By Fr. Marcus Pollard
While the Purgatorio is a single work, Dante’s vision of the state and experiences of the suffering souls of the dead has them divided between “ante-purgatory” and “purgatory” proper. In Canto 5, Dante and Virgil are in the middle of ante-purgatory. This arena could be likened to the waiting room in a doctor’s or dentist’s office. It is like any place where we are forced to wait to go somewhere to experience something that is both unpleasant and beneficial. The waiting is challenging in that it is a combination of at least three things: the anticipation of what is in store for us, the reality that we have no control over how long we will have to wait, and also, too often, the realization that if we had been more responsible, none of this would be necessary in the first place.
Welcome to ante-purgatory. This is the domain of the “late-repentant”. They had their whole lives to turn toward the Lord, but didn’t. They are proof of God’s infinite patience and inexhaustible desire to save souls. They have died in a state of grace due to a desperate final prayer of repentance corresponding to a last minute offer of grace on God’s part. Each of these souls has a lifetime of accumulated vices that need to be purged and a lifetime of sins that need to be atoned for. However, they also WAITED! They waited on earth in this life to repent. So, in justice, God is making them wait before they can even begin the process of purification and atonement. Among the late-repentant are: the excommunicated, the negligent, the violently killed, and the preoccupied (with civil affairs).
Canto 5 unfolds with Dante and Vigil pressing on and encountering two groups of souls who ended their lives on earth with a violent death. The first group marvels at the light broken by Dante’s body. Dante is still in the flesh and produces a shadow. Vigil urges Dante to proceed and not to let the amazement and questioning of these souls delay him. The souls of the second group endeavor to see if Dante recognizes some of them, and they ask him to bring word back to the realm of the living about their circumstances and need for prayer. The Canto ends with Dante’s description of his discussion with three souls in particular: Jacopo del Cassero (who was assassinated), Bonconte da Montefeltro (who was killed in war) and the woman Pia (who was murdered by her husband). They tell their respective stories and the plight of their lives and violent endings.
In this Canto there are two dialogues that seem especially useful for us today as we strive to live the Christian life. The first of these, near the very beginning of the Canto, involves Virgil rebuking Dante when he is slowed by the first group of souls marveling at him. Vigil says:
“Why have you let your mind get so entwined,” my master said, “that you have slowed your walk? Why should you care about what’s whispered here? Come, follow me, and let these people talk: stand like a sturdy tower that does not shake its summit though the winds may blast; always the man in whom thought thrusts ahead of thought allows the goal he’s set to move far off—the force of one thought saps the other’s force.” [lines 10-18]
One of the ongoing challenges in being faithful to Christ and faithful in His service are the dangers of distractions. These may come from the world around us, from other people or from within ourselves. Regardless of their origin, Vigil’s admonition about remaining firm in the face of distractions evokes in my mind the image of a majestic and tall tree that can enjoy a breeze, sway with a strong wind, and bend but stand fast against a gale. This is the flexibility and resilience that comes with virtue.
The second noteworthy moment found near the end of the Canto is the description of the last moments of the life of Bonconte da Montefeltro, the war casualty. In response to Dante’s question about his final moments, he says:
“There, at the place where that stream’s name is lost, I came—my throat was pierced—fleeing on foot and bloodying the plain; and there it was that I lost sight and speech; and there, as I had finished uttering the name of Mary, I fell; and there my flesh alone remained. I’ll speak the truth—do you, among the living, retell it: I was taken by God’s angel, but he from Hell cried: ‘You from Heaven—why do you deny me him? For just one tear you carry off his deathless part.’” [lines 97-107]
It seems particularly apropos for the Year of Mercy to read about the power of the “Hail Mary”, the place of Marian piety, and the power of Mary’s intercession as one of the roads to reconciliation with Christ. Since the publication of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, there has been a lot of discussion about the pastoral care of couples in irregular marital situations. During the papacy of St. John Paul II, on more than one occasion, the Vatican counselled the need for such Catholic couples to be drawn as fully as possible and as personally as possible into the life of the Church in general and especially into parish life. While they could not be receiving Holy Communion nor benefitting from Confession, it was highly recommended that they stay close to Our Lady, through the devotion of the rosary.
As St. Louis de Montfort said, whose feast was just at the end of April and whose motto Totus Tuus was taken up by St. John Paul II, devotion to the Blessed Mother is a sign of a soul predestined for Heaven.
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.