Accompaniment is a term very much en vogue these days in the Church. We hear about it constantly, especially in relation to the Synod on Synodality. Often times, however, this term is a cover for heterodoxy and laxity. It takes the Cross out of our Crucified Faith. Without the Cross there is no Resurrection. Without entering into the Cross with the people the Lord sends into our lives there is no real accompaniment.
This life is a way of the cross for every one of us. The Lord promises us repeatedly that we will have difficulties and that we must pick up our cross and follow Him. In many ways, the Church has jettisoned the Cross in the last 60 years. I grew up in the felt crafts era when making banners and singing banal songs was catechesis. This has led to the poor catechesis and shallow formation of countless souls over multiple generations. It should not be surprising that nearly 70% of Catholics don’t believe in the Real Presence. The Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist makes no sense without the Cross.
What many of our parishes live currently is not this call to the way of the Cross. Instead, we are spoon fed a mix of moralistic therapeutic deism, social justice, and prosperity gospel with a smattering of Catholic theology. Many priests who seek to preach boldly are doing so in the face of years of the lay faithful having been taught wrongly—or not at all—which poses immense challenges for new priests on fire with the Holy Spirit. This will vary by diocese because some are in better shape than others across the West. If one were to poll the average Catholic, however, they would quickly discover a wide disconnect between the example of Christ Crucified, the saints, and the current belief that we only need to be a “good” person and hell is only for people like Hitler.
It is also during this time that the accompaniment we so often hear about started to take off and is now reaching its apex. The laity of my parents’ generation were often told in confession to ignore the Church’s teaching on things like contraception. The Church’s teachings—which are Christ’s teachings—were “too lofty an ideal” for the average Catholic. Everything became about making it “easier” to be Catholic. This false form of accompaniment puts souls in great danger.
Predictably, the results have been catastrophic for the Church. The easier we make things, the more irrelevant they become. The spiritual life is not supposed to be easy because we need to be refined in the purifying fires of God’s love. It is a brutal process. We are sinful, selfish, weak, addicted, worldly, and easily duped by the devil. The Lord came to save us because we are in need of saving. We are made very good, but the Fall has wounded us deeply. Authentic accompaniment helps us answer the universal call to holiness, which is the path where we find healing and freedom in Christ.
In order to truly accompany people, we ourselves must first undergo an even more radical conversion. We must come to see and accept that this life is not about ‘living our best life.’ It is about growing in holiness and about being conformed to Christ. The guides we have been given to accompany us are the saints. They did not take the easy route and they did not countenance sin. They weren’t telling people that God wants them to have a good life of comfort; something I have unfortunately heard from far too many priests. The Lord wants us to be saints, which means embracing the Cross, which leads to true freedom.
In the last year, as I worked as a Director of Faith Formation, I witnessed the wasteland that has been catechesis in the last few decades. I also saw first hand the immense brokenness of our culture. I met with every single family coming to the parish for baptism. Most of them were not coming in order to practice the Faith regularly. They were checking a box. Thankfully, by spending more time with them, many of them did start practicing the Faith.
The number one thing that I heard pulled people away from the Church was divorced parents. Divorce has decimated the family and the Faith, but we seldom hear about it from the hierarchy. The pain and damage is tremendous. As a Church, we are ignoring the deep wounds no fault divorce is causing within our ranks, and often, accepting it.
Many of the people who came had fallen into the relativism and nihilism of our age and are very much in the grips of the culture with no one to help pull them out. Almost all of them were civilly married—except a rare few—with a lukewarm interest in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. COVID parish closings did untold damage to the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. We are only now beginning to see the fallout in a situation that was already extremely bad before COVID.
Most reasons people came for baptism were cultural, parental pressure, upcoming trips, and in some bright moments, spouses wanted to convert to the Faith and were leading their fallen away Catholic spouses back to the Faith. I had about two families that were practicing and somewhat well catechized over the course of a year.
The situation is grim. My pastor and I would walk away from our meetings overwhelmed by how bad things are in the Church and the culture. I’m not sure we ever found the bottom of the abyss in our short time serving together. We were still in free fall. I’ve known for years the situation is bad, but after only a year of working closely with parents seeking Sacraments for their kids, I came to see the situation in the Church is dire. The suffering of her people and those who have fallen away is immense. Many people in our meetings broke down in tears as they shared their sufferings.
Superficial accompaniment that enables sin will only deepen those wounds. The only answer we can give in relation to the struggle against sin, grief, loss, ignorance, the culture, and confusion is the Cross. Our Lord’s death on the Cross is the path to the Resurrection and eternal life. There is no other path. This means that we are called as brothers and sisters in Christ to enter into the crosses in other people’s lives. We cannot flee or ignore their pain. We walk with them and then we call them to something higher. We don’t water down or jettison difficult teachings. We lead them to Christ who waits to walk with them on the Way of the Cross. We share the truth in love.
The families I worked with were not happy at first when I required them to give more time than any other parish asked of them. They could have found a parish where they watched a video, baptized their child, and then never darkened the doorway of the parish again. The Sacrament factory needs to end—not only because it is wrong to push people who do not understand what they are undertaking through Sacraments—but because we commit great sins against charity by ignoring their deeper needs. Addressing those needs will enable them to embrace the Sacraments and discipleship more fully. Evangelized parents lead to evangelized children; not the other way around.
After the initial push back, the families who stayed on the path began to appreciate the fact that I sought to truly accompany them. I couldn’t give them as much time as I really wanted to, which was God’s way of revealing my own limitations and the massive brokenness of the current system, but it did allow seeds to be planted for the Holy Spirit to grow.
After the first meeting in the parish office with the priest and I, I brought them into my home and ministered to them as brothers and sisters in Christ through three different meals, time in the Gospels, and fruitful discussion. My husband and I co-led when he was in town. One of my greatest joys before I left was seeing a young family who had made their way back to the Faith come in for Mass with their two young children who had been baptized. The spouse is set to join RCIA and be baptized Catholic. Successful accompaniment leads to intentional discipleship and a greater desire for holiness.
True accompaniment also means some people will walk away. It is not easy, but we have to let them go. I remember last fall driving into work at the parish. I was struggling with the fact that I lost 40% of my First Holy Communion families because of the new parental requirements the priest and I had implemented. We required parents to come to sessions at the same time as their children and to attend six retreats with their children that Father and I co-led. Our focus was on evangelizing the parents. I was taking a beating and complaints on all sides.
I heard very clearly in the depths of my soul the Lord tell me that I must let people walk away. He had to. He never forces. He only invites. We have to start accepting that people will walk away, even when all we want to do is love them in Christ. Many walked away from the Lord throughout the Gospels.
Those whose hearts are ready to receive His Word will stay. The others will hopefully return when their hearts are ready. This is an indispensable lesson in accompaniment. Let people walk away and entrust them to the Lord in prayer. To grasp at people is to choose a lie over authentic accompaniment. To make things easier is to choose the wide path of destruction over the narrow path of eternal life.
We are called to accompany one another in this life. Those who talk about the need for accompaniment have that part right; however, true accompaniment must point to the reality of the Cross and the call to holiness. It cannot be a cover for heterodoxy and lukewarmness. The suffering in our culture is immense. Countless souls are lost. They need us to be the face of Christ and to enter into those dark places with them in order to show them there is another way. If we want to live authentic accompaniment then we must lift high the Cross and rely on the unapologetic example of the saints who went before us.