Palm Sunday Homily: Parish Renewal Inspired by Pope Francis

Jesus Christ Superstar

Holy Week begins today with Palm Sunday. Fittingly, last evening my wife and I attended a splendid Berea College production of Webber and Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The familiar score and story had me tearing from the overture on.

Of course, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a brilliant musical that captures the final events in Jesus’ life. As in today’s liturgical readings, the play takes us from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, to his cleansing of the city’s Temple, his betrayal by Judas, his trials before the Sanhedrin, Pilate and Herod. It finishes with his death on the cross and a reprise of Judas’ questions about Jesus’ place in history and among the world’s other spiritual geniuses.

Through it all we agonize with Judas about accepting blood money and with Mary Magdalene about her unrequited love. We shake our heads at Jesus’ uncomprehending, self-interested and cowardly disciples. We’re amazed at the fickleness of the crowd and by Jesus’ compassion, indecision, fear of death, and forgiveness of his executioners.

The rock musical score is haunting. The lyrics are hip and inspiring. I found it amazing that the story though repeated so often retains the power to move its audiences. I felt grateful to Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice for their audacity in making the tale so accessible and meaningful to contemporaries.

Similar feelings have been evoked this Lent by Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” That too was on my mind as I watched “Jesus Christ Superstar.” That’s because during this year’s Lent, members of my parish community have been studying the pope’s publication.

Through it, I think Pope Francis is calling us to do something like what Webber and Rice have done – make Jesus and the church once again relevant to a world that has long since dismissed them as quaint and detached from daily life.

As we’ve studied “The Joy of the Gospel,” all of us have marveled at Francis’ own courage, boldness and audacity. Almost from the beginning, our group has asked each other, “But what should we do in this parish in response to the pope’s general directions?”

At Lent’s conclusion, I suggest we reprise that question. So I’ve put together a proposal about responding to “The Joy of the Gospel” in the context of our Berea Kentucky parish, St. Clare’s Catholic Church. Think of it as a kind of capstone to the Lenten reflections I’ve shared here over the last six weeks. Then tell me what you think of it. Is it feasible? Is it relevant? What else or instead might we do?

Here’s the modest proposal.

Towards a Program for Implementing Pope Francis’ Directions for Parish Renewal at St. Clare’s

– In his Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (JG), Pope Francis has called for a “new chapter” in the history of the Catholic Church and for the church to embark on a “new path” (JG 1, 25),

– On which things cannot be left as they presently are, (25)

– But must include new ways of relating to God, new narratives and new paradigms (74),

– Along with new customs, ways of doing things, times, schedules, and language (27),

– With emphasis on better prepared and delivered homilies (135-159),

– And expanded roles for women who are recognized as generally more sensitive, intuitive, and otherwise skilled than men (103, 104),

– Along with outreach to Christians of other denominations who share unity with Catholics on many fronts (246)

And whereas
– The pope identifies the struggle for social justice and participation in political life as “a moral obligation” that is “inescapable” (220, 258),

– And sees “each and every human right” [including education, health care, and “above all” employment and a just wage (192)] as intimately connected with “defense of unborn life” (213),

– While completely rejecting war as incapable of combatting violence which is caused by “exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples” (59),

– And by unfettered markets and their “trickle-down” ideologies which are homicidal (53), ineffective (54) and unjust at their roots (59),

And whereas,
– The pope’s call to change is addressed to everyone (not primarily to pastors and bishops) (33),

– And since responses must be governed by the principle of decentralization (16, 32),

– And are (under this principle) to issue mainly from parishes (not in Rome or the diocesan chancery) because of parishes’ highly flexible character and sensitivity to the needs of the local people (28),

– Whose inventiveness is limited by little more than the openness and creativity of the pastor and the local community (28),

– Who are instructed to act boldly, and without inhibition or fear (33),

– In implementing processes of reform (30) adapted to particular churches (82),

– Whose initiatives are to be respected by local bishops (31),


* On the first weekend of September 2014, sponsor a three-evening “Tent Revival” on the front lawn of St. Clare’s church – focusing on “The Joy of the Gospel,” under the leadership of an invited speaker like Matthew Fox.

* Following the revival, assign to all parish members the reading of Pope Francis’ “The Joy of the Gospel.”

* Move the time of the main Sunday Mass from 9:00 to 10:00 to enable parishioners to attend a weekly “Sunday School” (from 9:00-9:50) at which the pope’s Exhortation will be discussed.

* Move the weekly “Spanish Mass” from 11:00 to 12:00 to make room for the new Sunday school initiative.

* Take advantage of the uniqueness of St. Clare parish with its presence of several former women religious, at least three ordained priests (in addition to the pastor), theologians, artists, musicians, scholars, and activists.

* Within that context, somehow “call out” the charisms present within the parish and brainstorm with those involved about employing their gifts to renew parish life.

* In accordance with the recognition of special giftedness of the St. Clare community, change customs around Sunday homilies by establishing a rotating schedule involving our parish’s trained homilists (especially women) – and including the pastor – to preach at Sunday Masses.

* Instruct homilists to relate their 2014-2015 homilies not only to the Sunday readings, but to “The Joy of the Gospel.”

* Instruct homilists as well to include in any treatment of the abortion issue, complementary calls to resist war, capital punishment, free market policies that cause world hunger, cut-backs in social services, etc.

* At election time, develop and distribute “voting guides” evaluating candidates on the basis of Pope Francis’ criteria of the inter-connectedness of all human rights, rejection of war, unequal distribution of wealth, and defense of unregulated markets.

* Institute and prominently advertise a parish counseling service to dissuade young people from entering the armed forces.

* Plan a large group trip to the fall 2014 “Call to Action” Conference including the pastor.

* On return from the “Call to Action Conference,” devote at least one “Sunday School” session to presentations about the conference.

* On an experimental basis in lay leadership, ecumenism and in changing paradigms of worship and ways of relating to God with new narratives and paradigms, sponsor a once-per-month lay-led ecumenical communion service paraliturgy. This would feature bold experiments in music, dance, and forms of prayer. It would take place at 3:00 Sunday afternoons in addition to and/or as a substitute for attendance at Sunday’s new 10:00 Mass.

* Insert prominently in our parish bulletin and in all official parish publications, the following statement of inclusivity. “All Are Welcome: In keeping with the inclusivity of the Christian tradition as emphasized in Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” with its emphasis on the dignity and worth of all people, St. Clare’s parish values and embraces diversity. Employment, membership, and participation in any church activity are open to all without regard to ethnicity, race, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability or religion. (This is a slightly modified version of the statement of inclusivity of Berea’s Union Church.)

* Begin planning for and implementing all of this immediately assigning target dates to particular items above and those to be added subsequently.

* Revise or re-create a statement like this “Proposal for Renewal” to present in written and oral form to our diocese’s new bishop on the occasion of his first visit to St. Clare’s parish.

So what do you think?

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

10 thoughts on “Palm Sunday Homily: Parish Renewal Inspired by Pope Francis”

  1. Mike, this is an ambitious, bold proposal that deserves serious consideration — and action to implement gradually over time. It cannot be done without dogged commitment and serious, consistent prayer on the part of all concerned — from the troops in the pews, the local pastor, the bishops, and up the line to the hierarchy.

    Ignoring the import of Pope Francis’ stunning Apostolic Exhortation document, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) would be a tragic error. We laity have been given a challenge. We ignore it at our peril.

    One caveat: if lay persons accept this challenge solely with the idea or intention that they can now achieve ‘power’ over ecclesial authority (“us vs. them”) it will be doomed from the start — and rightly so. Any action or dialogue must include mutual respect, understanding, and love. An old saying that I recall from the Catholic Charismatic days in the ’70s comes to mind here: “You will know them by their fruits.”

    We need each other (like the spokes on a wheel?). Each of has a role. We are part of a team – no one greater nor lesser than the other in God’s eyes.

    It is crucial that we listen to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in this endeavor. The Spirit is within each of us. All we have to do is to listen and wait to be affirmed. We need to recognize, too, that we are called to full participation in our Church by virtue of our Baptism into the Kingdom.

    Thank you, Mike. Great job!


    1. Alice, you’re right again. That became clear last night when our Lenten discussion group finished our discussion of the pope’s document. Everyone was understandably and rightly concerned about securing “buy-in” from the parish as a whole. That’s the function, I think, of assigning community reading of “The Joy of the Gospel,” and discussing it at Sunday school — having kicked off the discussion with an exciting tent revival. I’ll keep you posted about our progress. We’ve decided to continue planning beginning the week after Easter.


  2. I am not a Catholic, but the inclusivity statement encourages me to say that I am thrilled by the new Pope’s statement of principles, and would feel at home in any group practicing to make them part of their lives. Truth is universal and transcends all doctrinal formulations.


    1. I like that inclusivity statement too, Mike. Last night we concluded our Lenten series discussing the final chapter of “Evangelii Gaudium.” I presented the proposal that appeared on my Palm Sunday blog. We ended up concentrating discussion on the tent revival and Sunday school items. People generally liked those ideas. However, we didn’t really progress down the list to the inclusivity statement. I think it’s crucial. I’ll try to keep everyone posted as things develop. We’ve decided not to disband our Lenten study group. We’ll meet again the week after Easter.


  3. Hi Mike,

    If I were a member of St. Clares, I would be delighted by your proposal, as it all sounds good to me.

    That said, it too represents a “laying on” of what to do, rather than a “from the bottom,” organically grown (as it were) program.

    Lasting changes come from a change in process. Authority that comes from Spirit, discerned by a spiritual community, pulls a community together, and has a better chance of lasting (and evolving) over time. As I read E.G., this is what the pope calls for: leadings of Spirit discerned within the local spiritual community put into action.

    peace and love, always,



    1. Hank, your observations are right on. Last night I led a discussion of Chapter Five of “Evangelii Gaudium.” Twenty-two people attended. The discussion was lively. During the last segment of the meeting, we discussed the proposal you’re commenting on. People liked the idea of a tent revival and of Sunday school. They also responded well to the possibility of having a rotating sequence of trained homilists. However they saw problems with securing permission for implementing that one. We’re stuck, it seems, in worrying about whether “daddy” will let us make adult decisions about the needs of our particular parish — even though the pope is urging us to do exactly that.
      But you’re right; we need general “buy-in” from the rest of the community. Again, that’s the function of the revival and the general assignment of “The Joy of the Gospel” for reading and discussion by everyone in the parish. We’ll see what happens. Though yesterday evening’s discussion was the last in our Lenten series, we’ve agreed to meet the week after Easter to continue our planning. We’ll be calling ourselves something like “The Parish Evangelization Committee” and start working to plan that tent revival.


  4. Agreed; wonderful; now how to get something going in a moribund parish. I suppose talk to the pastor first — He may be hoping for someone to come forward.

    Felix Kryzanowski
    Regina, SK


    1. Felix, I would describe our parish as moribund as well — at least in terms of official leadership. Our Lenten discussions however showed that a surprising number of people (despite our full church on Sundays) are not happy with the deadly, and are looking for the type of significant change Pope Francis advocates. We’ll see where this leads. Our discussion group liked the tent revival idea as well as Sunday school studying “The Joy of the Gospel.” They also thought more homilists would address general discontent with our Sunday sermon experience. But they were worried about getting “permission” for lay people to preach. It’s a start . . .


      1. Thanks, Mike, for the comparisons and tips. These are helpful and encouraging. I will try to organize an “Easter Discussion Group”.

        Your homilies are superb. I await them eagerly every Saturday. May I link with a couple of paragraphs to your homilies from our parish web site, of which I am a developer?


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