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Chaucer’s prioress and Mel Gibson

Thelma Rubinstein

Many years ago when I taught Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” a medieval 14th century, often satirical poem, my students and I read the “Tale of the Prioress.” What has this portion of the “Tales” to do with Mel Gibson’s film “Passion of the Christ”?

The prioress is a lovely, dignified, devout nun, the head of a convent, traveling on a springtime pilgrimage to Canterbury with an assortment of laymen and clergy, some decent folk and some hypocrites and rogues. When it’s her turn to amuse the 29 others, she relates a well-known story of a darling seven-year old Christian boy, who has to walk through the Jewish ghetto on his way to school. Upon his return , the little one is singing the Alma Redemptoris, a section of the Mass of the Innocents. Inspired by Satan, the Jews grab the boy and he is brutally slaughtered:

“The serpent, our first foe who has



Of hornets his nest in Jews` hearts …

… The magistrate at once put every Jew



To death with torment and shamefulness.

He spared not one that of his murder knew

He would not palter with such wickedness.



`He that deserves ill, he shall have no less`

And so he ordered that wild horses draw

Their flesh, and then he hanged them by the law.”

(Jews had been expelled from England 100 years before Chaucer wrote his poem because the kings and clergy needed their possessions. So the Jews were demonized in popular stories and ballads ” probably a justification for their expulsion.]

The prioress is a gentle, refined, holy cleric who means no harm. The emphasis of her story is on the Mass of the Holy Innocents. But for almost 2,000 years the “blood libel” has adhered and the consequences have been horrific; the Holocaust didn’t happen in a vacuum.

They say a “picture is worth a thousand words.” Despite Gibson’s affirmation that “The Passion of Christ” is a deeply personal work of devotional art and that his purpose is entirely holy, his ferocious rendering of the sadistic scourging and the slow, tortured death of Jesus may have unintended, dangerous consequences. Billions are likely to see this movie in a world where unreflective hatred still runs unabated.

Christianity is a religion of contrition, compassion and love. In the last several decades, it has tamed and transformed itself to reflect this even more. Four years ago, in 2000, John Cardinal O’Conner, archbishop of New York, wrote to a Jewish friend, “Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II has set aside Ash Wednesday as a day for Catholics to reflect upon the pain inflicted on the Jewish people by many of our members over the last millennium. We most sincerely want to start a new era. … I ask that you understand my own abject sorrow and forgive those who may have harmed you and your forbears. …”

Gibson rejects Vatican II and the reforms in its historic declaration “Nostra Aetate,” as well as the l988 Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the bishops conference and its “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion.” This document instructed that Jews should not be presented as bloodthirsty or as Jesus’ implacable enemies, that Jesus and his apostles be portrayed clearly as Jews, that Gospel elements with potentially negative influence on the image of Jews not be employed and that sensitive attention be paid to the best in modern biblical scholarship.

Instead Gibson turns back the clock and, despite his protestations, demonizes the Jews to their central medieval role as Satan’s people “fearsome opponents of good and of God ” the heinous calumny of the first two millennia.

(Receently, a church in Denver posted a marquee saying, “Jews Killed the Lord Jesus.” I believe the marquee was removed and the minister fired! Probably no cause for alarm “at least, not in America.)

So as Palm Sunday, Passover, Good Friday and Easter arrive, the good people of the valley have the opportunity for study and reflection on the history of religion, as well as the dangers the complexities, the social and political influences ” AND the beauty, inspiration, and goodness of “faith, hope and charity.”


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