Pastoral Theology: It’s one of those theological disciplines which is indeed a genuine theological discipline, but like fundamental theology, can be considered to have a certain vagueness to it. It can seem that professors of an academic pastoral theology course spend a great deal of time defining what pastoral theology is and what it isn’t and that can almost seem like self-justification. And yet, just like fundamental theology (which is an academic discipline within theology in its own right [it’s not just an aspect of dogmatic theology!], studying the transmission and credibility of divine revelation), pastoral theology is a real theological discipline.

By definition, The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that “pastoral theology is the science of the care of souls…Pastoral theology is a branch of practical theology; it is essentially a practical science. All branches of theology, whether theoretical or practical, purpose in one way or another to make priests ‘the ministers of Christ, and the dispensers of the mysteries of God’ (1 Corinthians 4:1). Pastoral theology presupposes other various branches; accepts the apologetic, dogmatic, exegetic, moral, juridical, ascetical, liturgical and other conclusions reached by the ecclesiastical student, and scientifically applies these various conclusions to the priestly ministry.” It is not fluff! 

In reality, pastoral theology, at its best, can be explained by the Lord Jesus, the Master Teacher. In the Gospel of John, Chapter 4, Our Lord Jesus meets the woman at the well. This encounter of the Christ with a Samaritan woman who is simply looking for some water, is a supreme example of what Pope Francis calls accompaniment. It is precisely this accompaniment that I think historians will see as our current Holy Father’s contribution to the New Evangelization. 

In Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope describes this accompaniment as an art—he writes: “The Church will have to initiate everyone—priests, religious and laity—into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Exodus 3:5). (Evangelii Gaudium, 169)

Pastoral theology is a theology, but more so it is an art. You have to practice it.

Jesus, in the Gospel, meets the woman at the well where she is literally, at the well. This woman is there, looking simply to fetch a pail of water. And the Lord Jesus, he who is all truth, leads her gently, patiently to truth. 

Notice in the conversation that it is the Lord Jesus who initiates the conversation. He, a devout Jew, deigns to actually speak to a Samaritan, one who is unclean by birth, a member of a sect of Judaism who had broken far away from mainstream religion and married into foreigners. And, of course, on top of that, the Lord Jesus is speaking to a woman. No man would speak in public to a woman, if both he and she were to be considered respectable.

The Lord Jesus asks her for some water. And this stops her in her tracks. He asks her to go out of herself, if only for a moment, and to enter into service. This is why true conversions of faith happen when we engage people in service projects, helping the poor, for instance. It goes from the natural level, of that natural desire to help others, to the supernatural level, of beginning to recognize the Christ in the midst of the people whom they are serving. Think of all the vocations to priesthood and religious life that begin with service projects in the parish.

The Lord Jesus gradually engages this woman meeting her where she is, and, through dialogue, through patience, through charity, through humility, he brings her to where she must be. This is the art of accompaniment of which the Pope speaks.

“Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelization” (EG, 173). The Pope explains further: “Spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God… to accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father. (EG, 170)

It’s not about watering down the truth, this accompaniment. The Lord Jesus, who knows the hearts of all, does not begin his conversation with this woman with a laundry list of her sins. He helps her understand her situation in life, her many sins, he helps her comprehend for the first time her lack, he helps her recognize that she is truly thirsting for the water, the living water that only the Lord Jesus, who is life and truth can give.

It’s in the dialogue, it’s in the communication that the Lord shows us the art of accompaniment. Pope Francis writes: “Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness with­out which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur” (EG, 171). 

It’s the job of priests and those involved in apostolic service to know our stuff and to be clear. We have to model the truth of the faith by living it out daily. We can’t water down the truth, especially about marriage, about life issues (for nothing is more essential than the sanctity of life), about the integrity of the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, and about issues of sexuality and gender. We have to know what the Church teaches and to be able to communicate what the Church teaches clearly and concisely.

But communication is a two-way street — a true dialogue. As Cardinal Bergoglio, Pope Francis writes: 

Dialogue is born from a respectful attitude toward the other person, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say. It supposes that we can make room in heart for their point of view, their opinion and their proposals. Dialogue entails a warm reception and not a preemptive condemnation. To dialogue, one must know how to lower the defenses, to open the doors of one’s home and to offer warmth. (Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka, On Heaven and Earth, xiv.)

It doesn’t mean just smiling and listening, nodding along and giving tacit approval. Nor does it mean a lecturing that most likely is inappropriate at an initial moment of contact. Jesus engages in dialogue, but he is pretty direct when it comes to the reality of the presence of sin in this woman’s life. And yet, he who is mercy walks with her. What does this mean?

It means beginning on the natural level and then moving to the supernatural level, through the Spirit working in our midst, to go deeper and deeper with the person, to get the other to engage on the level not just of the emotion, which is the area most of our debates take place today, not just on the level of the intellect, which is where we should start, but on the level of soul.

This Gospel of the woman at the well is a masterpiece of the art of accompaniment. The Lord Jesus meets her where she is, exposes her gradually to the truth without watering it down, and then, once she knows the truth and begins to embrace the truth, what does she do? She goes and brings others to see this man, the Lord Jesus, who knows everything about her. This art of accompaniment is a fine and necessary tool in our belt for the work of building the New Evangelization and is the supreme exemplification of the science of pastoral theology.