the original plans and remains today an active and thriving Benedictine community.

In Paradiso, Canto 22, we encounter St. Benedict, who first established this very monastery in Monte Cassino in AD 529. When we meet him, he is disappointed by the state of monastic life in Dante’s day: “No one now lifts his feet from the ground to climb [Jacob’s ladder], and the rule of my order is left there simply as so much wasted parchment.” [lines 73-75]

Benedictine Monasticism has a long history in the West, and it would be easy to identify the moral faults and failings which led to its decline in certain areas and at certain times. Human nature, greed, and nepotism, all take their toll; as Dante writes, “…the flesh of mortals is so susceptible that down there a good beginning does not last from the oak’s first leaf to when it bears an acorn.” [lines 85-87]

Today, however, we have at least two good examples of Benedictine monastic communities which are growing and thriving, both of which need our support and prayer: Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek Abbey, or “Clear Creek” Abbey in Oklahoma, and the Monks of Norcia, Italy.

What is the secret behind the success of these communities? The Great Books! The abbots and founders of both communities received a classical education, an education that brings a mind into contact with the greatest thinkers in the history of the world—Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, Dante, Copernicus, Leibniz, Darwin, Einstein and more. Their education was broad and rich. It was not based on practical, political, or skeptical models. It was not an education that reduces to an instrument for forming cogs in the great machine of a capitalist economy. It was a true “liberal arts” education, an education that pertains to the arts that liberate the mind from error by inspiring it to ask and find answers to life’s most significant questions. It is through such an education that the founders of these communities discovered their vocations. Interestingly, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, was also educated at the University of Kansas in the same Great Books program as the founders of Clear Creek. And his diocese is thriving like the monks of Clear Creek. Also, I have the personal honor of saying that many of the monks at Norcia were my classmates at Thomas Aquinas College which is known for its classical approach to education. It is through such an education that the founders of these two communities were able to penetrate into the heart of things and discover the monastic ideal.

As Aristotle would conclude in the Physics, the “form” or “idea” of a thing is more important than its material. The form or intellectual idea of the chair is what makes it a chair, more than the lumber used to construct it. In monastic communities, prayer, the spiritual life, and the faithful observance of the “rule” is precisely what builds the monastery. Neither the stones, nor the beautiful setting, nor the wealth of nations can make a monastery, but rather the true idea of monasticism and the true monastery are constituted by prayer and community life. When prayer and community spirit are destroyed, the monastery becomes a mere museum. When prayer and community spirit are healthy, not even a bomb can keep a monastery from thriving.

And yet this is not to belittle the material reality of a monastery which, as was the case with the original Monte Cassino, can testify to the spirit of those who have lived in it. And even monks who turn away from worldly wealth must nonetheless still manage it. There must be rooms to sleep in, libraries and classrooms for the education of novices, chapels for the prayers of the liturgy, and guesthouses to offer hospitality. Nonetheless, it’s the higher goals that ennoble and direct the lower ones. The monks at Norcia brew and sell delicious beer, but they do it for the sake of their prayer. They aren’t brewers who pray, they are monks who brew.

The monks at Clear Creek are growing rapidly, and have been building a monastery complex “to last for 1000 years.” Their spiritual foundations are perennial. They want the foundations of their monastery to reflect this. Should you wish to learn more or donate to their efforts, visit I also recommend their Gregorian Chant CDs, which are excellent.

I would like to conclude the article with perhaps a more pressing need, though, brought about by the recent earthquakes in Italy. The monks of Norcia have been steadily restoring the ancient monastery of Norcia (Nursia), the foundations of which date back to the 1st century. According to tradition, it is also the birthplace of Saints Benedict and his sister Scholastica. The roots of this community are deep, and the courage and strength of these monks’ faith is an example for all of us. Recent earthquakes have caused significant damage to the monastery and basilica in Norcia, which the monks have been restoring at great effort since 2000. Until the monastery and basilica are stabilized, the monks are living in tents and temporary structures. Please consider sending a donation to this community as a sign of your prayers and support. For more information, visit

Mr. Joel Morehouse is a musician and educator, and resides with his wife Julia Tucker in Syracuse, NY. He holds Bachelors degrees in history and music, and a Masters degree in Secondary Education, from Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester, NY. He also completed further study in classical liberal arts, sciences, and languages at Augustine College in Ottawa and Thomas Aquinas College in California. He currently serves as director of music at St. Ann Church in Syracuse, NY, and is completing further graduate study in pipe organ performance and choral conducting at Syracuse University’s Setnor School of Music.

Posted in Paradiso

Canto 21: The Simplest Gift

canto-21-mainBy Fr. Joe McCaffrey

There is a marvelous, wondrous moment in the latter part of this canto. After Dante asks questions that cannot be answered, after Dante wonders why there is no music to be heard in this level so close to God, after St. Peter Damien appears so close to Dante and comes closer, as Dante, so full of perplexity, introduces the topic of predestination, there is a moment when St. Peter begins to spin. “[T]hat lamp of grace like a millstone at full speed, making an axle of its own center, began to spin in place.” [lines 79-81] As St. Peter tells his story, other souls gather to him, “…downward in circling flight, from rung to rung; and grow more radiant with every turning.” [lines 136-138] I see these souls turning, moving, until they finally “burst forth in a unison of love: a cry so loud the like of it has not been heard on earth.” [lines 139-141] They move from dance to song. Dante, of course, faints, just as St. Peter predicted.

I am reminded, in the spinning, the turning, of the classic American Shaker song Simple Gifts. St. Peter Damien spins where he should be, and the Shakers gloried in the dancing, the turning that brings us where we should be.

     ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free
     ‘tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
     And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
     ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
     When true simplicity is gained,
     To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
     To turn, turn, will be our delight,
     Till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.

This is, of course, a dance, a spin, a turn. It brings simplicity—which is really to do God’s will. Peter Damien, as he enters into the whirling dance, marks his full compliance with God’s will, the joyful acceptance of the dance of the Predestined. For true simplicity, true purity of heart, is to will only one thing, what God wills—this is the Simplest Gift. This is the true dance of the saints of God. The joy of dancing the steps ordained by God brings a shout of joy. And then Dante faints—a vicarious ecstasy.

Can we ask to dance? Can we learn the steps? Can we freely choose to abandon our freedom to the choreography of God? Do ya, do ya, do ya, do ya wanna dance?

Fr. Joe McCaffrey is a priest of the Diocese of Rochester and pastor of Nativity BVM parish in Brockport, NY. His graduate work was done at St. Bernard’s Seminary, Colgate Rochester, and Syracuse University. He taught Philosophy and Religious Studies at Elmira College and Syracuse University. His main interests at present are Ignatian Spirituality, guiding the Spiritual Exercises in Daily Life (19th Annotation), and baseball.

Posted in Paradiso

Canto 19: A Bit of Perspective


By Shannon Loughlin

In Canto 19, Dante stands before the Eagle formed by the light of souls, and wrestles once again with an issue that has plagued him in one way or another throughout his journey: divine justice. In this exchange, the Eagle gives voice to Dante’s unspoken question of the salvation of those whose geographic isolation prevents them from hearing the Gospel:

Upon the Indus’ banks a man is born, and in that country no one’s there to preach on Christ, no one to read of Him, or write; And all his actions and desires are good, as far as human reason can perceive, without a sin in either deed or speech. He dies unbaptized and without faith. Where is the justice that condemns the man? Where is his fault, if he does not believe? [lines 70-78]

Dante’s struggle is a common one for those who seek to reconcile the Christian belief that salvation comes through Christ alone and the reality that some people seem to live good and just lives without being Christians. Regarding salvation, the Catholic Church has affirmed that salvation comes through Christ alone, and through the Church, which is His Body. The Church, though, also acknowledges that there are some who out of invincible ignorance can be without knowledge of the gospel of Christ and yet still seek God with a sincere heart and, in ways known only to God, achieve salvation. (cf. CCC 846-848)

However, it is in that key phrase, “known only to God,” that we see why the Eagle ultimately dismisses Dante’s question. We are at the heart of the issue with lines 73-74: “And all his actions and desires are good, as far as human reason can perceive, without a sin in either deed or speech.” Dante is trying to make human reason the means through which divine justice can be fully understood. The Eagle points to another, Lucifer, who out of pride, refused to acknowledge that God’s ways are not limited to the ways and understanding of created beings [lines 46-48]. Human reason, of course, can and should delve deeply into the mystery of God, and we are called to use it in our journey of faith. The compatibility of faith and reason, however, does not raise human reason to the height of the divine perspective. To do so is to tread into the realm of idolatry, where human knowledge is substituted for divine truth.

In this Year of Mercy, when we are called to live out the spiritual and corporeal works of mercy, this bit of perspective is critical. It is far too easy to allow pride to creep in when we bear wrongs, forgive injury, or counsel the doubtful. It is far too easy to judge those whom we are called to feed and clothe, based on their deeds or speech. It is far too easy to gloss over our own areas of ignorance as we try to instruct the ignorant. This is why Pope Francis has called us to humility, honesty, and forgiveness throughout this Year of Mercy, and why we must carry these spiritual lessons with us forward as we give witness to the Good News.

Dr. Shannon Loughlin has worked in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY, for 16 years and currently serves as the Associate Director of Pastoral Services. She has a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology and a Masters in Pastoral Ministry, both from Duquesne University. Her undergraduate work was at SUNY Geneseo.

Posted in Paradiso

Canto 18: To Love Justice


By Fr. George Heyman

Canto 18 opens with Dante sorrowing over his exile from his beloved Florence. However, Beatrice encourages him to take his mind off the bitter prophecy, commenting that she is “close to him who lightens every unjust hurt.” [lines 5-6] Dante turns to Beatrice, and the very sight of her brings him solace and hope. Beatrice has assured Dante that ultimately God is on his side. As she brings Dante back from his moment of depression to the matters at hand, she reminds him that Cacciaguida still has more to tell him about his journey through the fifth heaven.

Cacciaguida tells Dante that among the souls forming the image of the cross were many heroes of old whose mention would make his poem even richer. He mentions Joshua the companion of Moses who lead the Israelites into the Promised Land; Judas Maccabeus, the second century BC Jewish warrior who led the revolt against the Greek occupation of Israel; Charlemagne, king of the Franks from 768 and restorer of the Roman Empire in the West; Roland, nephew of Charlemagne, who was betrayed by Ganelon and immortalized in the epic poem The Song of Roland; William of Orange, the medieval warrior who died in 812; Renouard, a character in the Old French romance cycles on William, Duke of Orange; Duke Geoffrey of Bouillon , leader of the first Crusade (1096) who defeated the Muslims and became the first Christian king of Jerusalem; and finally Robert Guiscard, a notable Norman warrior who died in 1085.

Dante tries to remember all those names as Cacciaguida disappears among the lights and Beatrice begins to radiate even more beautifully. Dante knows that this a signal that they’ll be advancing to the next heaven—Jupiter. As he arrives he beholds the artistry of the brilliance of these souls who appear to be in a choreographed dance. They form letters in their air through their dancing. He invokes the aid of the godly Pegasea, one of the muses, to help him understand and remember the exact words formed by these letters. He finally is able figure out exactly what the message says: diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram, “Love justice, you who judge the earth.” After forming the last letter ‘M’, Dante sees even more souls descend to enhance the dance. He compares this sight to a shower of sparks that arise when one pokes a burning log.

When the dance is complete, the final ‘M’ has taken the shape of an eagle’s head, and then as other lights appear the entire image of an eagle now emerges. In medieval Florence the eagle was a symbol of justice, and Dante thanks God that justice has appeared in the heavens. The eagle also was a well-known symbol for the city of Rome, and this leads Dante to critique the imperial capital, praying that God’s anger would “fall upon those who would buy and sell within the temple whose walls were built by miracles and martyrs” [line 121]. Rallying against the clerical abuses of the Roman Church, Dante levels his final critique, (without mentioning Pope John XXII by name). “But you who only write to then erase, remember this: Peter and Paul, who died to save the vines you spoil, are still alive” [line 130].

The imagery of this Canto highlight Dante’s firm conviction that amid this world’s corruption, justice itself will ultimately prevail. The injustices he suffered at the hands of the Florentine nobility as well as the injustices he saw in the Roman Church will ultimately be vindicated in heaven. The dance of the saintly souls on Jupiter recalls the prophetic invitation of the Prophet Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you? But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). In its biblical usage justice, does not depend on a blind evaluation of what’s fair (the image of a figure blindly holding a pair of scales). Rather, to be just, in the sense that Micah refers, is ultimately to be equated with “loving kindness” and “humble walking”—all in the sight of God. To be just is to be like God. St. Paul will say that we are justified, that is, placed into a proper relationship with God, by faith (Galatians 2:16). Within the boundaries of this relationship, we have deep trust and a sense that God walks with us when we are exiled, when we are in pain, amid the unfairness we often experience in this world. The justice of God is embedded in God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness and God’s care for the least and the forgotten among us. The dance of the souls in Canto 18 reminds the leaders of this world that they must love justice itself! The clarion call for a just world would make forgiveness, mercy, and compassion, as well as an equitable distribution of wealth and resources the hallmarks of any political entity. Unfortunately, people, nations and rulers in our world simply do not “love justice.” If they did, the violence, war, and terror that we see each night on the news, that we read about each and every day in our publications, that we inflict on others us would ultimately cease. Would that all the leaders, (as well as all citizens of planet earth) see the same dance as did Dante! Would that we all sincerely “loved justice” enough to create a world that truly reflects the wonder and glory of God!

Fr. George Heyman has been a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY, for 34 years. Currently he is the President and Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford, NY. In addition to his teaching responsibilities in the area of biblical studies and early Christian origins, he is also Director of Professional Development and Ministerial Certification for the Diocese of Rochester.

Posted in Paradiso

Canto 17: The Martyr’s Courage, the Prophet’s Freedom

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In his exile, Dante finds the freedom to write the Divine Comedy.

By Ron Herzman

Location, Location, Location. It is no accident that Canto 17 is the exact center of the Paradiso, with sixteen cantos coming before and sixteen after. It is literally and thematically its center. We are in the Heaven of Mars, where Dante meets his great great grandfather Cacciaguida, a warrior-crusader who died a martyr’s death in the Holy Land. In a brilliantly executed three-part movement, the poet moves us from Canto 15, where Cacciaguida, emerging as a flashing light from the crusader’s cross that bisects the red planet, tells his own story and the story of Florence in an earlier and more virtuous time; to canto 16, where Cacciaguida speaks of the degeneracy of present day Florence; to canto 17, where Cacciaguida looks into the future to allow Dante to see the fate that will befall him in two years when he is exiled from Florence.

Exile is a harsh fate. We need to remind ourselves that when Dante writes the Commedia he has been in exile for many years, but he sets the journey in the year 1300, two years before that exile and at a time when he was at the height of his political career. Dante’s exile has been hinted at and explicitly predicted at various earlier parts of the poem, most notably in Inferno 10. Here in Paradiso 17, that exile is portrayed within the contours of Dante’s personal history and the larger historical currents swirling in Dante’s Italy. Its harshness is presented with great specificity by precise images of the pain of day-to-day living. Cacciaguida tells the pilgrim that in exile he “will experience how salty tastes the bread / of another, and what a harsh path it is to descend / and mount by another’s stairs.” One perfectly acceptable gloss for the phrase “how salty tastes the bread of another” is that the bread that Dante eats in exile will be salty from his own tears. Perhaps a better one is that, in point of fact, Florentine bread is made entirely without salt. For Dante, therefore, any other bread is by contrast bound to taste salty. This is a wonderfully apt way to suggest that what is lost in exile is the familiar, the accustomed, the comforting. In exile Dante will have to do without comfort food for the rest of his life. Exile means always being dependent on others, and no home cooking. It would be hard to find a better set of images to describe what it means to have lost all that you previously took for granted.

The comfort that Dante will find is a different sort altogether. He will write with the power of someone who has nothing to lose because he has lost it already, and he will be able to see more clearly into the heart of things because he will be free from temptations to power. He pays a high price—exile will truly be for him a kind of spiritual martyrdom, an updated version of what his great great grandfather suffered as an actual crusader—but like all great prophets he will speak truth to power because he has been called to do so. This canto authenticates Dante’s calling.

In the Inferno, Dante is taunted by predictions of his exile. Here, Dante learns that, painful though it will be, exile can become a means of liberation, a way for him to understand his deeper and truer self, and a way to speak out against injustice by reporting what he has seen in his journey to the afterlife. In other words, here Cacciaguida is explicitly giving Dante a battlefield commission that turns him into a crusader as well, and the battle plan that will allow him to turn his martyrdom-through-exile into a pilgrimage. Exile and the journey that he is taking to the afterlife are both pilgrimages by which Dante will find his voice, and Cacciaguida tells him that his obligation is to do exactly what the great prophets of Hebrew Scripture have done—tell it like it is. Cacciaguida says to him:

Nevertheless, with every falsehood scrapped,
     let everything you’ve seen be manifest,
     and where they’ve got the mange, let them go scratch.
For if your words are sharp at the first taste,
     they’ll leave behind a living nourishment
     when they have been digested at the last.
This shout of yours will batter like a gale
     that pounds the tallest peaks with greatest force—
     and of its worth that’s no small argument. [lines 127-135]

Thus Dante will mimic his great great grandfather by his spiritual martyrdom-though-exile, and mimic him by writing the poem, which will make him a crusader whose more potent weapon is the pen rather than the sword.

Even if not quite as dramatically as Dante, all of us have experienced change and loss, disorientation and defeat. This canto gives the reader a blueprint for how to respond. To see these difficulties as somehow mysteriously graced, to remain hopeful in the midst of great trials, does not come easy. Dante provides a model, suggesting that mercy can be sought and found in periods of profound dislocation. The whole poem speaks to this issue. Paradiso 17, as an exemplification of the virtue of Fortitude or Courage—the virtue associated with the Heaven of Mars—does so in a particularly intense way. This canto also suggests that we are all called, to the degree that circumstances allow, to speak the truth in circumstances that might be very inconvenient.

Dr. Ron Herzman is a member of the English Department at SUNY Geneseo. He has taught, written, and lectured extensively on Dante. This year he is a Fellow at the Center for Medieval Studies at Fordham.

Posted in Paradiso

Canto 14: Nothing is Lost in Paradise


By Fr. Christopher Seiler

If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? . . . No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI)


As the fourteenth canto opens, Beatrice takes over from St. Thomas. She poses the next question that has arisen in the heart of Dante. He wonders about the brilliance of the blessed souls in the resurrection. Do they retain their glorious appearance when they regain their bodies?

The voice of the “light most fully radiant with divinity” [lines 33-34], Solomon the Wise, gently responds to the inquiry. He explains the relationship between grace, vision, love, and glory in the blessed. For all eternity, the saints will radiate the glory of God. Their blazing radiance is measured according to the fervor of the love that burns in their hearts. The more they love, the more they glow with love’s fire. Their ardor is proportioned in turn by their share in the vision of God. This vision is itself the fruit of the length and depth and height and breadth of grace that was in the saint as he left this life. Grace prepares for vision; vision blossoms into love; and love leads to light. The interrelation and mutual dependence of these realities is the perennial teaching of the Church (cf. CCC 1022 and St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Sup. 93.1). Thus, each one will be able to share in the vision and glory of God in the life to come according to the grace and love he attains to in this life. As St. John of the Cross so famously said, “In the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.” (cf. CCC 1022) Christians find in this teaching an impetus to outdo each other in love. For to love more in this life enlarges the heart and soul of man to receive more fully of the life of God in heaven. No doubt, all the blessed are perfectly happy, each according to his just measure, but let us pray for the grace to be not mere thimbles of water, but immense cisterns prepared to receive a flood of God’s goodness.

Having delineated the correlation between these eschatological realities, Solomon assures Dante that the reunion of soul and body will not hinder the glory of the soul. Rather, glory will increase upon the reunion. The body will be glorified with the glory of the soul. As the body of Christ was radiant on Tabor, so will the bodies of the blessed be penetrated by the light of heaven. The body will glow as “a fiery coal that gives off flame” [line 52]. Here in the third heaven, Dante sees that the true destiny of the human person is distant from the horror that he saw so long ago in the wood of the suicides, whose bodies hang from their gnarled branches eternally divided from themselves (cf. Inferno, 13). Here, the poet sees the harmony and profound unity that is meant to exist between the soul and the body.

To this truth about their future, the blessed respond with a hearty “Amen.” They are longing for the day of their incorporation. Yet their longing is less for their own selves than for a return to the fullness of their human relations: “for their mamas, their fathers, and the others they held dear…” [lines 64-65] Esolen speaks beautifully about this desire for the return of embodied existence: “To love a human being is also to love the body. To love the body is to love the small, the local, the particular. It is to love those things enjoyed by that body—even to love Florence, or to use Burke’s phrase, the small platoon into which one was born. It is to love Bag End and the beer from a particularly good harvest. For Dante, the small and the local are delicately expressed in terms of human intimacy.” (Introduction, xxvii)

Thus, the truth of the embodied human person perdures in time and in eternity. The saints, in loving God and contemplating his Face, can still long to see the faces of their friends and family. The superabundance of Divine Goodness does not destroy the goods of nature, but elevates and perfects them. This is the wisdom of the saints. We must labor to love here as they love there. This will involve us in the messiness of the mundane and the occasional chaos that accompanies corporeal existence, but it is through the particular that we learn to love the Universal; through embracing the visible we attain to the Invisible.

No sooner has he learned this lesson than Dante is taken up into the next heaven: the heaven of Mars. Here in the realm of the God of War, he encounters the saints who warred for God and his Church—the heroes of faith who, by taking up the cross of the crusader or donning the robe of the martyr, competed well in the arena of life. These warriors of Christ are arrayed in the shape of the cross.

The souls dart about with levity and joy between the two beams of a Byzantine Cross. He hears the song of the victor saints but can only make out the words “Arise” and “Conquer.” The heroes are praising the true Victor, Christ, who by dying on the wood of the cross and rising from the grave has definitively destroyed sin and death. Their eternal reward is to radiate the glory of the same Cross they embraced in their earthly pilgrimage.

The fifth heaven is even more glorious than the last, and the Poet concludes this Canto noting that the closer to God one draws, the more radiant all things become. The beauty of each level reflects in a new and more glorious way the One Who is Beauty itself. This truth draws the soul upward in its longing to see the Origin and End of all the rest.

With Dante, we continue our journey to God. This canto offers us a twofold encouragement. Hope abounds in the truth that all that is good in our lives now—even the life of the body—will be perfected and made new in the life to come. The joy of the martyrs further sustains us as we bear our share of the cross that God chooses for us each day. We can trust that by taking up the standard of the cross, we too are being made fit to share in the Victor’s reward for all eternity.

Fr. Christopher Seiler is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He completed his theological studies in Rome at the Pontifical Lateran University. He is the associate pastor of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in St. Louis City and teaches Dogmatic Theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary.

Posted in Paradiso

Canto 13: The Wise Suspend Judgment

By Nicolas Dube

To borrow a line from another Dantista, there is an initial question as to whether being awarded Paradiso 13 is an onore or an onere (‘honor’ or ‘onus’). The canto has the reputation of being one of the most difficult to explain and of coming across more as philosophy than poetry. Yet there is much knowledge to be gained from Saint Thomas Aquinas’s discourse, and it is certainly worth the effort to acquire it.

The canto begins with the description of the twenty-four souls of the Sphere of the Sun dancing in a double constellation of circles and singing of the Trinity and Incarnation. Once the song and dance has ended, St. Thomas Aquinas turns to Dante and seeks to answer his unspoken question regarding Solomon: how can Solomon have been the wisest man such that there was none wiser before nor after him? St. Thomas refers to his earlier remark in Paradiso 10 that there never came a second as wise, but the reference could just as well be to 1 Kings 3:12, where God promises Solomon a wise mind such that “no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.” Dante wonders how Solomon could be wiser than Adam or Christ, who both were human and had the full infusion of the knowledge of God. St. Thomas begins his explanation by separating all of creation into derivatives of the Almighty. First are the nine orders of angels, which are like mirrors of God. They reflect His goodness, and yet they are beings distinct and different from God. Those things that are not eternal receive different amounts of light based upon the vicissitudes of nature, the artist who creates “with a hand that trembles.” [line 77] Adam and Jesus were not subject to such an unreliable craftsman, and thus were exceptional human beings. St. Thomas concludes his discourse on Solomon by explaining that Solomon’s wish was to become a wise ruler, and with this qualification in place it is perfectly true to say that there never arose another ruler as wise as Solomon (Cf. Nehemiah 13:26, “Among the many nations there was no king like [Solomon]”). St. Thomas closes his discussion with a warning against premature judgment on matters, lest one seize upon an erroneous answer and cling to it out of habit or consistency. He announces that even a thief may be saved and an almsgiver punished.

As mentioned previously, there are many valuable lessons to be learned from the canto, but I would focus particularly on the final discussion on premature judgment. Dante refers to premature judgment in two ways: first, that of arriving at a decision on a matter without fully understanding the options, and second, that of determining the eternal fate of others based upon their actions.

Dante explains that human beings, once having made a decision, are wont to defend it at great cost. Ralph Waldo Emerson alluded to this fact in his assertion that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”; not wanting to be proven wrong, we will search for every reason possible why a position may be correct without choosing the objectively right answer. This point is as true today as it was seven centuries ago: no one wants to be a “flip-flopper.” Decisions should be made with due care and thought, but barring that, they should be made with an aim to ultimate truth and correctness, not with the selfish desire to seem right. The Romans encapsulated this thought in the phrase esse quam videri, ‘to be rather than to seem’. Justice and wisdom deal in things as they are, not as they appear to be.

The final point Dante raises is that too frequently “donna Berta e ser Martino” (the medieval Italian equivalent of “every Tom, Dick, and Harry”) feel as though they can intuit God’s wisdom and judgment based on their observations. After all, a thief is a sinner and an almsgiver a saint, right? Dante’s warning provides a twofold reminder. First, as noted above, things are not always as they appear. Benjamin seemed a thief to the Egyptians when he was found with the Vizier’s silver cup in his sack (Genesis 44:12). Judas Iscariot seemed a pious almsgiver to those listening when he asked why perfume was not sold and given to the poor (John 12:5). And yet the thief was innocent (Gen 44:2) and the almsgiver guilty (Gen 44:2; Jn 12:6). It is the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who is justified in Luke 8:14 and the poor widow, not the rich donors, who gives the most in Mark 12:43. Although we may know right from wrong ourselves, we may not always be able to see it. A priest and friend of mine frequently reminds me that too often “we judge ourselves by our intentions, but others by their actions.” It would seem then that we should be mindful of all the circumstances and always be ready to amend our understanding in light of the truth.

Second, we are too quick to say a person is too guilty to be saved or too saintly to fall. The father-son example of Guido and Buonconte da Montefeltro shows that even a friar and advisor to the Pope can make wicked decisions, and that a teardrop of repentance and the name of Mary can save a sinner. In the Bible, David was “a man after [the Lord’s] own heart” (1 Sam13:14), and yet he brought about the death of Uriah the Hittite and incurred God’s anger (2 Sam 12). His son Solomon was the wisest of kings, and yet he fell into following foreign gods and women, bringing about the disintegration of the Kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 11). But it was a prostitute of Jericho, Rahab, who alone with her family was saved and who was elevated as a model of good works and faith (James 2:25; Heb 11:31). It was a criminal, punished to die on a cross, who received the promise of Paradise from the Lord on His own cross (Luke 23:40-43).

In sum, it remains vital to our understanding of our neighbors and ourselves that we reflect before declaring judgments and remember the possibility of good and salvation that awaits those who seek it. Christ dined with sinners and was criticized for it. Yet He clearly believed there was hope for them. Dante reminds us with his canto of this incisive truth: if God reserves His judgment and freely offers His mercy, should we not strive to do the same?

Nicholas Dube is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Harvard College, with a degree in History and the Classics and a secondary concentration in Italian Studies. His experience with Dante includes study at the Carla Rossi Academy in Monsummano Terme, Italy, and attendance at academic conferences on the Divine Comedy.

Posted in Paradiso

Canto 10: The Nature of Wisdom


By Bill Cook

Paradiso 10 is the first of four cantos where Dante describes his experience in the Circle of the Sun. Let’s remember that in the Ptolemaic universe, the sun is the middle one of the seven planets (Moon, Mercury, Venus before and Mars, Jupiter, Saturn after). And since the sun is associated with wisdom, Dante meets lots of smart guys—people like Thomas Aquinas. Nevertheless, the ‘stars’ of the Circle of the Sun are not souls we meet but saints whom we hear about—Francis of Assisi and Dominic, founders of the two most important new orders of the century, the Franciscans and Dominicans.

It somehow seems right that we hear about Dominic since his order was the most learned in that era, including Thomas Aquinas himself. Yet it is the learned Thomas who tells the story of St. Francis of Assisi, whom I often describe as a man with an elementary school education and likely a B- Latin student. Perhaps one takeaway from these four cantos is that knowledge without love is insufficient. When St. Bonaventure, whom Dante will meet in Paradiso 12, writes his life of St. Francis, the Legenda Maior, he discusses Francis’ attitude toward learning. Friars should study, Francis tells his brothers, because we learn by reading (since we were not with Jesus to witness his life or hear his words directly) that Jesus prayed more than he read. So, yes we have to read, but we also must then learn from our reading to pray more than we read. Bonaventure also presents Francis as one who believed learning is a means to being a better lover of God and God’s creation. Learning for the sake of power or wealth is of no worth.

For Dante, the Church is in such bad shape at the end of the 12th century that God sent two great men, Francis (Paradiso 11) and Dominic (Paradiso 12), to repair it. In the early 16th century, Machiavelli wonders if the Church would even have survived to his own time had these great rebuilders not done their complementary work.

Thomas Aquinas is part of a circle of twelve wise men, and in Paradiso 12 we will see that Bonaventure is also part of a twelve-man circle. It is useful to look at the first dozen wise men here. To most readers, even after looking at the notes, these are not familiar people. With one significant exception, they are medieval thinkers and writers, known to medievalists and Church historians. Four of the twelve, including Thomas Aquinas are canonized saints, so we may hear their names from time to time (Albert the Great, often referred to in the Latin as Albertus Magnus, Bede often referred to as the Venerable Bede, and Isidore of Seville). The one non-medieval figure is King Solomon, who lived in the 10th century BC. It does not surprise us that Solomon is here, because we sometimes use the term “the wisdom of Solomon,” usually referring to his way of dealing with the two women who both claim to be the mother of the same child.

However, in Paradiso 13, Thomas Aquinas reads Dante’s mind and raises the question of why Solomon received such high praise from Thomas. His answer is not the story of Solomon judging the two supposed mothers. Rather, it is that when God offered Solomon any gift, he chose the wisdom to govern his people, i.e. the wisdom needed in fulfilling his God-ordained purpose.

The most striking element of Aquinas’ introduction of his circle of twelve to Dante are their placement. To Thomas’ right is Albertus Magnus, who was one of his teachers. It is interesting to see this teacher/pupil relationship and compare it to Dante the Pilgrim’s mentor Brunetto Latini, whom he meets in Inferno 15. It is good to go back to the Inferno and see both the conversation and the placement of Brunetto at the hem of Dante’s gown as they talk.

Most shocking is who Thomas’ other neighbor is—Siger of Brabant. He was at the University of Paris at the same time that Thomas taught there. And they were real rivals with very different theologies. For fun, take a look at a fictionalized debate between the two at

The teachings of Siger were condemned in 1277 and at other times. Aquinas was well on his way to becoming a saint when Dante was writing the Paradiso (canonized 1323, two years after Dante’s death).

So, Aquinas spends eternity with his mentor and his nemesis beside him. So what is Dante trying to tell us? Certainly he is not declaring the works of Albertus, Thomas, and Siger to be equal in importance or in truth. It is hard to imagine so much of the Divine Comedy without the deep influence of Aquinas. Perhaps what Dante wants us to ponder is that our understanding of truth while we are on earth is partial and imperfect. Dante mentions in the Purgatorio that, for example, the prophet Ezekiel gives a false report about the number of wings of angels in his prophetic book. More surprisingly, Pope Gregory the Great (AD 590-604), as we learn in Paradiso 28, discovered when he got to heaven that he had incorrectly corrected the writings of Dionysius (another one of the twelve in Paradiso 10). However, we are told that when Gregory got to heaven and saw the angels, he laughed at his mistake [line 135].

So, this part of heaven has many things for Dante the Pilgrim to learn. And most of them are not the sophisticated intellectual things that we might expect in the region of heaven containing the souls of the wisest people. Here he learns about the diversity of thought, the importance of honest inquiry, and the essence of wisdom from Solomon who was, after all, not a scholar.

Dr. William Cook taught history for 42 years, retiring in 2012 with the rank of Distinguished Teaching Professor of History. A specialist in medieval history, he has taught a course on Dante’s Commedia alone and with his colleague Ron Herzman. Bill has written several books and about 50 articles as well as more than 900 columns for the Livingston County News. He has established the Bill Cook Foundation (, which provides educational opportunities for some of the world’s poorest children.

Posted in Paradiso

Canto 9: The Harmony of Mercy and Justice

Canto 9 Main

By Caitlin Bootsma

In Canto 9, we find ourselves still in the sphere of Venus—a curious place that is in Paradise, though far from its heights. This particular location gives Dante an opportunity to see how justice and mercy are not contrary to one another, but rather work in together for our spiritual benefit.

Dante encounters Cunizza, the sister of an infamous tyrant. Dante feels she must know his very thoughts because she is united in love with God through her place in heaven. It is through this same union with the will of God that Cunizza shares a prophecy about the people of Italy who sin so grievously that even the “scourge of war” does not make them repent [line 9]. She relates,

     But soon it will come to pass that Paduan blood,
     And soon, will stain the waters of Vicenza
     Because people shunned their duty there. [lines 46-48]

This destruction, she says, is justified because it is the way in which “God shines his judgments down on us.” It is, in other words, justice. But what about God being a God of mercy? Would God really allow people to be punished in this way for their sins? Cunizza sheds some light on this quandary when she explains how, looking back, she understands her own history of immoderate love on earth, landing her in lower realms of Paradise:

     But we do not repent, we smile instead;
     Not at the sin—this does not come to mind—
     But at the Power that orders and provides.

     From here we gaze upon that art which works
     with such effective love; we see the Good
     By which the world below returns above. [lines 103-108]

She is content, knowing that God’s mercy allowed even her mistakes to be the vehicle through which she saw God’s goodness. In other words, God knows our weaknesses and works through them to draw us closer to eternal life.

Then, of course, there is the figure or Rahab who “was the first to rise among the souls redeemed in Christ’s great triumph.” [lines 119-120] Rahab was a prostitute, known as the “Whore of Jericho”. Yet, it was partly because of her efforts that the Israelites regained the Promised Land. She hid Joshua’s spies before the Battle of Jericho, enabling them to carry out God’s will. Like each one of us, Rahab’s life was far from perfect. She, as a prostitute, sinned. However, this same woman chose to demonstrate courage and virtue by risking her life and helping the Israelites. Was it God’s mercy (forgiving her sins) or His judgment (rewarding her good deeds) that landed her in heaven? I would argue that it was both.

Going back to the terrible prophecy about Paduan blood, we can ask again: “How could a merciful God let this happen?” It is abundantly clear as Dante travels in Paradise that God’s ways are not always our ways. We learn from Cunizzo’s life and from Rahab’s that God makes use of many circumstances to inspire us to repentance and holiness. Is it possible that the blood spilt because of God’s judgment will also turn into an opportunity for people to receive His mercy as they turn and recognize the error of their ways?

The Year of Mercy is certainly an opportunity for each one of us to experience the joint gifts of God’s Justice and Mercy. In His Justice, we are able to recognize sin for what it is—a willfully chosen act that separates us from God. When we have this recognition, we are then primed to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness.

It is no coincidence that both contrition and penance are important parts of the Sacrament of Confession. True contrition for our sins allows us to receive the grace of the sacrament—God’s mercy. Penance is a matter of justice; we have been forgiven, but we also must atone for what we have done wrong.

As Dante moves through the outer rings of Paradise, we begin to glimpse more fully God’s plan for us. He seeks to work through our strengths and our weaknesses, turning each moment into an opportunity to receive His grace and mercy.

Mrs. Caitlin Bootsma is the editor of Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum as well as the Communications Director for Fuzati, a Catholic Marketing company. She lives in Richmond with her husband and two sons.

Posted in Paradiso

Canto 8: The Providence of God Will Provide for Us

seminarians walking into Theological College photo by Ed Pfueller TC_outside_109.JPG

By Deacon Tony Amato

Above the main doors of my seminary, Theological College, at the Catholic University of America, you will see an inscription in Latin which reads: Providentia Dei nos providebit (‘The Providence of God will provide for us’). It is a reminder to all the men who enter there that in His infinite wisdom, God has foreseen every moment of our lives and even in that very moment when we walk through the door, we should know that we are cared for by His loving solicitude. For men who are in formation for the priesthood, and have discerned well that they are in fact called to the priesthood, they must trust, first, that God has given them the proper natural dispositions to live such a life and, second, that God’s grace is always available to them.

This truth about God’s providence and His care for us applies to people in all walks of life, no matter their vocation might be. We find this case being made in this eighth canto of the Paradiso when Dante and Beatrice ascend to the Third Heaven, the planet Venus. There they meet Charles Martel, a friend of Dante in life, though he is not explicitly named here. They begin their discussion around Charles’ death at a young age and the political and social circumstances of his demise.

The main point of this canto is then introduced by the question: “How from sweet seed may come a bitter fruit?” [line 93]. Thus the question of God’s Providence and human free will come to the fore. In lines 100-105, we see the metaphysical arrow appear again as we saw in the second canto, directing each soul to its proper end. We are assured in these lines, by Charles Martel, that “the Mind that in Itself is perfect” not only knows the natures of all things, but knows and provides for their well-being. And so, “whatsoever this bow shoots/ falls predisposed to a determined end/ as a shaft directed to its target” [lines 103-105]. God knows our end and our fate, but he provides every means for us to attain to our heavenly goal.

There are two scientific questions that should be briefly addressed here. First, the ordering of the cosmos and movement of the planets was thought to determine the ordering of things on earth. This is assumed in Charles’ argument for God’s foreknowledge, based on the belief that the “intellects” (angels, incorporeal beings) move the heavenly spheres. Since these beings cannot fail in their task, because they were created perfect, by a perfect God (“the primal Intellect”), we therefore have a predetermined course for our lives. The fact that the intellects move the heavenly spheres—creating a buffer between God’s will and human action—shows that while our lives and ultimate end are known by God, man is still free to choose his path [lines 106-111].

Second, it is God’s Providence that is used to explain the diversity amongst men and the ordering of society, predisposing people for different tasks and vocations. It was thought that the father transmitted all hereditary traits to his children, while the rational soul is given directly by God, and so father and son would be identical in every way, including their dispositions to particular vocations. This does not, however, undermine the truth of Charles’ claim. Again, in the midst of a type of Socratic dialogue between Dante and Charles, Aristotle’s philosophy makes its appearance. Charles references a line from the opening of Aristotle’s Politics in which it is stated that, “Man is by nature a political/social animal.” The duties and responsibilities of man, therefore, are necessarily diverse [lines 115-123], not predetermined merely by heredity, but guided by Providence. It is in this fact of God’s loving solicitude for humanity that we find our security, hope, and courage to embrace the various crosses that God has given to each of us.

Our Lord has provided for all orders of society to carry out their duties for the good of all. Charles tells us that “one is born Solon and another Xerxes, one Melchizedeck” and another Daedalus [lines 124-126]. These correspond to four main orders in society, namely, legislators, generals/kings, priests, and artisans, respectively. More important to the topic at hand than the mere fact of God’s ordering of society in such a way according to man’s natural dispositions, are the consequences of not following the path God has set out for each of us:

     Always if nature meets a fate
     unsuited to it like any kind of seed
     out of its native soil, it comes to a bad end,

     and if the world below paid more attention
     to the foundation nature lays and built on that,
     it would be peopled well [lines 139-144].

I am reminded here of the gospel parable of the master who goes on a journey and entrusts his possessions to three servants, each getting a certain number of talents according to his abilities (Mt 25:14-30). The Master knows each of his servants. He made each of us and so he knows our abilities and our limitations. The good news is precisely that God has given us every grace to be able to heal our wounded human nature and to build on “the foundation nature lays” to live a life in the grace of God and the practice of the virtues.

This means that God has also given us the opportunity and grace to be able to discern well the gifts he has given us and how to use them for God’s greater glory and for our sanctification. This is the sole task of our lives: to be holy. We are called to a life of holiness at our baptism. As we discern which direction our life is to take, the primary concern is how God is calling us to live a life of holiness. The tragedy of life is when “you force into religion one born/ to wear the sword, and make a king/ of one more fit for sermons” [lines 145-147]. A person in such a situation is bound to be unhappy and will search for other, perhaps destructive, ways to feel fulfilled in this life. However, if we pay attention to the abilities God has given us, and the promptings of God’s grace, we can become the person God has called us to be: a saint.

We trust in God’s Providence precisely because of who it is that has provided for us. Our Lord gave us our life, our vocation, and every means to attain the salvation that he has won for us on the Cross. There are many situations in life in which we might find ourselves and that we did not choose. These may even be painful and show themselves to be a true test of our faith in God’s love for us and in his solicitude for our spiritual well-being. What Dante tries to show us here is that the goal of our life and even the means to attain that goal is given before we were born, by a loving and merciful God. We have no reason to fear. The Providence of God will provide for us.

Deacon Tony Amato is a seminarian and transitional deacon with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY. He is in formation at Theological College at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.

Posted in Paradiso

Canto 7: Divine Mercy and Cur Deus Homo


By Fr. Ryan Erlenbush

The seventh canto of the Paradiso contains Dante’s discussion of the redemption of man which was wrought through the incarnation and death of the Son of God. Especially during this Year of Mercy, we have much to reflect upon.

Dante begins his study of the death of Christ with a simple introduction to the question of how this death could be “just” insofar as permitted by God for the salvation of the world, and at the same time a grave sin for humanity (and specifically, for the Jewish people). In the previous canto, we heard that the destruction of Jerusalem was a fitting punishment for the city. For having put the Author of Life to death, the city would be put to the sword. Indeed, from the early Christian tradition, we know that this thought was not foreign even to the people at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem—for many of the Jews believed that the city was being punished for the murder of St. James, a man of eminent holiness who was respected by all. However, in truth, the city was destroyed, not because of the murder of St. James “the Just” (as he was called even by the Jews) but rather because of the murder of the Christ. Still, we must ever recall the words of the Second Vatican Council, “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews today. […] The Jews should not be presented as rejected or as accursed by God.” (Nostra Aetate 4)

Indeed, when the suffering and death of Christ are considered from the divine perspective—the Father handing over the Son into the hands of men—we see that the act is just, for the sin of Adam earned the penalty of death for all men. And the created human nature in which Jesus was punished (though perfect insofar as it was assumed by him from the Immaculate Virgin) stood for all of sinful humanity who deserve death. However, considered from the perspective of those who killed Jesus, the act is most unjust. For the Person put to death was none other than God the Son—who is most pure and innocent of all crime. Thus, God was just in allowing the death to occur, but those who killed our Lord were guilty of murder—and we all stand as the true cause of this death on account of our sins which called for such a redemption. This is the essential meaning of lines 20 to 51.

We then come to the far more interesting question of the canto: Why did the redemption occur in such a manner as this? Why did God allow his own Son to die for our salvation? Could God not have found some other way to save us? Following St. Thomas (cf. Summa Theologica III, q.1, a.1-6), Dante tells us that there were other means by which God could have saved humanity. Essentially, there were two ways of salvation: Either God could simply forgive the sin entirely on his own, or man could make some atonement (cf. lines 90-93).

Yet, it was impossible that man alone should atone for the sin committed. Being committed against the infinite Godhead, the offense was infinite. But man is only finite. Furthermore, having sinned in Adam, the innate value of man was lost together with grace. So there was no pure sacrifice which could be made to atone for man’s sin—for all that man does of himself (without grace) is of no value for salvation. Thus, it is clear that God had to forgive of himself.

Yet, it was not fitting that God should forgive alone without any work or manifestation of his love. It was possible that God could have forgiven all simply by willing it. There was yet a greater way, though. The Word desired that by becoming man, man himself might make atonement. And this man’s nature would not be fallen. And at the same time, this man was the infinite Person of God the Son. Thus his atonement would be of infinite value.

Notice, in the reasoning of this canto, Dante’s early discussion of strict justice gives way to the infinite depths of Divine Mercy and Love! In the first half of the canto, we hear of justice and the close weighing of scales. In the second half, it is all love and mercy, and this is the greatest act which has ever been accomplished (cf. lines 112-114).

The argument given is from St. Anselm (Cur Deus Homo), yet Anthony Esolen points out that the wording is Richard of St. Victor’s. “For the satisfaction [of this sin] it was fitting that there be as great humiliation in atonement as there was presumption in the untruth. But God of all rational beings holds the highest place, and man the lowest. When therefore man presumed to rise against God, it was the revolt of the lowest against the highest. Hence for the remediation and expiation it behooved that the highest be humbled to the lowest.” (On the Incarnation of the Word 8)

We may go yet further and emphasize Dante’s reasoning in lines 106-109: God would be more pleased in his work of redemption the more it manifested the goodness of his loving heart. God’s mercy is so great that he did not simply want to redeem us; he wanted to save us in the manner which most fully showed his love. Now, to simply forgive is not true mercy, but only indulgence; hence, it was fitting that the debt of sin be paid. Yet, to manifest his love, God desired to become man and pay that debt on our behalf.

Christ, being an infinite Person, could have redeemed us by the slightest sigh or the least drop of blood (as at his circumcision). Yet the Love of God is a fount of mercy which pours forth all that it is and all that it has upon beloved humanity. For this reason, Jesus did not redeem us with a mere drop of his blood (as he could have) but wished to give himself fully. He wished to be fully broken so as to be offered as a perfect holocaust wholly consumed—even as he is wholly consumed with love for his Father and for us.

The seventh Canto of the Paradiso is then the great song of Divine Mercy.


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.

Posted in Paradiso

Canto 6: Not Honor but Service

Canto 6Manuscript illumination, c. 1450. In service to the Provencal count Raymond Berenguer, Romeo de Villeneuve arranges the marriages of his daughters.


By Fr. Paul Tomasso

Dante has proceeded to the second heaven, the planet Mercury, where he meets the great Emperor Justinian who says of himself, “Caesar I was, and am Justinian” [line 10]. This reminds us of the truth that, in the Purgatorio, Pope Adrian V communicates to Dante—in the afterlife, titles, honors, dignities cease and only the individual remains [Purgatorio 19.130-138]. Nevertheless, the individual retains his memory, his perspective and his awareness of the life he lived in the world, a life that was helped or harmed along the way by choices made.

Justinian remembers that he was converted to believe correctly in the humanity and divinity of Christ by Pope Agapetus who “used his eloquence to woo my heart unto the perfect faith” [lines 16-18]. This experience was pivotal in Justinian’s view of himself as he continued to transfer military responsibilities to his generals and turned his energy to the codification of Roman law. While he saw both of these decisions as strengthening Rome and its progress forward, he also saw law as something spiritual in its goal of justice. We can see his high regard for justice later on in his discourse when he refers to Christ as “the Living Justice” [line 121].

Through much of this Canto Justinian reviews with Dante Rome’s history from its earliest times, its glories and struggles, down to the Christian era and the reign of Charlemagne. Justinian’s discourse is not simply to praise Rome or himself, but in it he tries to point out that Rome, the Eagle, was a part of God’s plan. Rome was an agent of Redemption in the Crucifixion [line 87]. And the Law, which Justinian codified, strives for Justice which ultimately only Christ, “the Living Justice brings about. The Eagle and the Law, strong as they may be, serve Christ who is greater than both.

For all that is reviewed and discussed in this Canto, Justinian concludes with a brief, poignant reference to a then known Romeo who loyally served but was cast aside by the Count of Provence. “Could the world know how brave a heart he bore….Much as it lauds him now, ‘twoud laud him more.” [lines 140, 142]. The best life is not about Rome (glory) or the Eagle (power). Nor is it about codification of law (accomplishment). The best life is about pure, loyal service, a service that is without ambition, a service that—while maybe not being recognized on earth—will be rewarded in heaven.

Fr. Paul Tomasso is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY. He was ordained in 1981 and, since then, has served in a variety of pastorates and assignments. Currently he is Director of Seminarians and Parochial Vicars and is also Vicar General for the Diocese of Rochester.

Posted in Paradiso

Canto 5: Trust and Hope

Hikers climbing on rock, mountain at sunset, one of them giving

By Fr. Marcus Pollard

Of the three realms described in the Divine Comedy, the Paradiso is the most difficult to think about and imagine. In the Inferno, Dante takes us down into the earth where we witness hell’s punishments. The subject is naturally graphic and easy to picture. We have seen caves and can imagine the various punishments. With the Purgatorio, we ascend the mountain of purification to be freed of the wounds of sin. We’ve all seen mountains and most of us have hiked a few. And we’re all sinners too. So there is no problem here, imagining the Purgatorio. How can we picture to ourselves, though, what is being described for us in the Paradiso? How do we imagine being transported through the heavenly spheres? How can we imagine to ourselves the sort of glory and perfection of the saints encountered here? The whole medieval idea of the spheres is foreign to us moderns, and they are unlike anything we have ever seen. Moreover, on a day to day basis, rather than meeting saints, we probably have more experience with sinners—ourselves and others. So in the Paradiso, we are really moving into uncharted territory. It’s really even more frightening, in a certain sense, than the Inferno.

With Canto 5 of the Paradiso, Dante and Beatrice are at the end of their stay in the first sphere of heaven, the circle of the moon. They have been discussing the challenge of constancy in the spiritual life and especially the fortitude or courage needed to be faithful to one’s vows. Beatrice points out that the greatest power man has in his likeness to God is the soul’s power of free will to follow truth and goodness. Therefore it is essential that it be used well.

When one freely makes a vow to God, such as the vow of celibate chastity, the vow has two elements. There is the substance of what is promised. There is also the fact of the freely given pact with God. The first element, the substance may be returned or even dispensed. However, the second, the free gift of self cannot be taken back without a permanent loss. There is no compensation, nothing equal for which it might be exchanged. Giving up the free gift of self, the soul has lost something of infinite value which it can never make up.

We live in an era when everything seems fluid. Culture is rapidly changing (I hesitate to describe it as evolving), technology is developing, privacy is disappearing, home life is in turmoil, social media is flourishing while the scourge of isolation and loneliness spreads. One casualty of this is our faith in a person’s word. We’re not surprised when the news media distort facts or when politicians lie. We should pray for prudence and fortitude. With prudence, we can be careful about making promises, and with fortitude, we can keep the promises we have already made. We can also pray for appreciation and gratitude. May God give us all appreciation and gratitude for the relationships that we do have with people we can trust. How precious are such people and such relationships!

Moving out into the heavenly spheres in the Paradiso is a little like moving out into the unfamiliar and uncertain territory that this our modern world is becoming. There is so much uncertainty and so much that one might be apprehensive and fearful about. Ultimately, however, we must come back to the virtue of hope. With hope we cling to the truth of God’s love and the unfolding of His plan for us. With hope we can launch out into the unknown with the assurance that the Lord is with us and is leading us to a destination that is ultimately going to prove familiar to us—the destination of heaven which is our true home.

Fr. Marcus Pollard has been ordained for 25 years and is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington, VA. He is currently serving as Pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Falls Church, VA. He has an M. Div. from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD and an M.A. from the Notre Dame Catechetical Institute.

Posted in Paradiso