In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis adds several phrases to the growing vocabulary and vision of the New Evangelization—a vision to which each pope has contributed since the Second Vatican Council.
One of these phrases is “the art of accompaniment”:
The Church will have to initiate everyone—priests, religious and laity—into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5). (Evangelii Gaudium, 169)
Some have questioned the usefulness of this phrase or certain problematic interpretations of it. They wonder whether it is “strong enough,” opining that it “sounds more like a carefully crafted ‘value-free’ neutral strategy aimed more at listening than at teaching or exhorting.” Finally, they feel accompaniment “goes without saying” in missionary activity and so this phrase does not add anything in describing the work of evangelization.
It is profitable to examine Pope Francis’ own presentation of the art of accompaniment in Evangelii Gaudium before considering other interpretations of it. He introduces this phrase in Chapter 3, “The Proclamation of the Gospel,” under the fourth section, “Evangelization and the deeper understanding of the kerygma.” Within this context it is clear that accompaniment is a means to the end of evangelization, not “accompaniment for accompaniment’s sake.” Pope Francis explicitly states, “Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelization” (EG, 173). He beautifully explains,
Spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God… to accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father. (EG, 170)
Far from the image of a doctor who merely affirms, compliments, or, even worse, spiritually euthanizes a wounded soul—depriving that person of the saving truth of the Gospel under a false sense of “mercy,” rather than properly diagnosing and treating spiritual maladies—the art of accompaniment points to a kind of bedside manner that is important, and not always obvious to everyone, in the work of evangelization.
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 potentially painful lifesaving treatment—even if that physician offers flawless reasoning, solid evidence, and great authority. Pope Francis describes the bedside manner needed in the art of accompaniment as “steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness,” and as having a “compassionate gaze” (EG, 169). Some refer to this bedside manner, practiced within welcoming and loving communities, as pre-evangelization, which allows encounter, contact, and opportunities to share the medicine of the Gospel. This work of evangelization must be guided by principles, but it is an art. Every art requires practice, and even mistakes along the way, to learn. It involves a “constellation of virtues,” including charity, humility, affability, courage, patience, and hope.
Communication and listening are also essential. “Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur” (EG, 171). Communication is a two-way street, a dialogue, not listening without speaking, teaching, and preaching. Just as the Socratic method uses questions to make a very strong statement, so careful and caring listening allows one to speak personally to the deepest desires, fears, and questions in the heart of the other. Without such listening, one risks making the most important truth seem irrelevant or boring by trying to answer questions that no one is asking.
This accompaniment must continue throughout the difficult years of the treatment, providing support and encouragement in the face of temptations to despair. Such temptations grow strong at those times when the treatment can be painful and doesn’t seem to be curing as quickly as desired. In treating the walking wounded who have begun to embrace the Gospel, Pope Francis explains, “this always demands the patience of one who knows full well what Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us: that anyone can have grace and charity, and yet falter in the exercise of the virtues because of persistent “contrary inclinations” (EG, 170).
The Church, acting as a “field hospital,” continues to accompany all of us who suffer from the illness of sin and to mercifully dispense the medicine of God’s healing grace in the sacraments throughout our lives. All of those who accompany must practice “prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit” (EG, 171). Accompaniment also requires great faith and hope in God, and the willingness to bear wrongs patiently and to forgive, since hurting people often hurt other people. Pope Francis explains, “Someone good at such accompaniment does not give in to frustrations or fears. He or she invites others to let themselves be healed, to take up their mat, embrace the cross, leave all behind and go forth ever anew to proclaim the Gospel” (EG, 172).
Finally, the goal of medicine is not merely to avoid sickness and death but to promote health. Similarly, the goal of evangelization is not simply to avoid hell but to enjoy what Jesus Christ comes to give us—life to the fullest (Jn 10:10). It starts now and is fulfilled in eternity. “Hence the need for ‘a pedagogy which will introduce people step by step to the full appropriation of the mystery’” (EG, 171, quoting St. John Paul II). Accompaniment continues throughout our lives, helping us to ever more fully know and live the Joy of the Gospel.
Image: Library of Congress, Austrian military hospital WWI (public domain)