Scarves instead of palms in Senegal

The Archdiocese of Dakar, Senegal, is asking the faithful to forgo palms and use scarves instead to memorialize the procession of Jesus into Jerusalem in the Palm Sunday liturgy, La Croix International reported today.

The Archbishop of Dakar, Benjamin Ndiaye, had suggested this at World Youth Day in 2018, and that suggestion has now been recommended to all the parishes.

The goal of this practice is ecological, and a hat tip to Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home).

Desertification is a big concern for the region. Senegal, which borders on the Sahel, is only 45 percent forested. Deforestation has been the cause of increased soil erosion, flooding, and drought, which harm agriculture. “To start off Holy week, we have no need to contribute to the disappearance of the palm trees or to worsen the worrying desertification of our environment,” Archbishop Ndiaye said.

The country has been attempting to create a barrier to the encroaching desert, and has succeeded in slowing down the process in recent years, but more efforts are needed.

The nation’s 300,000 Catholics have been contributing to a solution. In addition to recommending that palm branches not be taken from trees to celebrate the upcoming feast, the Archdiocese of Dakar, for example, urged that every Catholic should plant a tree each year.

The idea of using scarves for this liturgy is actually not new in Senegal. Some parishes have been doing it for as many as seven years. But the push for everyone to do it is new, and will take time to put into practice.

Some Catholics have expressed concern over the omission of palms in principle, according to the LCI report. They worry that this will cause a loss to the symbolism of the liturgy and they questioned where the ashes for Ash Wednesday would come from. Father Pierre Sandi Diouf, the priest in charge of liturgy for the diocese, was optimistic however, urging a faith response that emphasizes our spiritual self-offering before the Lord, rather than the material of the palm branches.

In lands where palms are not readily available, other materials have long been used for the Palm Sunday celebration. In Russia and Ukraine, for example, Palm Sunday is known as “pussy willow Sunday” because these are the sort of branches that grow there.

Olive branches have sometimes been used in Italy, and sprigs of boxwood in Germany. It is actually an example of inculturation.

Nevertheless, the African situation is unique because it is motivated by ecology rather than a simple question of what is available. Palm branches abound; they just don’t want to cut them down.

Decorating branches with ribbons and colored streamers for Palm Sunday is a fairly common practice around the world. But I think it is safe to say that having fabrics used in this liturgy in place of live branches is not a common practice.

The biblical text, however, does say that the people “were spreading their cloaks on the road” to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem (Luke 19:36). Perhaps the use of scarfs will bring to life a neglected aspect of the story.

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