Homily for Palm Sunday
Matthew 21:1–11; Isaiah 50:4–7; Psalm 22; Philippians 2:6–11; Matthew 26:14—27:66
2 April 2023
Every Palm Sunday in recent years, large crowds have gathered in support of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Even when governments change at elections, there is still cause for the crowds to gather. On Palm Sunday twenty years ago, tens of thousands of us marched in all our major cities protesting against the Iraq War. Our voices were not heard. Or at least they were not heeded. Twenty years on, 60% of Americans think the Iraq War was wrong, and it was. Let’s remember that Pope John Paul II said so, unequivocally at the time. A year ago George W Bush when speaking about the war in Ukraine mistakenly condemned the war in Iraq as ‘a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion’.
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Our leaders are not always right. The crowd is not always right. The crowd can be fickle. But often the crowd is right, and the elite are proved wrong when they do not attend to the cries of the little people. The public mood can swing. The public sense of right and wrong can change radically – even in a few short days.
Consider the readings today for Palm Sunday from the gospel of Matthew. As we prepare to carry our palms in procession, we hear:
‘The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road. The crowds preceding him and those following kept crying out and saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.”’
But then in the course of the reading of the Passion, we hear: ‘The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas but to destroy Jesus. The governor said to them in reply, “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” They answered, “Barabbas!” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” But he said, “Why? What evil has he done?” They only shouted the louder, “Let him be crucified!” When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.” And the whole people said in reply, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”’
Presumably some of the very same people who proclaimed ‘“Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest” were those baying for blood by week’s end, declaring: ‘Let him be crucified! His blood be upon us and upon our children.’
On Thursday, a crowd gathered in Parliament House declaring good news as the Attorney General introduced a bill entitled The Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023. He quoted Senator Patrick Dodson who said the bill ‘will be a moment of liberation for all of us’. The nation’s father of reconciliation said: ‘The moment the referendum is declared we will feel the shackles of the past fall from us. We will all stand with a clean heart and a clean conscience and we will know our country is on the path to a better direction. We the Australian people will make that decision on that day when we cast our vote. Together we can make this happen.’
The public gallery was packed with rejoicing Indigenous leaders. The government side of the House was packed to the gills with members in a celebratory mood. The Teals and cross benchers were the same. But the Opposition Coalition benches were almost empty, and without much enthusiasm being displayed. A referendum needs mass support to succeed. We need to talk respectfully and cautiously as we are speaking about the nation’s soul.
On the same day the bill was introduced to our Parliament, a joint statement was issued in Rome by the Vatican’s Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development on the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’.
The Vatican officials said they had been ‘listening to indigenous peoples’ and ‘that the Church has heard the importance of addressing the concept referred to as the “doctrine of discovery.”’ This doctrine was espoused by European colonisers for hundreds of years as a justification for ‘settlers being granted an exclusive right to extinguish, either by purchase or conquest, the title to or possession of those lands by indigenous peoples’. Often these colonisers invoked various fifteenth century papal decrees as authorisation, justification or excuse for their actions.
The Vatican authorities admitted ‘that these papal bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of indigenous peoples. The Church is also aware that the contents of these documents were manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesiastical authorities.’
The Dicasteries pointed out that even as far back as the seventeenth century, there were more enlightened papal decrees such as Sublimis Deus in which Pope Paul III wrote, ‘We define and declare that the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the Christian faith; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect’.
Contemplating the crowd that is equally capable of chanting ‘Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ and ‘Let him be crucified! His blood be upon us and upon our children’, let’s be attentive to the head and the heart in the weeks ahead as we move into a critical stage with the forthcoming referendum. Let’s not just go with any mob mentality.
To date, there has been no process for the public to have their say on the constitutional amendment proposed by the Prime Minister at Garma in July last year. To date, there has been little, or no, engagement between the two sides of the parliament. Whatever of past failings in process and the misunderstandings caused by the proposed wording, we all need to commit to the restricted one month process we will now be allowed by the government, when we can all have our say, putting submissions to the parliamentary committee, and when some will have the opportunity to give evidence.
As we move into Holy Week, we hold in our minds the image of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant with a well-trained tongue, knowing how to speak to the weary. Let’s pray earnestly for our First Australians and for the soul of the nation, confident that God will give us pure and loving hearts and informed consciences that we may offer encouragement in the making of wise choices for the good of all.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).
 See https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/video/2022/may/19/george-w-bush-says-invasion-of-iraq-unjustified-in-verbal-faux-pas-video
 House of Representatives, Hansard, 30 March 2023, p. 1.
 Joint Statement of the Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development on the “Doctrine of Discovery”, 30 March 2023, available at https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2023/03/30/230330b.html
 On 4 April 2023, we will be informed of the cut-off date for submissions to the parliamentary committee. The committee has to report by 15 May 2023. Presumably, the cut-off date will be at least two weeks before that. See https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Aboriginal_and_Torres_Strait_Islander_Voice_Referendum. By comparison, the 2018 joint parliamentary committee, received submissions over an eight month period.