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Is it Enough for the Church to “Accompany” People on Their Walk?

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Msgr. Charles Pope - published on 11/20/14

Let's teach them to walk "better" first

One of the events at last week’s meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was a first-hand summary of the Roman (extraordinary) Synod on the family by several bishops who attended. It would appear, as related by Archbishop Kurtz,  that a certain expression emerged at the Synod that is meant to convey a kind of pastoral strategy. That phrase is the “art of accompaniment.” Of itself, the phrase both makes sense and has value. In life, we must all learn, individually and collectively, to walk with people, to accompany them on their journey, to find them where they are, hear their concerns, and (it is to be hoped) have some role in assisting them to walk better with Christ.

Of course it is that last point that is critical and makes me wonder if “the art of accompaniment” is a strong enough pastoral strategy for times like these when the world is so deeply confused and many in the Church are so vague about announcing the truth unambiguously.  (I expressed similar concerns about another pastoral strategy emerging from the Synod, called “gradualism,” in an earlier blog post.) The phrase “art of accompaniment” sounds more like a carefully crafted “value-free” neutral strategy aimed more at listening than at teaching or exhorting. One hardly thinks, when hearing “the art of accompaniment,” of a heraldic, prophetic Church sounding the trumpet in Zion, or crying out with the voice of John the Baptist or Jesus, “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is near!”

Surely accompaniment is an essential ingredient of any pastoral strategy. But, in a way, that goes without saying. Obviously one has to accompany another in order to teach or to have influence. Relationship of some sort is essential for there to be teaching or influence. But accompaniment for accompaniment’s sake is not really a pastoral strategy. Our goal cannot merely be to accompany; it must be to teach, to lead, and to change people’s lives through sanctifying them in the truth and with the Sacraments. The pastoral “duties” of the Church, and especially of her clergy, is to teach, govern, and sanctify, not merely to accompany. I am just not sure that the “art of accompaniment” captures this or is strong enough.

To be sure, Jesus DOES manifest accompaniment. The whole incarnation manifests accompaniment as does his “table-fellowship” in “eating and drinking with sinners.” But Jesus does not merely eat with sinners or become incarnate. He does that in order to lead, to proclaim, to teach, to govern, to sanctify, to summon to repentance, to bestow mercy to the penitent. An example, almost in picture form, of what Jesus does is in the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. As the story opens, two disciples are walking in the wrong direction (away from Jerusalem).  The text says,
While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them … And he said to them, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” (Lk 24:16-17)

So he does accompany them. But note that he is not there just to walk alongside them. He is there to lead them and convert them, literally by turning them around and back to Jerusalem and the Church, gathered. Hence, no sooner do they explain their sorrow and reveal their erroneous thinking, than Jesus says,

O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself (LK 24:26-27).

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Synod on the Family
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