The language of accompaniment is nothing new to the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, released last Friday, nor even to the pontificate of Pope Francis.
In his own apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI used the same term in the same context of the pastoral care of the divorced and remarried.
He stated unequivocally: “The divorced and remarried continue to belong to the Church, which accompanies them with special concern and encourages them to live as fully as possible the Christian life through regular participation at Mass, albeit without receiving Communion, listening to the word of God, eucharistic adoration, prayer, participation in the life of the community, honest dialogue with a priest or spiritual director, dedication to the life of charity, works of penance, and commitment to the education of their children.” (SC 29).
Pope Francis has taken up Pope Benedict’s pastoral concern and run with it, albeit with the same caution and caveats, seeking to put into practice the laudable sentiments expressed by his predecessor, themselves a reflection of the mind of the bishops gathered for the XI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2005.
In this, Amoris Laetitia does not represent a new direction, still less a new path. Rather, it further articulates what Pope Benedict wrote in Sacramentum Caritatis, when he referenced not just the magisterial writing of Pope Saint John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio 84, but also his own Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued whilst he was still its Cardinal Prefect.
In Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis describes the notion of ‘accompaniment’ in these terms (with my emphasis): “Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on what steps can foster it and make it grow. Given that gradualness is not in the law itself (cf. Familiaris Consortio 34), this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church.”
For Pope Francis, then, as also for his predecessors, accompaniment does not mean simply walking with those who are divorced and remarried as if to follow them along a wayward path. Rather, it means coming up alongside them, taking them by the hand, and leading them to the objective truth and reality of their situation, allowing this not simply to become known to the couple in the process, but embraced by them as the truth, so that they might recognise the imperfect, even sinful nature of their circumstances, and then choose to amend their life according to the law of Christ.
In a practical sense, this requires the priest—in the formal context of Confession or spiritual direction—to listen honestly and openly to the particular situation of the individual or couple, and to facilitate the realisation of the truth of the situation by them, illuminating it always and only with the light of Church’s teaching. It means not slamming the door in the face of people who have taken the step of tentatively seeking the Church’s wisdom, and instead offering them that same wisdom as a means of hope, and as a means of returning to a proper relationship with Christ.
This approach to accompaniment is also nothing new. In a post-Christian society the Church, in her apologetics and evangelisation, has sought to move from a position of simply presenting statements of fact about the faith (however true those might be), to offering the same truths in a manner that those without a basic faith formation—and without even the generally positive attitude toward organised religion that was common until fifty years ago—might be able to comprehend and accept.
She has moved from asserting truths of the faith as truths simply because “The Church Teaches” them as such, and adopted the approach of bringing people to accept those same, unaltered, and unalterable truths, not out of some vestigial respect for an institution with which they (and probably even their parents) have no connection, but because of a discovery of the person of Jesus Christ, and a subsequent personal-passionate relationship with him (as Bishop Egan would say), founded, nurtured, and brought to fulfilment through an ever-deepening knowledge of his expansive love.
Such an approach forms not the now infamous creed-reciting parrots alluded to by the Holy Father in one of his morning homilies in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, but individual Christians formed in the crucible of Christ’s love, and conformed to his risen life: disciples of Jesus Christ, who know the faith, love the faith, and live the faith, thereby receiving their own salvation, and becoming means, through that, of bringing others also to the fullness of life in Christ.