“Accompaniment” has emerged as a central theme of the Francis papacy. The great deal of controversy over its meaning and significance has eclipsed its deep theological significance. This is owing both to the ambiguity of its exposition by Francis himself, and to the often toxic ecclesiastical culture of our times. Even for all that, however, accompaniment is not a mere idiosyncratic quirk of this papacy.
The idea deserves a better hearing than it has received of late.
The theological roots of the notion are in the nature of the Church and of our individual lives as Christians as we seek to engage the world through becoming a sacramental icon of the Divine presence. Given the clear teaching of our Lord: “Whatsoever you did for the least of these you did unto me,” it becomes apparent that this sacramental dimension of the Gospel extends as well to the sacrament of the “brother and the sister.” This underscores one of the most overlooked aspects of the significance of the Incarnation: our encounter with God is always a mediated one.
[A]ccompaniment is not a mere idiosyncratic quirk of this papacy. The idea deserves a better hearing than it has received of late.
The Sacraments of the Church, the beauty of nature, and the moral law are all participants in this mediation, but Pope Francis has been at great pains to remind us of our obligation to see the sacramental presence of Christ as well in every human being we encounter.
Pope Francis is also aware that the modern world is captivated more by the seeming absence of God than by His presence.
Grace builds on nature. The edifice of effective evangelization rests on the foundation of credibility. The sins of the Church—of responsible Churchmen, some of them very senior—and of Christians—all of us Christ’s ambassadors—are contributors to this void in the modern soul. How insubstantial must the Sacraments appear to contemporary eyes? Covered over with the filth of our collective corruption, both the Sacraments and the moral doctrines of the Church appear to be so many antiquated talismans of hypocrisy and control.
If this is characteristic of contemporary life, it is nevertheless nothing new.
Something very much similar was apparent to the ancient Jewish writers, as we see in the many Old Testament statements about the emptiness of ritual in the absence of commitment to the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner. You can scream from the Temple rooftop all you want about the wonderful presence of God therein, but it eventually becomes a grating and annoying irritant—empty and hollow—when the ones shouting are morally indifferent participants in an insouciant game of religious play-acting.
Thus did the prophets remind their contemporaries that the quid pro quo God of earthly rewards and punishments—akin to a sort of anachronistic Santa Claus divinity—is a dangerous fantasy. Yes, miracles still happen, and prayers are still answered, and God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves, but in a mode that explodes our categories of what constitutes success and well-being. The prophets reminded their listeners, in words, that unless they were willing to “accompany” the “least of these” then no amount of blood sacrifice and no amount of ritual purity will suffice.
Similarly, Christ told his disciples to take up their Cross and follow him.
What does that mean? To give up licorice for Lent? Asceticism has its place, but is merely a pathway that is often confused with the goal. And it can become a prideful idolatry all its own, as one substitutes true “Cross-bearing” with the small and manageable “crosses” of one’s choosing, which is, of course, no Cross at all. What Christ meant instead was something altogether more gripping and “tremendous” in the original Latin sense of that word.
What he meant was that to be his disciple one must take on the very pattern of his life as a substitutionary participation in the sufferings of the world. In so doing, we participate in his Cross in a real way, share in its efficacy and thereby become God’s Providence in the world. Just as Isaiah had portrayed in his Suffering Servant songs that the mission of Israel is one of vicarious suffering for the sake of the world, and not success in a worldly sense, so too here: “To whom much is given much is required,” and what is required of us is that we place our whole selves in the service of the Divine Charity, which goes far beyond mere “do goodery” and philanthropy and becomes an iconic Sacrament of the Divine presence.
This is what I hope Pope Francis means by “accompaniment.”
I say “I hope” because, quite frankly, Francis has not really made it clear what he means. He has empowered (and in some cases re-empowered) theologians, priests, and prelates who seem to think that it means we must now dispense with moral theory rooted in the natural law, who equate a concern for doctrinal clarity and rigorous moral thinking with pharisaic hypocrisy. It is hard to know where Francis comes down on this since he is alternately hyper-Traditional and hyper-modern in strange and contradictory ways (and often within the same sentence).
The prophets reminded their listeners, in words, that unless they were willing to “accompany” the “least of these” then no amount of blood sacrifice and no amount of ritual purity will suffice.
Nevertheless, the concept of accompaniment as such has a rich pedigree in the Church’s tradition, both in her official teaching and, perhaps most especially, in the lives of the saints. And it is very much needed in our world today which seems to be flying apart in an orgy of hate. The Christian cannot be a party to such hate for that is to mirror a different and darker spiritual presence. The Christian instead should be characterized by bottomless empathy especially for one’s enemies, and a willingness to take on the burdens of others no matter the cost. Therein will the Divine presence become real, not as the elimination of all suffering, but precisely in and through it.
There does God’s “absence” become the greatest mode of His presence, which is another way of saying: Ave Crux, spes unica!
Larry Chapp, PhD taught theology at DeSales University for 19 years. He now runs the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm with his wife, Carrie, near Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
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