I was overcome with unexpected emotion at Palm Sunday Mass this week. It has been a year since Covid-19 interrupted our lives. I thought about our family’s last Palm Sunday, when the pandemic had just begun. That day, we collected a few palm leaves from around our neighborhood (one of the perks of living in California), streamed Sunday Mass, and tried to mark the opening of Holy Week the best we could.
This year, everything is different: scandals and division have increased in the Church and our culture. Sins that long festered in the dark came to the surface in ugly and alarming ways. Confronting the sins within our Church in the last year, I’ve often felt like I was clinging to the last thread of Jesus’s cloak. But as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to shine a light on the corruption and evil in the Church. As Pope Francis said in an Angelus address in February 2020, “The disciple of Jesus is light when he knows how to live his faith outside narrow spaces, when he helps to eliminate prejudice, to eliminate slander, and to bring the light of truth into situations vitiated by hypocrisy and lies.”
Having seen so much sin and heard so many lies in the Church in the past year, I’ve had to remind myself that I can’t always rely my emotions. I must continue to trust the Lord through the pain of these scandals, even when it physically hurts to be at Mass, or—perhaps worse—when I feel absolutely nothing. The reason is because, as Francis went on to say, “It is not my light, it is the light of Jesus: we are instruments to enable Jesus’ light to reach everyone.”
My attempts to bring the light of Jesus into the Church have sometimes exposed glimpses of things lurking in the darkness that I had never imagined existed. Last year, after the release of the McCarrick report, I wrote a piece that highlighted the stories of his victims, Catholics whose trust in one of the Church’s appointed leaders was met by devastating betrayal. Just a few days ago I tweeted a video clip of a Denver priest openly and flagrantly making racist comments on his podcast. This is a priest in good standing in the Archdiocese of Denver! Over the past year, Catholics have been bombarded with so much evil, so much dishonesty, so little light from within the Church that it can be overwhelming.
Imagine my surprise, then, when the sight of the palm branches and the sound of the proclamation “Hosanna!” from the procession brought tears streaming down my face. As I listened to the different voices read the words of the long—but so foundational—Passion of Our Lord, it was clear to me why I can never leave this Church. In the last year, so much has changed in how I see the faith, the Church as an institution, other people, and the world. And yet, Holy Week still calls me to participate in the liturgy—in the suffering, death, and Resurrection of our Savior. The sacredness of this week is palpable.
Pope Francis’s Palm Sunday homily opened with the words, “Every year this liturgy leaves us amazed: we pass from the joy of welcoming Jesus as he enters Jerusalem to the sorrow of watching him condemned to death and then crucified. That sense of interior amazement will remain with us throughout Holy Week. Let us reflect more deeply on it.”
For Francis, amazement is not simply admiration. Later in his homily, he goes on to explain, “Admiration can be worldly, since it follows its own tastes and expectations. Amazement, on the other hand, remains open to others and to the newness they bring. Even today, there are many people who admire Jesus: he said beautiful things; he was filled with love and forgiveness; his example changed history … They admire him, but their lives are not changed. To admire Jesus is not enough. We have to follow in his footsteps, to let ourselves be challenged by him; to pass from admiration to amazement.”
This past year opened my eyes to the cries and suffering of my brothers and sisters in ways that challenged me. Listening to Catholics of color, Catholics who are members of the LBGTQ community, and to those who are the most vulnerable to Covid, I’ve been forced to question many of the things I once took for granted. I was challenged to deepen my understanding of God, my friends and family, my Church, my country, and even myself. Even still, in the complicated mess of it all, I am filled with amazement about Jesus Christ, and I am grateful for what I have learned about all my brothers and sisters, because they have deepened my understanding of God.
This amazement left me speechless on Palm Sunday. That evening, I read the headlines and watched videos of palm processions from around the world: in South America, Africa, and Asia. I was struck by the Jubilee—people from so many cultures singing out “Hosanna!” to the King whose crucifixion we will commemorate in just a few days. On Thursday, Christians from around the world will celebrate the Institution of the Eucharist together. On Good Friday we will pray for the intentions of the world together. Then we will sit in the silence of the tomb, waiting.
Our divisions will fade as we—the Universal Church—enter into the mystery this week in the Sacred Triduum, the liturgy that calls us to remember the very foundation of our faith. God became man, he suffered, and he rose again from the grave. The emotion is welling up in me as write this, as I think of our faraway brothers and sisters around the world and those who are physically close to us but divided from us in so many ways, celebrating the moment the tomb was found to be empty. “He is risen!” holds so much promise for us—a promise of perfect peace, justice, unity, and love.
As he so often does, Francis spoke to me like a father on Palm Sunday. I encourage all the faithful to read his entire homily this week as we prepare to enter the Triduum. My prayer for the Church is that we become open to the profound newness of Our Savior and the amazement that springs forth from him. May you and your families have a blessed Holy Week, I will be praying in solidarity with all of you.
Image: 2021 Palm Sunday procession, St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. Vatican News.
Melinda Ribnek is a lifelong Catholic, originally from Savannah, Georgia. She currently lives on California's Central Coast with her husband Brian and their seven children. In her spare time, she volunteers for the Church and in her community.