This article originally appeared in Renewal Ministries’ October 2019 newsletter.
Friendship is a universal desire and one of God’s great gifts to humanity. Preaching the Gospel and making disciples can seem intimidating, only for the very wise and holy, or even outdated for the modern world. However, friendship or “accompaniment,” a term made popular by numerous documents and statements from Pope Francis, seems doable, attainable, and just radical enough.
The Cursillo movement simplifies this high call by promoting a simple yet sticky catchphrase: “Make a friend, be a friend, bring a friend to Christ.” While overly simplistic, there’s something to boiling down evangelization to authentic friendship. While the Holy Spirit can convict hearts at any time or place, most people come to faith through the personal interaction with Christian believers who sacrifice time, talent, and treasure to help them come to know Christ.
Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation, Christus Vivit, with its 299 sections and roughly 35,000 words, represents a massive, both in its length and room for interpretation, contribution to the Church’s exciting focus on young people. In an effort to respond to the younger generations’ crisis of faith and the epidemic of non-belief, and the perceived reasons for this decline, leaders are rightfully attempting to adjust the Church’s pastoral approach. I would describe this as a shift to an emphasis on listening, dialogue, and accompaniment, with a delayed proclamation of some of the more difficult teachings found in Sacred Scripture and the Catechism.
Most would agree that friendship, mutual understanding, and journeying with people are essential elements for evangelization, or the making of disciples, through faith and conversion. Christus Vivit 292 rightfully promotes these actions and elaborates on the power of the individual disciple who knows how to and values listening and walking with non-believers. However, I have noticed a growing trend for leaders to allow a nebulous definition of accompaniment that permits the celebration of the process without requiring the needed conversion.
The words listening, dialogue, and accompaniment all have real value, but their strength is neutered when we expand their definitions to include all of the Church’s missionary activity and strategy. Since Christus Vivit presents a vast range of examples and angles of ministry to the next generation, readers can gravitate toward a curated understanding of mission, evangelization, and accompaniment. Too often these personal definitions downplay or de-emphasize the stirring, unchanging, Jesus-given mission of the Church: to seek and save the lost by preaching a message of love, mercy, joy, and peace but also repentance, forgiveness, and a new way of living.
Accompaniment is evangelization, but evangelization is not complete or encompassed by accompaniment. Accompaniment or loving friendship is an aspect of evangelization—that being the necessary time and relationship-building that should and can lead to a clear proclamation of the Gospel and an invitation to respond. A holistic and Jesus-centered evangelization emphasizes accompaniment, but in my experience, it is easy to promote accompaniment alone to avoid the difficult, awkward, and potentially relationship-altering moments of genuine conversion.
An unbalanced emphasis on accompaniment will not produce what we all hope for: a radical increase in genuine conversions described by St. John Paul II as “expressed in a faith that is total and radical.” Additionally, watering down our message, or completely avoiding the hard topics of sin, salvation, hell, and judgment, does not enhance someone’s strategy of accompaniment but rather postpones or eliminates its ultimate end, namely more people believing the full truth of the Gospel. While a gentle approach, which intentionally delays some of the more difficult teachings of Christ, may be what the Spirit intends for a particular season of someone’s journey toward faith, too often we use friendship and the fear of losing a friend as an excuse for never calling our friends to fully commit their lives to Jesus, with all the ramifications of that decision.
The differentiating nature of the Church exists not in her symbiosis to broader society but her unique assessment of life, death, and salvation. Being in the world but not of it, accepting and even desiring suffering, loving and caring for the margins, eagerly anticipating heaven though it means physical death, and loving your enemies are all examples of a radical divergence from aspects of the modern secular mindset. Ironically, these beliefs are also the most attractive for those who have ears to hear and for people who have successfully been accompanied. The Church will not and should not be the cool kid on the block, the fun dad, or the center of all that is hip and novel, and that is OK because our mission is not simply walking with people no matter where they decide to roam but rather entering into genuine loving relationships while remaining the salt of the earth and the light of the world.