Sunday Scriptures

Honing the Art of Accompaniment

by Father John P. Cush

IF WE WERE to reflect on each pope since the Second Vatican Council, each – in his own way – contributed to the concept of the New Evangelization.

The term first appears in “Redemptoris Missio” (1990) by Pope St. John Paul II, although it is believed that he used the term in a prior talk he gave to a group of bishops from Latin America.

So, then what is this New Evangelization? Well, I believe it is the effort to catechize people already baptized, those who might be culturally Catholic, but for whom their faith doesn’t mean all that much. It doesn’t mean that the “old evangelization” was bad, nor does it means that we need to reinvent the wheel.

What it does mean is, like Pope St. John XXIII asked us, to be attentive to the “signs of the times” and to bring the Gospel – clear in its imperative to go forth and teach all nations – to God’s people, already marked with the sign of faith. We can do this by clear teaching, faithful and orthodox, yet marked by pastoral sensitivity, and by the courageous witness of our lives.

Path of Mercy

The Gospel which we proclaim today is that of the Road to Emmaus. It is a model, I think, of what Pope Francis calls “accompaniment,” and I believe – along with his renewed emphasis on mercy – it will be our Holy Father’s key contribution to the concept of the New Evangelization.

In “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis describes accompaniment as an art. He writes: “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).”

Accompaniment, walking alongside each other, meeting people where they are and bringing them to where they should be, namely with the Lord, is the message of today’s Gospel. In the story of the Road to Emmaus, we see a masterpiece of the art of accompaniment, drawn by the Master Artist, Jesus the Lord.

True Dialogue

In this Gospel, Jesus literally meets these downtrodden disciples where they are on the road. They had been witnesses of all the events that had taken place in Jerusalem. Jesus, the Master Teacher, acts in a Socratic manner and draws out of them their understanding of their experiences.

Note that He does not just leave them there, solipsistically reflecting on their own subjective experiences. He is patient. He is kind. But eventually, by recounting Sacred Scripture and tying it not only into their lived experience, but also tradition, Jesus brings them to Himself: the Way, the Truth and the Life.

It all begins with conversation. In a dialogue, a true dialogue, Jesus listens to them. Notice that Jesus begins the dialogue. This indicates that we, the Church, are to be the one who initiates the dialogue to the world, and especially to fallen-away Catholics, those who might feel hurt, abandoned, betrayed and those who were never able to understand the Church’s message, not because they never heard it, but because it was not clearly explained, it was weighed down with an agenda or made so light and fluffy that it had become irrelevant.

The Lord Jesus gradually engages these disciples – meeting them where they are – and then through dialogue, patience, charity and humility, He brings them to where they must be. This is the art of accompaniment of which the pope speaks.

“Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelization” (EG, 173).

The pope explains further: “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).

Openness of Heart

It’s in the dialogue, the communication, that the Lord shows us the art of accompaniment. Pope Francis writes: “Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness with­out which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur” (EG, 171).

But communication is a two-way street, a true dialogue. It doesn’t mean smiling, listening, nodding along and giving tacit approval. Nor does it mean a lecturing that most likely is inappropriate at an initial moment of contact. And yet, He who is Mercy walks with them. What does this mean? It means beginning on the natural level and moving to the supernatural, through the Spirit working in our midst, to engage the other on a deeper level, not just of emotion – where most debates take place – but also on a level of soul.

What does this accompaniment do? It leaves these disciples wanting more. Jesus vanishes from their midst. He is now recognized by them in the breaking of the Bread, exactly how we now recognize Him in the Real Presence in the Eucharist.

These disciples of the Lord Jesus become “missionary disciples.” This is exactly what Pope Francis is calling us to become in “Evangelii Gaudium.” Accompaniment might be the best tool in the workshop of the New Evangelization if we are to help the Lord create missionary disciples in the Church.

Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 2: 14, 22-33

Psalm 16: 1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11

1 Peter 1: 17-21

Luke 24: 13-35

Father Cush, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, serves as academic dean of the Pontifical North American College, and as an assistant professor of theology and U.S. Catholic Church history.