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

Priests may struggle to reach congregants as church faces sex abuse scandal.

March 27, 2010 — -- 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.

The ever-widening abuse scandal is a participation in the Passion and Death of Jesus because victims of sexual abuse are surely carrying their own crosses. In addition, good priests have been painted with the same marring brush as criminal pedophiles, and they are once again needing to prove themselves worthy of the call to ministry and service to congregants who aren't sure who to believe or trust anymore. The church hangs on the cross with Christ yearning for a rebirth from the shame and destruction left in the wake of ecclesial misconduct and sinfulness.

One would think that remorseful bishops everywhere would exhort their priests to prepare straightforward and honest homilies for Passion Sunday about the scandal with the hope of reassuring the faithful that the church is more than the sum of its sinful ministers and leaders. The church is, after all, more importantly the people who will gather to wave palms remembering a man who died to remind us that goodness trumps evil and that forgiveness and mercy is more powerful than sin.

And, yes, some of those gathering this Passion/Palm Sunday will be A&P Catholics, whom we don't see every Sunday in the pews. All the more reason to give them something to hear that is honest and humble and real. That just may be the impetus they need to show up more than only twice a year.

Father Edward L. Beck, C.P. is a Roman Catholic priest of the Passionist Community. He is the author of three books, "God Underneath," "Unlikely Ways Home" and "Soul Provider," all published by Doubleday. In addition to conducting retreats and workshops on spirituality nationally and internationally, Father Beck is a religion contributor for ABC NEWS. He hosts a weekly TV and Internet show for ABC called "Focus on Faith" with Chris Cuomo of "Good Morning America" and is also a commentator on religious and faith issues for various other media outlets including CNN and Fox Television. Father Beck is the executive producer and host of "The Sunday Mass," which airs nationally each week.