Will A&P Catholics Still Flock to Church on Palm Sunday?

Church insiders are familiar with the term "A&P Catholics," referring to Ashes and Palms Catholics. These are ones who show up on Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday, two days when the church has giveaways.

The more contemporary and liturgically correct term for Palm Sunday is Passion Sunday, which marks the beginning of Holy Week. In addition to it being one of the most populated Sundays, it is one when the full Passion narrative of the Crucifixion of Jesus is read aloud.

This year that text will be proclaimed in the context of the reemergence of a sex abuse scandal that has ties all the way to the pope. Two primary questions come to mind: 1) Will the typical crowds of people still show up to wave their Sunday palms, reminiscent of Jesus' glorious entrance into Jerusalem before his death? and 2) Will they hear their priests preach about the Passion narrative with any direct allusion to the current scandal once again rocking the very pillars of the Catholic faith?

A common complaint among churchgoers is that the homily or sermon is boring or disconnected from everyday life. Homilies top the lists of surveys asking what people are most dissatisfied with in their worship services. Often the complaint is the tendency of the preacher to become abstract and to get lost in waxing eloquent theological hypotheses, and thereby losing most of his congregants as well.

People in the pews prefer plain talk about real life issues that can help them to make sense of their experience in the context of their faith. This is risky for the preacher. It means he has to be self-revelatory and also willing to meet people where they are, even if that isn't always where the church teaches they should be.

The challenge to talk about real life issues is even more acute this Holy Week because during the holiest week of the year, the institutional church isn't looking too holy. Priests, as representatives of that institution, must maintain the delicate balance of openly addressing the sex scandal issue without suggesting a total dismissal of church authority and its history of and capacity for goodness.

The temptation for many preachers may be to avoid talking about the sex scandal altogether, preferring instead to keep the rhetorical spotlight on Jesus and his cross. That is far easier than attempting to make sense out of our personal and institutional suffering. But priests need not fear to speak boldly and honestly. It is not they at whom most parishioners are angry. It is at the bishops who didn't act to protect the innocent, and perhaps now at a pope who also may have failed at due diligence.

The current shameful crisis in the church presents a moment of opportunity and grace for the church and its preachers. Here is the liturgically opportune moment to beg pardon and forgiveness for the failings of a sinful human institution. Here is the fortuitous time to align the ignominious fall of the church with that of a shamed and despised Jesus on the cross.

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