Many of us worry about preserving the doctrine of the Church. In an effort to do this more fully, some people have expressed concern about the recent Synod of the Family’s use of the term “accompaniment” – they worry about this watering down doctrine. In my experience, accompaniment is not eliminated doctrine but moving in a different direction. The doctrinal method, which is properly the main way we do catechesis, begins by looking at what doctrines the person needs to understand, then it organizes them systematically, and then it presents them to the student (I use the term “doctrinal method” to point out the focus of such a method; I love doctrine). Accompaniment starts from the person, their needs and questions and moves towards doctrine. The doctrinal method can be applied equally to everyone well the method of accompaniment is naturally unique to each person; although certain questions generally happen at certain times, each individual is unique.
In this blog post I want to give the example of how I’ve learned and tried his accompaniment in youth ministry, and then give an outline of how it could be applied to irregular family situations.
I started youth ministry in 2006 and of the time we were using a doctrinal method. We had thought of the things we wanted the teenagers learn, then I presented them in an orderly fashion and had extra activities like sports and snack to make it attractive. Not long after, some other people in Regnum Christi youth ministry, like myself, started to question if there is a better method. We rewrote all the Regnum Christi youth ministry materials from the ground up based on the paradigm of accompaniment. This involved two major shifts. The first shift was how we presented material: instead of thinking abstractly about what the kids need to learn, several hundred Catholic teenagers filled out a questionnaire on what questions they wondered about, then these were combined into about 30 questions per year and a number of us spent time writing basic answers that an older youth leader or parent at the youth group could present easily. (These are currently sold as a large part of Conquest and Challenge Clubs.) The other change took this perspective down to daily interaction. Instead of insisting that everyone be perfect, we worked so each would take the next step in their spiritual life. We accompany them by showing them the next step instead of insisting they are perfect. In my own limited experience, I find that this method is much more labor-intensive but reaches a deeper conversion.
At this point I would like to make a small aside: I think part of our difficulty in accepting this may have to do with translation. We have to remember that more Catholics in the world speak a romance language than English, and that Italian was the working language for the Synod. As part of my own change of method, I attended a two-week pastoral course in Madrid with the literal translation “school of accompaniment” which sounds kind of odd in English. In Spanish and Italian (and probably other languages, I just don’t speak them well) the verb “accompany” has a much more active meaning than in English – in English it just means “be with someone” while in the other languages it has the sense of “add to someone” as well.
A friend of mine left the church when we were in high school because a priest did the opposite of accompaniment. His dad had run off and when the mom approached the priest, he said that she could not receive communion because she was divorced. Okay, you probably all know that that’s false because she wasn’t sleeping with anyone else – but how often do we in the church just provide a strictly doctrinal answer for someone in a tough situation and turn them away from the Church. If they ask us a direct question as to whether a divorced and remarried person can receive communion, we have to answer in the negative. However, that doesn’t have to be the first and we talk about with someone who’s divorced, we don’t need to stop there and fail to help them understand why they are being refused communion, and nothing is preventing us from helping them with an annulment if the situation merits it. This distinguishes accompaniment from the doctrinal perspective. Accompaniment does not just answer the questions but leads the person step-by-step to the right answers. Accompaniment takes time and sagacity to lead the person. By analogy, the doctrinal method is like a sports commentator who points out where a team did greater or failed, while accompaniment is like a coach who helps a player get better. A good coach will not deny the excellence that the player strives for but instead of just pointing out problems and theoretical solutions, he shows the player how to improve.
Accompaniment always begins at the person. In family ministry, this would mean understanding each situation first and after that applying the rules. If we look at Jesus in his public ministry, we see that he put the person first and only after understand the person did he point out the rules. Being Catholic is not about following a set of rules but about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Without ever denying the rules, the person must take precedence in ministry.
Accompaniment is difficult but I they can transform both youth ministry and ministry to families in irregular situations. Accompaniment takes time but produces deeper results. We need to thank the Synod on the family for pointing out this improved way to do ministry.
(Note: Msgr. Charles Pope offers a more critical view of the art of the accompaniment. I don’t disagree with him that that’s a possibility, but I think of it happens is because we made it a self-fulfilling prophecy by interpreting it that way ourselves.)