At the Mid-Atlantic Congress a few weeks ago, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the Archbishop of Manila, gave the keynote address where he illustrated through personal stories the power of accompanying people in their faith journeys so as to point them to Christ.
Accompaniment is a pitch word frequently used in the Church today. Pope Francis discussed this idea of accompaniment in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, where he explains spiritual accompaniment must lead others closer to God. Brother John Paul Kern, O.P. suggests the kind of accompaniment Francis is talking about is similar to the gentle bedside manner a doctor might use with his patient. He writes:
“Without true compassion and care, the most skilled physician in the world might not gain the consent of his frightened patient to voluntarily begin a long and painful lifesaving treatment…Pope Francis describes the bedside manner needed in the art of accompaniment as “steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness,” as having a “compassionate gaze” (EG, 169).
Accompaniment seeks to remove pre-existing barriers to a person’s belief, arousing “a desire for God and His Church in those who do not know or accept them” (Main Institute).The entire process works to “allow encounter, contact, and opportunities to share the Gospel. (Dominican Journal)”
During his keynote, Cardinal Tagle gave two powerful personal examples to illustrate the accompaniment process. The first recounted his visit to a Syrian refugee camp in Greece a few summers ago where he met a Muslim young man. The Muslim man owned nothing but the clothes he wore. His parents, who stayed behind in their native land, ordered the boy to leave his country immediately and flee to safety. The Cardinal offered the displaced refugee food, water, and clothing and after a brief conversation, the two men parted ways.
“Since then, I think of that boy everyday,” the Cardinal admitted about his short meeting with the Muslim man. “What happened to him?” he asked.
Cardinal Tagle suspected the encounter also left an impression on the young Muslim man. When the young Muslim saw the Cardinal at the Camp a few hours after their initial exchange, he approached Cardinal Tagle and asked him,
“Why do you do this? Are you a Muslim?”
The Cardinal responded, “No, I am a Christian and I do this because I follow Jesus.” The simple act of giving the boy some food and water—accompanying the boy in his moment of need—led the boy to ask who the Cardinal was and what he believes.
This is the art of accompaniment.
Cardinal Tagle also told of attending a vocations summer camp for youth. The Cardinal was asked to lead the teens in a Question and Answers session and during it, several teens requested he sing to them. Cardinal Tagle acquiesced under the condition that the kids sing along with him.
After the talk, the kids swarmed the Cardinal asking for selfies with him and autographs on the t-shirts they wore. Cardinal Tagle said he wasn’t sure why the kids wanted these things, but he willingly offered them to the children anyway. The following summer, upon his return to the same camp, his path crossed with a young man who had been at the camp the previous summer.
“Father, the boy said, “You autographed my shirt last summer.”
“Yes, I remember,” said the Cardinal.
“I haven’t washed the shirt in the year since you first signed it. My dad left my family, abandoned us, but every night I take that shirt out from under my pillow and I carefully fold it. Then, I place it back under my pillow and sleep on it. It is a reminder to me that you are a Father to all of us and that the Church is my home.”
The Cardinal responded to the needs of the people: for the young Muslim man it was food and clothing, for the teens, it was selfies and autographs. Note: he didn’t give them what he thought they needed: catechesis and formation in the faith (that comes later). He met them where they were (like Jesus met the men on the road to Emmaus), which paved the way for a deeper encounter with Christ.
As someone active in ministry work, I often embrace the misguided notion that I must devise perfect programs or have the perfect answers to the questions those returning to the Church may ask. But what the Cardinal’s homily reminded me was that I simply need to meet people where they are, give them what they need (not what I want to offer), and let God’s grace do the rest.