Sunday, March 24, 2013

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Homily by
Father Romanus Cessario, O.P.


“On this day,” so the Roman Missal instructs us, “the Church recalls the entrance of Christ the Lord into Jerusalem.”1 Thus, Palm Sunday finds the Christian people processing into the churches of the world. They march in pilgrimage toward the place where the Catholic Priest will enact the Sacrifice of the Mass. The natural order of processions usually places the most important person last. Juniors lead. So it happens that Pope, Bishops, Priests customarily come last when they join processions. Ministers and lay people precede them. Not today, however. Today, Palm Sunday, the Church reverses the order.2 The Priest marches first. He takes the place of the junior, the youngest. The Priest does not bring the procession to its climax. Instead, he leads “all the faithful carrying branches”3 in imitation of those disciples who accompanied Christ “as he was approaching the slope of the Mount of Olives” (Lk 19:37).


We should observe closely the significance of this reversal prescribed for the Palm Sunday procession. No detail of the Sacred Liturgy lacks meaning for the worshiper. The first and obvious reason for placing the Priest at the head of the procession finds expression in the prayer used at today’s Mass: “God, who as an example of humility for the human race to follow, caused our Savior to take flesh and submit to the Cross.”4 Christ rode along on a colt in order to show that, as one ancient homily explains, “He is not to be feared for His power, but loved for his meekness; wherefore he sitteth not on a golden car, refulgent in costly purple, nor is mounted on a spirited horse, rejoicing in strife and battle, but upon a donkey, that loves peace and quiet.”5 On Palm Sunday, the Church exhibits liturgically the virtue that characterizes the Savior of the world. The Venerable Bede, Doctor of the Church, expresses it best: “Christ is the Master of humility.”6
In order for us to imitate Christ’s humility, we should first understand what makes his virtue unique. The Christian people need above all to distinguish authentic Christian humility from its secular simulacra, that is, from bogus representations of this deeply Christian virtue. Three come to mind. First, Christ’s humility does not require us to adopt a pathological submission toward all people. “Those who share in God’s blessings,” Aquinas assures us, “recognize that they possess them.”7 Christian humility, then, issues not in that unhealthy submissiveness that critics of the Gospel associate with religious people. True humility neither fosters Nietzsche’s “herd morality” nor corresponds to Hume’s “monkish virtues.” On the contrary. Christ exhibits humility as well as magnanimity. These two virtues can exist together.8 It must be so. Who other than a truly magnanimous, great-souled man, a man who recognizes the blessings he has received, would give himself up, humbly, for the salvation of the world?
Second, Christ’s humility does not impose social egalitarianism. The common good of the polis, the political common good, requires hierarchy: presidents, legislators, judges. Common sense rejects the proposal that societies can achieve radical equality and still function well: colonels are not privates; wardens, not prisoners; supervisors, not clerks. The alternative to political rule brings forth anarchy not utopia. Christ recognizes kingdoms, even as he exclaims to Pilate, “My Kingdom does not belong to this world” (Jn 18:36). There is more. Human nature inclines us to love some more than others: saints more than sinners; the wise more than the foolish; the generous more than the stingy. So the humble person is not expected to lavish equal affection upon all. What if someone seeking humility strove to attain this ideal? The wisdom of the saints is clear: “This [proposal] does not make sense.”9
Thirdly, Christian humility does not mandate ecclesiastical inclusiveness. Christ himself hands over to Peter and his Successors the keys that symbolize the supreme authority of the apostolic office. Humble service within the communion of the Church flows from the manner in which each Christian fulfills the vocation—the blessing—that God bestows on him or her. By his death on the cross, Christ has set down the supreme model of humility. “Christ is Master of humility.” We imitate Christ’s humility in order to become better disposed to receive spiritual and divine blessings. Envisaging a new Church order that contravenes what the Master of humility himself has established smacks of arrogance not humility.


Palm Sunday puts the Priest who represents Christ at the Head of the procession. Truth to tell, other processions also put the principal person up front. For example, victory marches. The triumphant heroes of ancient Rome led their armies, their sons and officers into the City, the Urbs. Or more recently, one may recall seeing photos of Charles de Gaulle, in August 1944, entering liberated Paris at the Place de l’Étoile. When they celebrate victory, conquering heroes stand at the head of the parade. Christ enters the Holy City of Jerusalem as a Victor-King: “O gates, lift high your heads; grow higher, ancient doors. Let him enter, the king of glory! Who is this king of glory? He, the Lord of hosts, he is the king of glory.”10 The Catholic Priest marches first in today’s procession. He recalls Christ’s humility. He also represents the victorious King of the universe, whom today Pope Francis called “a shining beacon for our lives.”11
Make no mistake: Palm Sunday reaches beyond Christian believers. Today’s procession heralds the salvation of the whole world. Christ enters Jerusalem to die for all men. Today Catholic Priests enter the churches of the world not to withdraw but to draw all men to the Savior. Catholic Priests want to place a palm in everybody’s hand. They thus show themselves to embody Heads, Shepherds, and Bridegrooms. Shining beacons. Those who follow the Priests into churches everywhere represent the “many” for whom the Eucharist will be offered. They exit their churches ready to take up the challenging task of evangelization. In God’s providence, next Easter more people will come to believe in the Savior of the world. In God’s mercy, next Easter more Christians will take up palm branches. For this to happen, we need more priests to represent Christ in the Palm Sunday procession.
Evangelization is not an optional occupation. The Church needs more priests to preach authoritatively from pulpits “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend. . .and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2: 10,11 passim). The Church needs more priests to enact, humbly, the sacred mysteries without which Christian conversion remains inchoative. Of course, the Church needs humble priests. She also requires magnanimous priests. That is, great-souled men capable of accomplishing the arduous works that sanctify our souls. Absolving. Sacrificing. Saint Ambrose offers a complementary interpretation of the manner that Christ arrives in Jerusalem: “It pleased not the Lord of the world to be borne upon the donkey’s back, save that in a hidden mystery by a more inward sitting, the mystical Ruler might take His seat in the secret depths of men’s souls, guiding the footsteps of the mind, bridling the wantonness of the heart.”12 What Saint Ambrose says of Christ happens only when the Catholic priest fulfills the munera or responsibilities that the Church imposes on him. For the mystical Ruler takes his seat deep in our souls only to the extent that the Catholic priest teaches, governs, and sanctifies. Evangelization advances when the Catholic Priest leads the victorious procession on Palm Sunday. Like Christ himself. Humbly.


1 - Roman Missal, Instruction for Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, no. 1.

2 - The Procession on the Easter Vigil places both Priest and people behind the lit paschal candle. See Roman Missal for this Easter Vigil in the Holy Night, no. 15.

3 - Roman Missal, Instruction for Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, no. 9.

4 - Roman Missal, Prayer for Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, no. 20.

5 - Pseudo-Chrysostom as cited in Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea, Vol. 1, St. Matthew (London, 1997), p. 705. Both Apolinarian and Anomoean homilies of the early fifth century were ascribed to Chrysostom. The homilies in the octave of Easter that are ascribed to pseudo-Chrysostom may well be Anomoean. There are also Latin homilies contained in the pseudo-Chrysostom corpus which are probably fifth-century Arian. These Latin homilies, fifty odd homilies on Matthew’s Gospel and known as the Opus imperfectum in Matthaeum were some of the ones used by Aquinas and other Western medieval authors, who accepted them as genuinely from Chrysostom (See “Preface,” p. vii). 

6 - St. Bede, Catena Aurea, Vol III, St. Luke, p. 643.

7 - Summa theologiae IIa-IIae q. 163, art. 3.

8 - For the compatibility of humility and magnanimity, see Summa theologiae IIa-IIae q. 161, art. 1, ad 3.

9 - Summa theologiae IIa-IIae q. 26, art. 6.

10 - Roman Missal, Antiphon for Psalm 24 sung as the Procession approaches the doors of the church.

11 - Palm Sunday Homily, 2013; see VIS, Vatican City, 24 March 2013.

12 - St. Ambrose, Catena Aurea, Vol III, St. Luke, p. 642 (translation slightly altered).