photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA
4 11 2014 Palm Sunday SMALL

The Power – and Peril – of Crowds

Think back to the last performance, sporting event, or speech you attended that concluded with the audience on their feet, shouting their approval and delivering a standing ovation. An expertly-sung aria, a new policy platform, or a game-saving play can bring a crowd to its feet in shared euphoria.

One has to imagine that it was that same sense of shared excitement and anticipation that swept over the crowds in Jerusalem as they prepared to welcome the Messiah. Sunday’s Gospel paints the picture:

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 the he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Of course, we know that in a few days, the crowds would be gathering around the figure of Our Lord to watch his passion and death. The palms and hosannas we recreate this Sunday would turn to shouts of “crucify him!” by the end of the week.

The power and passion of a large group can be a tremendous force for good – a nationwide movement to reduce poverty and increase opportunity, or a worldwide campaign to end hunger in our time, can leverage the power of individual actions to make the whole far greater than the sum of its parts. But the power of a crowd can also work to conform us, to prevent us from seeing the world through the eyes of those who are not like our group, and marginalize those who are on the outside looking in.

We see that all too often in Washington, D.C., where a deep partisan divide and a 24-hour news cycle too often keep well-meaning public servants from reaching an commitment to advance the common good. And we see it in our own communities, when large swaths of the population may have never come face-to-face with someone looking for a place to spend the night or desperately trying to feed their family.

In our work to reduce poverty, it is vital to remember that behind every statistic is a person with a name and a story. If we are serious about being advocates for change, we are called to break out of our comfort zone and learn to walk alongside those on a difficult path, the way Simon of Cyrene did.

As we hear the story about the fickleness of the crowds this Palm Sunday, let us reflect on what it means to be not just followers, but disciples – to be not afraid to step out of the conforming power of the crowd and stand up for what is right.