Over the course of Pope Francis’s papacy, but particularly after the promulgation of Amoris Laetitia, some Catholics have expressed angst over what Pope Francis means when he calls for “accompaniment,” a term he uses whenever he describes ministering to those who are suffering. Some critics seem concerned that Francis is encouraging clergy and other Catholics to violate Church teaching with his calls for accompaniment, specifically by asking them to ignore or downplay the importance of doctrine and the moral law. Some even suggest that he is promoting heterodox ideas, misinterpreting his words and claiming he’s taught that one may receive the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin. In truth, Francis’s position has never approached these problematic extremes.
Recently, discussions revolving around the ministry of Fr. James Martin to gay Catholics revealed this angst once more. Some argued that “accompaniment” is just a fancy way of saying “sin is acceptable” or that the type of accompaniment proposed by Francis frustrates a person’s growth from a life of sin to holiness. This understanding of Christian accompaniment is wrong but–more than that–completely misses the point of just how powerful and necessary accompaniment can be in our liberalized culture.
Christians in every era and culture have faced unique threats to living a holy life. Three of the most pervasive threats today are relativism, individualism, and the “technocratic paradigm.” Pope Francis recognizes the importance of true Christian accompaniment as a vital antidote to these social ills.
Relativism is a threat to holiness because it undermines conviction in objective truth and morality and ultimately leads to faithlessness in God and a decline in virtue. Many complaints that accompaniment is a relativizing force are not without justification. In our present culture, accompaniment, if it is mentioned at all, is often correlated with the advocacy of social agendas, without reference to God. When the word “accompaniment” takes on a purely political-social connotation, it often means uprooting social structures or conditions that are believed to have caused pain and suffering. This itself could become a project of relativism, because sometimes these acts of solidarity do not strive for true justice but are content with responding to injustice and suffering according to political and ideological assumptions.
In contrast, Christian accompaniment–while it necessarily leads to work within political-social contexts and is deeply concerned with justice and alleviating suffering–is first and foremost an interpersonal experience that points to the one true God who has redeemed us in his love and mercy (cf. Evangelii Gaudium 170). Accompaniment, in which we “remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other,” as Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, is entering into the life of another while respecting them and honoring their inherent dignity. When we do this, we become co-pilgrims with them on their journey to God, who alone can heal their deepest pain.
Later in the document Francis describes how those who are spiritually accompanied can become “profoundly free of subjective caprice and accommodation to prevailing social mores.” Accompaniment helps rescue people from the stormy seas of public perception and opinion–the world of relativism. Those who we accompany should not only feel loved and welcomed, but also inspired to live with greater “hope and confidence” in the Lord’s promises. This can only happen when the process of accompaniment does not–as Francis says–“prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church” (AL 300).
Individualism is another threat to holiness in today’s culture, which erodes our connections with others. Though we are called by Christ to be one Church–a community of believers, part of the body of Christ–individualism saps the vigor with which that unity is expressed and reduces “Church” to times and places of mutual convenience. As Pope Francis writes in Amoris Laetitia, “The individualism so prevalent today can lead to creating small nests of security, where others are perceived as bothersome or a threat. Such isolation, however, cannot offer greater peace or happiness; rather, it straitens the heart of a family and makes its life all the more narrow (187).”
Accompaniment combats individualism, if for no other reason than accompaniment requires one to be present to another. Still, accompaniment is much more profound than simply “being with” someone. In describing mothers as the “strongest antidote” to individualism, Francis praises mothers for their tenderness, compassion, moral strength, and dedication to their children (AL 174). This type of maternal intimacy is a model for true Christian accompaniment, which requires us to enter into another’s life, share their burdens, and give them confidence to face the world. It is not fleeting or temporary, but requires selfless love for and dedication to the other person. This is what Pope Benedict was referring to when he wrote in Spe Salvi,
To accept the ‘other’ who suffers, means that I take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also. Because it has now become a shared suffering, though, in which another person is present, this suffering is penetrated by the light of love. The Latin word con-solatio, “consolation”, expresses this beautifully. It suggests being with the other in his solitude, so that it ceases to be solitude (38).
Accompaniment sheds light on the profound shortcomings of the “technocratic paradigm” in addressing the pain and suffering that are a byproduct of the human condition. Pope Francis describes this in Laudato Si’:
This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. Amid this confusion, postmodern humanity has not yet achieved a new self-awareness capable of offering guidance and direction, and this lack of identity is a source of anxiety. We have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends” (203).
Without direction, we often subjugate ourselves to our own creations, looking for hope where none can possibly be found. There is a vicious cycle in which despair leads to a greater desire for progress–technological, economical, political–to cure that despair, but creates still more despair when progress fails to solve the problem. It is only a matter of time, then, before our society reaches a breaking point.
True accompaniment, when carried out by a Christian who has received the Spirit, confers the possibility of hope in the world beyond this one and rescues others from slavery to progress. In fact, the hope Christians share is the same hope we received when we were baptized into the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. This remarkable gift allows us to escape the narrow constraints of time and space and protects us from the seductions of the world. The joy we are looking for is ultimately not to be found in this world, but in the heart of Christ.
We should be slow to dismiss the idea that accompaniment is an antidote to the challenges of today’s world out of an exaggerated fear that it could become a perversion of the Gospel. It is, in fact, the extension of the Gospel especially relevant today in our postmodern Western culture. To accuse Pope Francis of engaging in some form of liberal humanism is to misunderstand the ways that Christian accompaniment differs from a secular understanding of the concept. True Christian accompaniment is always a path to the love and mercy of Jesus Christ.