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It’s a Big Year for Dante. Here’s How One American Plans to Celebrate

Portrait of Dante Alighieri

Public Domain

John Burger - published on 02/10/15

Cardinal Burke to join in pilgrimage on 750th anniversary of poet's birth.

The great Italian poet Dante Alighieri was born three-quarters of a millennium ago this year. His native city of Florence, which has long gotten over its exile of the author of The Divine Comedy, is planning a huge celebration. 

But one American history professor is combining a conference in Rome to honor Dante with a spiritual pilgrimage to commemorate the anniversary as well as some other medieval and Renaissance figures who have a lot to say to 21st-century man.

Edmund Mazza is a professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Azusa Pacific University. Mazza’s principal fields are Medieval Europe, Ancient History, Church History and Russian History. His most recent article, "Not Everybody Loves Raymond (or Regensberg)," was published in the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly. His travel and research has taken him to such varied places as New York, Paris, Lourdes, Rome, Venice, Padua, Florence, Barcelona, Kuala Lumpur, and Mexico City.

Mazza spoke with Aleteia about the pilgrimage, planned for May.

This year marks the 750th anniversary of the birth of Dante. I understand you are planning to celebrate that in a special way.

We have organized a conference in Rome, May 28-29, and we plan to have Cardinal Raymond Burke and other speakers about Dante from the US and abroad, who will commemorate him. Dante is the founder, in a sense of the Italian language, at least in terms of literature. He took his dialect and used that … when it was customary to use Latin. He created what came to be one of the greatest poems of all time, an epic poem that came to be called The Divine Comedy. Dante as a character in the poem traveled through hell, purgatory and heaven. As Dante is a pilgrim in that sense we are making a pilgrimage in addition to the conference. It will be from May 21-30.

What’s the pilgrimage route. You’re not planning to lead people through hell, are you?

We’re going to Turin for the special exposition of the Holy Shroud, which Christians believe to be the actual shroud in which the body of Christ was wrapped. There’s a whole host of scientific data verifying that it is the actual burial shroud. The shroud is displayed only on rare occasions, and this year is going to be one of those times.

Also, it’s a very pilgrim, penitential thing to do, to turn to our Lord.

In addition to honoring Dante, the conference is also honoring a lesser-known figure, Blessed Ramon Llull, who also 750 years ago this year, was called to preach to Muslims and Jews, and he did that in a very special way. Originally, he was a troubadour and a knight in arms. Dante also had military experience and wrote love poetry, usually of a courtly nature. Courtly love deals with the kind of love as, for example, between Lancelot and Guinevere. It ordinarily has certain adulterous connotations to it. In the case of Ramon Lllull, he had a series of visions of Christ crucified, and based on those visions he decided to give his live over to writing love verses of a different sort. To bring Muslims and Jews to fullness of the light, which is Christ. He’d go on to write hundreds of different works along those lines. He started out by making a pilgrimage through the shrines of Spain.

So to honor both Dante and Lllull we are inviting people to become pilgrims and start out with a vision of Christ crucified, namely, the Shroud of Turin, which may be an exact image of the crucifixion. We invite them to offer their sufferings up for the conversion of Muslims and Jews because, as much as the relations between Muslims and Jews and Christians is in the news these days it’s not often that one hears about offering penance for the conversion of others. We hear things more of a political nature, but of course we know that the spiritual is superior to the political

It’s an interesting yoking of the two figures. How did you discover Llull?

I wrote my dissertation on another Ramon—Raymond of Penafort, who was a Dominican, and therefore a preacher, but in an unprecedented way, in the history of the Church, set out trying to convert the Jews and Muslims in medieval Spain. He asked Thomas Aquinas to write the Summa Contra Gentiles, which would offer philosophical support for believing in the Gospel and rejecting things that fall short of the Gospel. So he established schools for friars to learn Arabic and Hebrew so they might use the books that Muslims and Jews consider holy, to point to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah. It was a bit of a polemical approach to interreligious dialogue. For example, in 1263 there was a famous debate between a Dominican friar who was a convert from Judaism, and an eminent rabbi of the day, Moses Maimonides, and in 1263 in Barcelona, the king orchestrated the debate between the Jew and the friar as to whether or not Christ was the messiah. The Dominican used the Talmud to prove that he is. It was around this time that Lllull experienced his conversion, and it was probably about 750 years ago this year that he met with Raymond of Penafort because Llull had done his penance and was about to embark on his journey to convert the infidel, and he wanted to take the traditional route, which would have been to go to the University of Paris and study theology and be able to write scholarly works and address scholarly minds.

Penafort urged Llull to stay in his home of Mallorca, the island off the coast of Spain… So he acquired a Muslim slave to teach him Arabic…and he made a couple of trips to North Africa, where he tried to preach to crowds about Christ. The second time, in 1315, he found himself in front of an angry mob, almost to the point of beating to death and he died, according to tradition, on his way home to Europe. He was beatified in 1847. The Church considers him a martyr, both as a red martyr and a white martyr, devoting his life for the sake of others.

What will Cardinal Burke’s role be in this pilgrimage?

In addition to the fact that his name is Raymond—and Raymond Lllull is his namesake—Cardinal Burke is now cardinal-patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. The title of our conference is Conversion and Coexistence. When we look at Lllull and Dante we’re looking at personal conversions. We’re looking at the conversions of others. And there’s the issue of "How does one get along with one another?" This year happens to be the 450th anniversary of the great siege of the Island of Malta by the Turks. During the Renaissance the Ottoman Turks were a tremendous threat to the survival of Christian Europe. And one of occasion was the great siege of Malta in 1565. The island was controlled by the Knights of Malta, whose name at the time was the Knights Hospitallers, or the Knights of St. John of the Hospital. They started out as what we would call a military-monastic order, that is, knights who fought in crusade to protect pilgrims traveling to the holy Land, or to try to take back the Holy Land from the Muslims who were controlling it politically. So these were men trained in military tactics, but they led a monastic life. they were celibate, they were supposed to be poor, they followed the head of the order in obedience, they engaged in various pious practices, fasting and personal devotions.

By the time we get to the year 1565 the Christians have been driven out of the Holy Land and in a sense the West lost the crusades. in 1298 the French crusaders lost their last stronghold in Syria, and eventually the Knights of St. John ended up on Malta, which are two little islands south of Sicily. Today the Knights of Malta are marked by their missionary work in terms of helping the sick. They help disabled people get to Lourdes, and they’re known for their charitable work and religious practices. They don’t fight military battles any more.

Nevertheless, it’s important to remember the battle of the siege of Malta 450 years ago because they were greatly outnumbered—something like 10 to 1. If the Turks had been able to conquer Malta they would have used that as a base to attack Italy and other Christian countries. The Sultan said he would water his horses in the fountains of St. Peter’s, which is like a threat that ISIS recently made.

There is, of course, this militaristic aspect to Islamic history, and the Christians on Malta fought gallantly, though they were heavily bombarded day after day for almost three months. The courage and the valor of Captain Lavallette and his knights won the day. 

So it seemed appropriate to invite Cardinal Burke to be our keynote speaker, to discuss not only personal conversion and the conversion of our brothers and sisters but also the notion of coexistence. How does one get along with the unconverted? Hopefully that’s peaceful, but there are occasions when one must defend one’s culture or society, sometimes, as a last resort, by force of arms, if one is attacked unjustly.

And you’re also commemorating the 500th anniversary of St. Philip Neri.
We try to pack as much as we could in this window. He is a wonderful saint from the counter-reformation of the 1500s, who established oratories, and later Blessed John Henry Newman was associated with establishing oratories. It so happens that May 26 is the feastday of St. Philip Neri, so pilgrims will be able to visit the Chiesa Nuova, where he worked and where they have his mortal remains.

What would you say Dante has to offer society today? Why should people read him?

I think it was T.S. Eliot who said “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them.” It’s kind of like asking "Why is Shakespeare relevant today?" Even more than Shakespeare,  I think, Dante is relevant, not only because he wrote a masterpiece, but Dante reminds us of the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. These are realities that have not been preached about much over the last 50 years. Most people walking around consider this life the only life there is. I posed a question to my college students, “What are children for? Why have children?” And I got many valid answers, such as someone to share one’s life with, populate the earth. But we often forget, we want to populate heaven. We want souls to be forever happy with God. And the same thing is true in looking at life and pilgrimage. Dante begins the Divine Comedy by saying he found himself lost in a dark wood. He said, “I lost the straight and narrow. I lost the true path.” It means, clearly, that he lost his way, but it could also mean that he lost the right way of living and had stumbled in darkness. He encounters three beasts that block his path: a she-wolf, a lion and a leopard. Some commentators consider these the images or symbols of our passions, of our lower instincts, which continue to persuade us but which, because of original sin, are no longer subject to the control of reason. Many of us find ourselves in that situation.

We’re also in a dark wood. Perhaps we’re having a midlife crisis. Dante is trying to rediscover what it means to be a human being. We might say that in our own society we tend to neglect that. If you compare the average person: if you woke up one morning and found yourself on an airplane, not sure how you got there, and you turn to the person next to you and ask him, “Where are we going?” and nobody seems to think it’s important, it might seem odd to you. But that’s a little bit like contemporary society. We have 101 things, from doing the laundry to being hooked on the internet, and nobody is talking about where the thing is going and how we got on the plane in the first place.

The two people who help Dante the most out of the situation are Virgil, who was a Roman poet and historian of ancient Rome. He lived in the time before the birth of Christ, during the time of the Emperor Augustus. Virgil, in a sense, represents reason. Roman philosophers taught us that we can come to know the truth about the world, come to know the truth about man, by using reason, and so in a sense, Virgil assists Dante to use reason to overcome his passions.

But also, as Christians, we know we need grace. It’s not enough that natural philosphers gave us an understanding of human nature—which is why, by the way, Dante puts Virgil, Aristotle and Plato in limbo rather than in hell proper, because since they lived in an age before they could get baptized, Dante believed they couldn’t get into heaven. On the other hand, because they came to know Truth, and Truth is Christ, they really shouldn’t be punished.

The point is, in order for Dante to get to heaven, he’s going to need another guide, and that’s Beatrice. She represents grace. Now Beatrice was a real person. Dante met her when he was about nine years old, and she was nine years old, and he fell madly in love with her. But unfortunately, because of their families, they were both entered into arranged marriages with other people, which is problematic for Dante because he’s still in love with her even though she’s married to another man, and he went so far as to write poetry for her, flattering her—sort of courtly love poetry, which circulated, so Beatrice knew about it. It was funny because when they attended Mass at the cathedral, he would sit in a spot where he could see Beatrice, but since he didn’t want to tarnish her reputation he started looking at a woman sitting right next to her, making people think he was interested in this woman. He lavished so much attention on her that Beatrice actually became jealous.
So you could see how this could lead to immorality easily, could lead to adultery. In fact, Dante, when he goes through hell, encounters two adulterous lovers, Paolo and Francesca. Paolo was Francesca’s brother-in-law, and Paolo and Francesca were caught by Francesca’s husband in flagrante. Why were they love-making? Because they had read about the love of Lancelot and Guenivere. And Dante the character in the poem, hearing this from her lips, faints, swoons. Why does he swoon? Because he himself is guilty of this kind of behavior, or the temptation to this kind of behavior, and also because he’s been writing poetry which is kind of like the Lancelot and Guenivere poetry.

Dante wanted to show through poetry the same kind of truths that Aquinas shows through philosophy and theology, because traditionally, God is the Good, with a capital G, the Beautiful, with a capital B—the Good, the True and the Beautiful. The true and the good makes more sense in regards to philosophy and theology arriving at them, but Dante also wanted to show that God is the Beautiful. So through beautiful words and images and even by examining human nature, human life, even cupidity, Dante wanted to show through his poems that he could show the same ultimate truths about God that maybe a person can’t get otherwise. Maybe the ordinary person wouldn’t pick up the Summa. But a person could pick up this poetry of Dante and immediately connect with it. We want to find people where they’re at, with the Gospel. I think Dante is a good model to hold up because he speaks about human love, human affection, and yet he doesn’t compromise on the fact that there’s hellfire to pay if we don’t repent of our sins, if we don’t make use of grace.

And as far as grace is concerned, Beatrice is in heaven and took pity on him and sent Virgil from hell to help Dante. But before Dante can go to heaven and be with Beatrice, he has to suffer. He has to go through hell. He has to experience what happens to sinners who are unrepentant, and he has to work his way through purgatory, and then he can encounter Beatrice. So Beatrice is like grace.

Also, the Blessed Mother interceded on Dante’s behalf. So these heavenly ladies, and in addition St. Lucy, intercede for Dante. Dante is trying to say that women can be a vehicle for sanctification the same way women can be a vehicle for perdition. In his former poetry he wrote about adultery, but in this poetry, the woman that he loves is a means of getting to God. Her beauty is a reflection of God’s beauty. In Genesis, when it says God made woman a helpmate for Adam, I believe the Hebrew word that’s used there describes grace.

So on many levels here I think it’s relevant. We live in an age that’s kind of lost the symbolism of things. Marriage is supposed to be a means of getting to heaven. We don’t idolize someone as an end in themselves; he or she is a stepping stone for getting to God.

Click here for more information about the pilgrimage and conference, or call 1-888-465-9868.

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