Accompaniment: The Missing Piece in Church Life

Last week I discussed the need for accompaniment. By God’s design we all need ongoing accompaniment throughout our life. In return, we are all called to make a gift of ourselves in accompanying others. That need that has always been there in the human heart has only multiplied as we watch healthy family life unravel before our eyes.

Marriage and family life are a privileged context for accompaniment. How beautiful it is when husband and wife are truly present to each other, united intimately as one flesh within the marriage covenant. How beautiful it is when that love is extended fruitfully into the lives of their children. The blessings can be even greater when extended family live in close proximity with each other, and are able to provide ongoing mutual support. The past few centuries introduced new pressures that placed a great strain on marriage and family life: emigration to new lands, the Industrial Revolution, urbanization, massive worldwide wars (and their aftermath in family life), the sexual revolution, the rise of the internet, the rise of the smart phone – I could go on and on.

I am NOT arguing in favor of turning back the clock. Not all these changes are bad, and you certainly can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube. I am just pointing out the present painful reality: very few children are growing up in a context of a happy marriage and a healthy family. That means that the need for accompaniment is even more painfully felt.

I know that some of you pine for “the good old days” and wonder why so many things keep changing. I find that most parishes today contain all the classic signs of a grieving process: denial, anger, blame, and bargaining. Unfortunately, many stay stuck.

There is cause to grieve. Whatever your views are about the changes of the last few centuries, I hope that we can all agree that marriage and family life are seriously struggling. It’s a devastating loss. Whenever there is a grave loss, the healthy human response is to grieve and to mourn. The prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament wept over the ruins of Jerusalem. Yes, it’s normal to experience denial – to pretend like it’s really not all that bad. It’s normal to experience anger – looking for a scapegoat. It’s normal to engage in bargaining and fantasize falsely “if only…If only…” Yet in the end we need to grieve and lament.

Once again God’s house lies in ruins. We need not lose hope. He will raise up children of Abraham from her very stones, will turn those children into living stones, and will rebuild his Church. Whatever that renewal looks like, one thing is certain: Those God calls to be part of that rebuilding will need to be accompanied and to accompany.

The need for accompaniment in parish life today is glaring. Just in my two parishes, I am aware of hundreds of individuals who are suffering deeply for lack of accompaniment: the sick, the aging, the dying, the lonely, the afflicted, the addicted, widows, widowers, abused children, neglected children, anxious adolescents, overwhelmed young adults, and exhausted caregivers.

I have met many a spouse who is beyond burnt out after years of trying to hold it together with a struggling spouse. They are trying to do all the accompanying themselves – not asking for help or knowing how to ask for help, and forgetting their own need of accompaniment.

The same risk is enormous for us priests. In Catholic parish life, people instinctively turn to the priest whenever there is a need for accompaniment that family cannot meet. Most of us have skills in that area and enjoy doing it. But we are fools if we think we can accompany every hurting person we meet – especially now that family life has largely broken down. I’ve been learning to teach other people how to accompany rather than try to do it all myself. That is actually how Jesus did it. He spent most of his time accompanying a chose twelve from among his disciples.

Most people today will NOT find themselves sufficiently accompanied by their own families. They will need to find support from other Christians – from the whole faith community, not just a few ordained ministers. This is how it was in the apostolic Church, and it is how it needs to be today. By God’s design, the Church is meant to be the living Body of Christ, in which we all receive and give love in communion with God and with each other.

When I ponder the enormous need for accompaniment in Church life today, three images come to my heart: (1) a missing puzzle piece; (2) a breach in our defenses; and (3) a blockage in our arteries.

Accompaniment is like a puzzle piece that is missing. For example, I have met many good Catholics who are struggling painfully with habits of sin or addictions. They try and try to break free. They pray hard, go to Confession, fast, or put filters on their phones. They might do well for a while, but they keep falling. All too often are trying to fight the battle alone. They do not know how to let themselves be walked with by a group of companions. Things really start changing when we seek and find that communal support!

The lack of accompaniment today is like a breach in our defenses. The devil is a bully who doesn’t fight fair. He loves to attack us when we are weakest and most vulnerable. He divides and conquers, thriving when we are isolated and alone and in the shadows. But if we are well-accompanied, loved, encouraged, understood, affirmed, strengthened, and held accountable, we can resist the devil, and he will indeed take to flight. He is powerless against the communal love of the Body of Christ.

The lack of accompaniment is like a blockage in our arteries. The love of the Body of Christ is meant by God to flow in and flow out of us, freely received and freely given, circulating to all the members and making us fully alive in Him. When we do not know how to receive, we find ourselves incapable of giving in any meaningful way. When we selfishly resist giving, we become stifled and sterile.

It is time for us to accept the hard truth. Marriage and family life largely lie in ruins. Many parish institutions lie in ruins. There is no going back to some golden age (if there ever was one); the only path is forward. We may for a time battle with the usual denial and bargaining and anger. We certainly need to lament and shed tears. But if we are serious about the rebuilding, we need to learn the lessons of accompaniment that Jesus taught to his disciples.

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