Core Competencies of the Missionary Disciple
This was a long time coming. Travis, a campus minister, befriended John as a sophomore and had slowly won his trust and friendship over the course of two years. John had really lost his way as a freshman and had many difficulties in his faith life. It had taken countless conversations with Travis to even begin to pray, open his Bible, and come to church. Travis told me this day might be coming, and what it had cost, and what it meant.
The smile on Travis escorting John to my office made a powerful effect. Even though Travis was only about five years older than John, it was like a father proudly accompanying his son to a milestone initiatory event in life. Travis had shared with me something of John’s back story with great care and concern, so that I would be able to gently pastor and guide John effectively. A great earned mutual love and trust had slowly developed to make this moment possible.
The story seems a perfect example of accompaniment, a core competency of missionary discipleship needed more than ever in today’s shrill climate of dehumanizing acrimony and ideological proselytizing.
They are “scandalized,” says the pope, and in fleeing Jerusalem for Emmaus, are leaving behind the “nakedeness of God” seen in a supposed Messiah who had failed. “Here we face the difficult mystery of those who leave the Church, who, under the illusion of alternative ideas, now think the Church - their Jerusalem - can no longer offer them anything meaningful and important.”
As we know, Jesus accompanies with patience and love these two disciples who have “set off on the road alone, with their disappointment.” He asks them questions, draws out their real concerns, and enflames their hearts through the Scriptures, at last revealing himself in “the breaking of the bread.” Their eyes are opened, they recognize the risen Lord, and return to Jerusalem filled with wonder and excitement.
These two men represent the multitudes today leaving the church. Like Jesus, we need to meet and accompany them. “We need a church unafraid of going forth into their night....capable of entering into their conversation.” The pope asks: “Are we still a church capable of warming hearts? A Church capable of leading people back to Jerusalem? Of bringing them home?” The question suggests he knows the answer is not always yes.
The pope’s response to the present situation? Accompaniment.*
“We need a church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them; a church which accompanies them on their journey.” Just as Jesus accompanied the disciples on the Emmaus road, so must the church do with the scandalized, disappointed, demoralized and hopeless of today.
Christians are not immune. Instead of a sacred “other” who is mystery and wonder, I too often see a stranger who has nothing to do with me; fear and alienation prevent accompaniment as the other is dismissed as a lost cause. The person always loses. Such a cultural climate is the common mentality, thwarting evangelization and mission, cooling hearts instead of warming them.
People are not thoughts or ideologies; they are human persons with hearts and hopes and histories. Only by deeply respecting this, taking the time to patiently walk aside others amid their difficulties, can we hope to re-awaken hearts and inspire a reversal of course back to Jerusalem.
“Let us recover the calm to be able to walk at the same pace as our pilgrims, keeping alongside them, remaining close to them, enabling them to speak of the disappointments present in their hearts and to let us address them. They want to forget Jerusalem, where they have their sources, but eventually they will experience thirst. We need a church capable of accompanying them on the road back to Jerusalem!”
Francis sounds unsatisfied with the Church’s overall competence in accompaniment, as he goes on to speak of the urgent need for formation in this area:
"Unless we train ministers capable of warming people’s hearts, of walking with them in the night, of dialoguing with their hopes and disappointments, of mending their brokenness, what hope can we have for our present and future journey? It isn’t true that God’s presence has been dimmed in people. Let us learn to look at things more deeply. What is missing is someone to warm their heart, a was the case with the disciples of Emmaus."
The pope’s words challenge and excite me. They also raise questions. At what point in the process of accompaniment do we make an appropriate invitation or proposal? How long do we accompany a person before giving up, or at least respecting their freedom if they won’t return to Jerusalem? Or, especially confusing: How do you accompany someone who is content in Emmaus, but thinks he is actually in Jerusalem?
I am thinking of the Catholic who attends church but has little to no interior life, is not really teachable, and is generally complacent - circumcised in the flesh but not in the heart, so to speak. When does the gentleness of accompaniment require the more difficult “calling out” of certain behaviors or attitudes to repentance and conversion? When does a lack of teachability and responsibility-taking on the part of another mean imposing some boundaries or even moving on?
To return to the story we began with: John recently graduated. Travis has moved on to another campus. I asked Travis how he thought John would do without him. “That’s a really good question,” said Travis. “He’s come a long way and he has grown a lot. But I just hope he has the intentionality to seek out someone else to mentor him, because I think he is going to need that. He is still kind of a babe in the faith, and he is so wounded. He really needs someone to walk by his side.”
Don’t we all?
- Who has effectively accompanied you in your faith journey?
- Whom have you accompanied?
- Are you currently being accompanied?
- Are you currently accompanying someone?
- Is your local church a place where people are trained and encouraged in the art of accompaniment?
- How can the church become better at this?
- What are the obstacles standing in the way?