Pope Francis' fourth anniversary: accompaniment makes a good pastor

This story appears in the Four Years of Francis feature series. View the full series.
Pope Francis addresses priests of the Diocese of Rome during a meeting at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome March 2. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, handout)
Pope Francis addresses priests of the Diocese of Rome during a meeting at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome March 2. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, handout)

by Michael Sean Winters

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Wednesday, I looked at the central role mercy plays in Pope Francis' reform of the church, and yesterday I looked at how ministry to the poor is intimately linked with both those reforms and with Francis' advancement of the new evangelization. Today I would like to add a third key theme for Pope Francis as he begins the fifth year of his pontificate: accompaniment.

When speaking to the bishops of Brazil while in Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day in 2013, Pope Francis said:

[W]e need a church capable of walking at people's side, of doing more than simply listening to them; a church that accompanies them on their journey; a church able to make sense of the "night" contained in the flight of so many of our brothers and sisters from Jerusalem; a church that realizes that the reasons why people leave also contain reasons why they can eventually return. But we need to know how to interpret, with courage, the larger picture. Jesus warmed the hearts of the disciples of Emmaus.

Pope Francis has returned to this theme of a church that accompanies people time and time again, in various settings, but especially when talking to pastors. It is how he envisions being a pastor, to accompany people.

In a talk to the U.S. bishops at St. Matthew's Cathedral during his 2015 visit to this country, he employed a similar phrase, a "culture of encounter" to describe the kind of church he sought:

I know that you face many challenges, and that the field in which you sow is unyielding and that there is always the temptation to give in to fear, to lick one's wounds, to think back on bygone times and to devise harsh responses to fierce opposition.

And yet we are promoters of the culture of encounter. We are living sacraments of the embrace between God's riches and our poverty. We are witnesses of the abasement and the condescension of God who anticipates in love our every response.

Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love (Matthew 20:1-16).

The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it. Do not be afraid to set out on that "exodus" which is necessary for all authentic dialogue. Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain. Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.

A phrase jumps of the page: "not as a shrewd strategy." Too often, we hear talk about the "new evangelization" or about creating a "culture of encounter" as if it were a mere means to an already arrived at point. Seen in this distorted way, it maintains the fiction that the cleric has all the answers and the people in the pews have only to listen and obey. Seen as Pope Francis intends it, accompaniment and a culture of encounter presume that both parties to the accompaniment have something to learn, from each other but also from God who speaks to us in groups, not just as individuals.

Why is this distinction so important? Because the approach of Pope Francis offers us a different ecclesiology. For too long, being Catholic has meant assenting to a set of propositions, a notional experience in which the cleric tells us what we need to know to procure our salvation. For Francis, being Catholic is first and foremost about membership in a communion of persons who have had an experience of God active in their lives, an encounter with the risen Lord. Pastors need to start there, with the fact that the people they encounter already have an experience of God active in their lives. I wish I could claim credit for this insight. At the press conference at which his appointment as archbishop of Chicago was announced, Cardinal Blase Cupich spoke to this very issue.

As I watched that press conference, I thought of all the wonderful pastors who have shaped my life of faith, and they all, in different ways, started from that point of acknowledgement that God was already active in my life. Everyone has something to contribute. Just as the pope says "no to an economy of exclusion" he says, mutatis mutandi, "no to an ecclesiology of exclusion."

The pastor who approaches his flock convinced he already has all the answers, already knows what is best for the people, who has a ready syllogism that dissolves all of life's complexities, who thinks it is merciful to hurl exclusions at people, who reduces religion to morals and laws, is a bad pastor. The pastor who starts with the awareness that God is already active in the lives of the people entrusted to his pastoral care, who is attentive to their experiences, especially the painful experiences, is a good pastor. Not because the latter pastor will get more people in the pews or more contributions into the collection basket, but because it is the latter pastor, the pastor who practices the art of accompaniment and who builds a culture of encounter who is best following in the footsteps of the Master. It is more faithful, not less, to listen and accompany than to be able to recite every article of the catechism.

I would note, as well, that this has nothing to do with liberal or conservative. Liberals are as just as capable as conservatives in approaching a situation with a set of expectations, with a previously arrived at and much desired outcome of an encounter. This is about clericalism.

In his examination of Pope Francis' four years in office, my colleague Josh McElwee begins with the story of the pope's direct intervention to have women religious invited to a meeting of the dicastery that oversees them, something that had not happened before. When a group of nuns asked him why they had not been invited to participate in these meetings, he said he would take care to see that they were included. "Speaking about someone who is absent is not of the Gospel," the pope said. "You must be present." And so they were at the next meeting of that dicastery.

It is not difficult to see how the three themes I have articulated run together: Mercy, ministry to the poor and accompaniment are the heart of the "revolution of tenderness" the Holy Father repeatedly calls for. They run into each other as streams form a river. They will, God willing, further the revolution we need, a revolution begun by Jesus when he walked the byways of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem. It is the truest fidelity to the Gospel and the hallmark of this pontificate.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at The Catholic University of America's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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