By Marc B. Cels
Paper given at the Canadian Society of Medievalists Annual Meeting, Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (2012)
Introduction: In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preaches: “If therefore thou offer thy gift at the altar, and there thou remember that thy brother hath anything against thee; Leave there thy offering before the altar, and go first to be reconciled to thy brother, and then coming thou shalt offer thy gift.” (Douay-Rheims) This passage teaches that the anger and hostilities that divide people also separate them from God. This leads to my consideration of the role of priestconfessors as peace-makers among their parishioners, especially as part of the Lenten preparation for reconciling with the Church through confession and with God through the Eucharist at Easter. The pacifying role of medieval penance has been assumed by some early modernists, especially John Bossy, who argue for a break between the communally-oriented Christianity of the violent, Stateless Middle Ages and the more individualistic piety of Early Modernity as it witnessed the growth of civil society. Penitential reconciliation, however, is less prominent in studies of medieval penance.
Therefore, last fall I surveyed the prescriptive evidence for parochial penance, namely episcopal statutes and manuals for confessors. I found few instructions for priests to reconcile enmities. Those that I did find indicate an ambiguity in the medieval tradition of how to interpret the Gospel instruction that scholars of reconciliation have tended to overlook. What follows is a rather breathless overview of that tradition.
Augustine, not surprisingly, provided the key interpretation of Gospel passages about reconciliation, love of enemies, and non-retaliation. He famously provided a spiritual interpretation that mitigated the literal force of the “first be reconciled” verse.
reconciliation… is to be done not with the bodily feet, but with the emotions of the mind, so that you are to prostrate yourself with humble disposition before your brother, to whom you have hastened in affectionate thought, in the presence of Him to whom you are about to present your offering.