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



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).

Now if this is what is meant by the use of the phrase “the art of accompaniment,” fine. But I suspect it is not. Those who speak this phrase, or hear it, probably do not have in mind vigorous retort and clear unambiguous teaching, let alone phrases like “O foolish men …” Jesus, in this walk of accompaniment, unambiguously holds up the necessity of the Cross and insists that they come to see things differently. He makes his case vigorously. These men are in error and He tells them so. It is their error that is the cause not only of their sorrow, but also of their “traveling wrong.” Jesus isn’t so much accompanying here as He is leading; He is guiding; He is teaching, definitively.

Again, if the reader will pardon me, I am just not sure that those who use the phrase, “the art of accompaniment” mean most, if any of this. I pray, too, that the reader does not understand me to be questioning the good Archbishop Kurtz, whom I understand to be reporting the deliberations of the Synod. I have no idea where he stands on the wisdom (or not) of such  a phrase or pastoral stance.

Why am I skeptical that such a phrase is either helpful or really sincere as a way of drawing souls to Christ and the truth of the Gospel? I guess it is context. We are NOT living in times when clear and decisive teaching are common among the clergy or other leaders in the Church (such as parents). Pulpits are far too silent. Clergy and parents are generally quite timid and unwilling to engage the controversial issues of our day with clear teaching and decisive refutation.
The last thing we need in this kind of pastoral climate is a vague pastoral strategy like “the art of accompaniment.” Really, what does this even mean? After we’ve started walking with folks (and who says we haven’t been), then what? Where are the calls to study the faith actively and vigorously, yet charitably defend it to a skeptical world? Don’t just accompany, teach! And though we need to listen to people’s objections and concerns, we also need to have an answer.
There is a time and a place to be “in listening mode.” But the problem today is that we have forgotten what “teaching mode” is, at least in its more active, urgent, edgy, and summoning sense.  If the truth sets us free, and it does, then the truth is like medicine, and we should promote vigorously, insisting on its necessity. But, at least collectively, we sound more like salesmen uncertain and unconvinced of the medicine we promote. Our “teaching mode” is shy, suggestive, and even apologetic (in the weak sense of the word). Confident teaching is too rare today. In such a climate, the “art of accompaniment” becomes a silent or barely suggestive walk with another. They need and deserve more from Christ’s disciples and from His Church.

Analogy:  If I go to the doctor with gangrene and the doctor says, “I affirm you, my brother. I am with you on your journey!” I’m gonna say, “Fine, Doc, that’s really nice. But affirmation and accompaniment are not what I need most. I need you to take my gangrene seriously and work actively to cure it before I lose my leg, or worse!” But too many clergy, and Christians in general, are mere back-slappers who promise prayers but really have little to say about the sins, errors, and lies that are the spiritual gangrene of our day.

Something in me prefers the more edgy advice of a radical, prophetic pastor named St. Paul, who charged Timothy and the rest of us clergy:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths. But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry (2 Tim 4:1-4).

Msgr. Charles Pope
is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, DC. He attended Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary and holds Masters degrees in Divinity and in Moral Theology. He was ordained in 1989 and named a Monsignor in 2005. He has conducted a weekly Bible Study in Congress and in the White House, for two and four years, respectively.

Reprinted with the permission of Msgr. Pope. Originally published on his blog on the  website of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.

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