The Synod on the Family and ‘Accompaniment’

COMMENTARY: Accompaniment is authentically Christian if the companion aims to put those he is accompanying on the path to Christ.

Pope John Paul II hugs a young Mauritius child on Oct. 16, 1989, during his visit to Mauritius.
Pope John Paul II hugs a young Mauritius child on Oct. 16, 1989, during his visit to Mauritius. (photo: AP photo/Pool)

VATICAN CITY — The dominant news at the beginning of the synod’s second week was the leak of an Oct. 5 letter from 13 cardinals to Pope Francis expressing a lack of confidence in the management of the synod. That was major news, as some of the most senior cardinals in the world — including the heads of the Vatican departments for doctrine, liturgy and finance — thought the synod’s procedures might pose a serious danger to the Church’s fidelity to the word of God and her mission of handing on the deposit of the faith. While there was no official comment from the papal spokesman on the letter’s content, the Holy Father’s de facto response in the synod hall that day indicated that the objections registered.


Pastoral Accompaniment

Two of the letters’ reported signatories, Cardinals Timothy Dolan and Thomas Collins, respectively of New York and Toronto, made substantive news on an issue that has come to dominate the ethos of the synod: accompaniment. Both cardinals indicated that Christian accompaniment must be something different from a merely therapeutic accompaniment.

After 10 days of withering attacks by the synod fathers on the inadequacy of their guiding text — the instrumentum laboris, produced by the synod secretariat — it might seem superfluous to note that the synod’s concept of accompaniment remains ambiguous. Such a key concept needs to be clarified.

Pastorally, the art of accompaniment has been identified with the creativity of St. John Paul II, who, as a young priest in communist Poland, was denied the usual pastoral methods employed for the care of university students. No longer able to wait for them in the “sacristy,” as Pope Francis might put it, he accompanied them in all circumstances of their lives, forming them into an intense community of disciples. The kayaking, hiking and camping trips together were the most vivid image of this, but more typical were the long, patient conversations he had with them: a father speaking to his spiritual children, guiding them toward a deeper friendship with the Lord Jesus.

Is this what the instrumentum laboris means by “accompaniment”? The document begins with the image of Emmaus and ends with the language of Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s document on the Church in the modern world:

“Many were pleased with the synod fathers’ reference to the figure of Jesus who accompanies the disciples on the road to Emmaus. For the Church, drawing near to the family as a companion on a journey means to adopt a prudent and differentiated mentality. At times, this means to be at one’s side and to listen in silence; at other times, to stand in front to indicate the way forward; and at still other times, to stand behind to support and to encourage. The Church makes this way of acting her own in sharing the joys and the hopes, the sorrows and the anxieties of each family” (instrumentum laboris, 110).


Accompaniment and Challenge

Cardinal Collins, in his intervention at the synod, addressed himself directly to this point, giving a rather more exact definition of what exactly Jesus was doing on the road to Emmaus:

“First, Jesus drew near and accompanied his downcast disciples as they walked in the wrong direction, into the night. He started by asking questions about their present disposition and by listening to them, but he did not stop there. Instead, he challenged them with the word of God: ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!’ (Luke 24:25). His presentation of the objective vision of Scripture broke through their subjective self-absorption and, along with his loving presence, brought them to conversion. The disciples of Emmaus accepted the word of God that challenged them, and … they changed direction and, with burning hearts, raced through the night to Jerusalem to bear joyful witness to the community gathered there.”

In the drama of Emmaus, Jesus came alongside those who were going in the wrong direction, who had given up hope. To them he listened, questioned, rebuked (“how foolish”!) and then taught. Encountering Jesus anew, they were converted — they literally turned around — and raced back to Jerusalem. This is a rather more challenging form of accompaniment than the synod’s working document outlines. Cardinal Collins argued that the challenge is precisely the point of the accompaniment.

“We are called to accompany people with a compassion that challenges and that leads to conversion and to a heart on fire for Christ,” Cardinal Collins said. “Pastors, who must daily accompany their people in their struggles, should imitate Jesus on the road to Emmaus and, with clarity and charity, preach the call to conversion, which is the foundation for the liberating message of Jesus: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17).

Accompaniment is authentically Christian if the companion aims to put those he is accompanying on the path to Christ. It is quite possible to accompany people without any attempt to do that, and there are certainly human consolations to be received from such action. Yet the “missionary disciple” that Pope Francis insists that all Christians ought to be cannot be satisfied with offering merely human consolations, as therapeutic and welcome as they may be.

Jesus, the companion along the way to Emmaus, offered an accompaniment that was ambitious and bold, interpreting the whole of the Scriptures for the forlorn disciples in the light of his own suffering, death and resurrection. It was accompaniment toward salvation. Accompaniment that might lead away from the word of God, away from salvation, cannot be part of the Church’s pastoral charity toward those at the peripheries of ecclesial life.

“God’s word must always come first,” agreed Cardinal Dolan in his synod intervention. “While pastoral realism and compassion inspires us to consider carefully the situation of marriage and family now, our duty is to follow Jesus in recalling and restoring what his Father intended ‘... in the beginning.’”


Accompaniment and Consolation

The accompaniment ethos of the instrumentum laboris is clearly one of offering comfort and consolation to the afflicted, a noble Christian spiritual work of mercy. Cardinal Dolan, after making his intervention last week, posted a statement on Monday, inviting broader thinking about exactly who might need accompaniment. In the context of Emmaus, it is worth remembering that Jesus appears to the disciples gathered in the Upper Room, too, the ones who did not abandon Jerusalem. Cardinal Dolan had those disciples in mind as he remarked on the synod’s oft-repeated emphasis on “inclusion,” a corollary to the ethos of accompaniment:

A very refreshing, consistent theme of the synod has been inclusion. The Church, our spiritual family, welcomes everyone, especially those who may feel excluded. Among those, I’ve heard the synod fathers and observers comment, are the single, those with same-sex attraction, those divorced, widowed or recently arrived in a new country, those with disabilities, the aged, the housebound, racial and ethnic minorities. We in the family of the Church love them, welcome them and need them.

Can I suggest as well that there is now a new minority in the world and even in the Church? I am thinking of those who, relying on God’s grace and mercy, strive for virtue and fidelity: Couples who — given the fact that, at least in North America, only half of our people even enter the sacrament of matrimony — approach the Church for the sacrament; couples who, inspired by the Church’s teaching that marriage is forever, have persevered through trials; couples who welcome God’s gifts of many babies; a young man and woman who have chosen not to live together until marriage; a gay man or woman who wants to be chaste; a couple who has decided that the wife would sacrifice a promising professional career to stay at home and raise their children — these wonderful people today often feel themselves a minority, certainly in culture, but even, at times in the Church! I believe there are many more of them than we think, but, given today’s pressure, they often feel excluded.

Where do they receive support and encouragement? From TV? From magazines or newspapers? From movies? From Broadway? From their peers? Forget it!

They are looking to the Church, and to us, for support and encouragement, a warm sense of inclusion. We cannot let them down!

Cardinal Collins asked about the purpose of accompaniment. Cardinal Dolan asked who the Church ought to accompany. The answer to the latter is, in the fullest sense, everyone. Yet it is undeniable that the focus of the synod has been on those who, in one way or another, consider themselves unable or unwilling to live the fullness of the Gospel teaching about marriage and family life. Cardinal Dolan’s statement on the “new minority” sought to reassure them that the Church is not about to abandon the teachings that they are heroically attempting to live out. Even more, that the Church’s pastors have a word of encouragement and gratitude for their witness, which builds up confidence that the Gospel can be lived out with happiness and joy.


Who Does the Accompanying?

I had the opportunity to speak with Cardinal Dolan on Monday evening and, thinking of my students at the chaplaincy — Newman House at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada — told him that my students are that “new minority,” and I was grateful to him for thinking about them. He responded that “they are mine, too,” not just because he met them on his visit to us last year, but because there are many of them in New York. Indeed, the “new minority” in the Church actually constitutes in many places the principal source of vitality and energy for evangelization. If the Church is going to accompany those who are walking away from Jerusalem into the night, the accompaniers will be those lay faithful, many of them young, who are part of the new minority. The pastors of the Church need to accompany these would-be companions in order for the pastoral approach of accompaniment to be effective. Cardinal Dolan thus was answering not only the question of who the Church should accompany, but who in the Church will do the accompanying.

On campus we are at the forefront of the New Evangelization: not by our merit, but by necessity. A parish can drift along for years without evangelizing. It has the benefit of inertia. There is no inertia on campus; a chaplaincy that does not constantly evangelize is only a year or two away from becoming moribund. Who can we send out into the vast mission field on campus to evangelize those who do not know where Jerusalem is, let alone what happened there? The only ones available are those of the new minority, already converted to Christ by those who first accompanied them. Without them, the Church’s pastoral strategy of accompaniment will fail for lack of companions. The synod whose ethos has been dominated by talk of accompaniment has said very little to encourage the would-be companions and much that has agitated them. Cardinals Collins and Dolan had words for them, to encourage them on the journey.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

He was the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1998-2003.