• Seeds of the Word

Spiritual accompaniment:a service and a mission for the Church in our time


Deacon Georges Bonneval

It is not until our hearts have been pierced by the need for more pastors, priests, spiritual guides and men and women of God, that we will begin to pray earnestly for vocations. There are so many wayward souls that need people who, like good instruments of

grace, can help them on their Christian journey, and above all who are available to listen to them. Otherwise, where will all those weary and fatigued people go, who carry enormous and sometimes complicated burdens? Who will listen to them? A guru, perhaps, to bring them to their sect, or some dubious person who will abuse their innocence and trust by offering them an undesirable path. As we link spiritual accompaniment with ecclesial and missionary life, we will be guided through this theme with the help of the Magisterium of Pope Francis.

Spiritual accompaniment for the new forms of poverty

“It is undeniable that many people feel disillusioned and no longer identify with the Catholic tradition. Growing numbers of parents do not bring their children for baptism or teach them how to pray. There is also a certain exodus towards other faith communities. The causes of this breakdown include: a lack of opportunity for dialogue in families, the influence of the communications media, a relativistic subjectivism, unbridled consumerism which feeds the market, lack of pastoral care among the poor, the failure of our institutions to be welcoming, and our difficulty in restoring a mystical adherence to the faith in a pluralistic religious landscape.” 1

We know of a bishop who, after seeing the growing need in his diocese to deal with situations of “new poverties” and the “new poor,” established a diocesan team and branch specializing in the psychological and spiritual accompaniment of these people. Thus, it is more important than ever for the Church today to welcome, encourage and form spiritual counselors in its midst. It is necessary that they be true men and women of God and of the Church who are formed on a psychological, spiritual and ecclesial level, all at the same time.

We can only comprehend spiritual accompaniment and accompany others if we ourselves have been accompanied, and have journeyed along this path with someone over a long period of time. Duration is a very important factor for discovering the significance of spiritual accompaniment and its fruits. The way we welcome others and are available to them when they present themselves is a defining moment which can either initiate or impede the journey of this fraternal relationship. That is why we must always be attentive to the ‘providential meetings’ that Divine Providence places on our path. His ways and methods can very often surprise us!

Pope Francis writes to those in youth ministry:

“None of this should be overlooked in pastoral work with people from their family and the larger community, or turn them into a select few, protected from all contamination. Rather, we need projects that can strengthen them, accompany them and impel them to encounter others, to engage in generous service, in mission”.2

Every one of us, from one day to the next, is led to walk part of the journey alongside a brother or sister. Dom André Louf (French Trappist monk, 1929- 2010), declared that spiritual accompaniment appears as “the most immediate and profound form of charity and one of the highest forms of human relationship!” 3

As we have already stated, no one can presume this ministry of accompaniment nor start it on their own initiative. It is truly a call from Christ and His Church to our hearts, received through our communities and our Pastors, and also through the needs of others and the various situations we encounter.

Spiritual accompaniment as a service of the Church

To be a spiritual companion is to hold oneself in a position of humble service towards the other who is seeking to find their own path, the meaning of their life and the road that will lead to their vocation. The one accompanied remains the ‘master of the game.’ Just as the coach of a sports team helps players to develop their abilities, tactics, strategy and unity, on the day of the competition it is essentially the players who will have to do what they have been taught. The coach will be on the sidelines. It is the players who will win or lose the game. In the same way, the person being accompanied always has personal choices and free decisions to make.

“Today, thank God, many young people in parishes, schools, movements and university groups often go out to spend time with the elderly and the infirm, or to visit poor neighbourhoods, or to meet people’s needs through ‘evenings of charity’. Very often, they come to realize that there they receive much more than what they give. We grow in wisdom and maturity when we take the time to touch the suffering of others. The poor have a hidden wisdom and, with a few simple words, they can help us discover unexpected values.” 4

Spiritual accompaniment is a path of human and spiritual growth

Spiritual and human growth unfolds throughout time, place, stages, circumstances and encounters... which only God knows and has the ability to awaken! Parables about growth in the Gospel show us the meaning of this progressive, patient and gradual development of the Kingdom of God in our lives.

In his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (No. 169-173), Pope Francis explains the ways in which spiritual accompaniment is at the service of human and spiritual growth, marked by four milestones:

a) Looking closely

“In a culture paradoxically suffering from anonymity and at the same time obsessed with the details of other people’s lives, shamelessly given over to morbid curiosity, the Church must look more closely and sympathetically at others whenever necessary. In our world, ordained ministers and other pastoral workers can make present the fragrance of Christ’s closeness and his personal gaze. The Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred

ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5). The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life.” 5

“Although it sounds obvious, spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God, in whom we attain true freedom. Some people think they are free if they can avoid God; they fail to see that they remain existentially orphaned, helpless, homeless. They cease being pilgrims and become drifters, flitting around themselves and never getting anywhere. To accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father.” 6

“Today more than ever we need men and women who, on the basis of their experience of accompanying others, are familiar with processes which call for prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit, so that they can protect the sheep from wolves who would scatter the flock.” 7

b) Listening

“We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. Listening helps us to find the right gesture and word which shows that we are more than simply bystanders. Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives.” 8

c) Patience

“But this always demands the patience of one who knows full well what Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us: that anyone can have grace and charity, and yet falter in the exercise of the virtues because of persistent ‘contrary inclinations’. In other words, the organic unity of the virtues always and necessarily exists in habit, even though the forms of conditioning can hinder the operations of those virtuous habits. Hence the need for ‘a pedagogy which will introduce people step by step to the full appropriation of the mystery’. Reaching a level of maturity where individuals can make truly free and responsible decisions calls for much time and patience. As Blessed Peter Faber used to say: ‘Time is God’s messenger’.” 9

“One who accompanies others has to realize that each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without. The Gospel tells us to correct others and to help them to grow on the basis of a recognition of the objective evil of their actions (cf. Mt 18:15), but without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37).

Someone good at such accompaniment does not give in to frustrations or fears. He or she invites others to let themselves be healed, to take up their mat, embrace the cross, leave all behind and go forth ever anew to proclaim the Gospel. Our personal experience of being accompanied and assisted, and of openness to those who accompany us, will teach us to be patient and compassionate with others, and to find the right way to gain their trust, their openness and their readiness to grow.” 10

d) Always in view of a missionary life

“Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelization. Paul’s relationship with Timothy and Titus provides an example of this accompaniment and formation which takes place in the midst of apostolic activity. Entrusting them with the mission of remaining in each city to ‘put in order what remains to be done’ (Tit 1:5; cf. 1 Tim 1: 3-5), Paul also gives them rules for their personal lives and their pastoral activity. This is clearly distinct from every kind of intrusive accompaniment or isolated self-realization. Missionary disciples accompany missionary disciples.” 11

Spiritual accompaniment: a true missionary call from the evangelizing community

Pope Francis speaks about the one follow-up to be proposed to souls: a personal evangelizing mission and participation in the mission of the community.

“The Church which ‘goes forth’ is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step, who are involved and supportive, who bear fruit and rejoice. An evangelizing community knows that the Lord has taken the initiative, he has loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4: 19), and therefore we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast.

Such a community has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy. Let us try a little harder to take the first step and to become involved. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. The Lord gets involved and he involves his own, as he kneels to wash their feet. He tells his disciples: ‘You will be blessed if you do this’ (Jn 13: 17).

An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges

distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the ‘smell of the sheep’ and the sheep are willing to hear their voice. An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be. It is familiar with patient expectation and apostolic endurance.

Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints of time. Faithful to the Lord’s gift, it also bears fruit. An evangelizing community is always concerned with fruit, becausethe Lord wants her to be fruitful. It cares for the grain and does not grow impatient at the weeds. The sower, when he sees weeds sprouting among the grain does not grumble or overreact. He or she finds a way to let the word take flesh in a particular situation and bear fruits of new life, however imperfect or incomplete these may appear.

The disciple is ready to put his or her whole life on the line, even to accepting martyrdom, in

bearing witness to Jesus Christ, yet the goal is not to make enemies but to see God’s word accepted and its capacity for liberation and renewal revealed. Finally an evangelizing community is filled with joy; it knows how to rejoice always. It celebrates every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization. Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy, as part of our daily concern to spread goodness. The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed selfgiving.” 12

“Consequently, without detracting from the evangelical ideal, they need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively occur. I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best.” 13

May these invitations from today’s Pope, who learned the art of accompanying souls from St.

Ignatius Loyola and his religious family, provoke the awakening and confirming of this missionary call in each one of us, in communion with our brothers and sisters.


1 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, No. 70.

2 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit, No. 30.

3 Cf. André Louf, Grace can do more.

4 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit, No. 171.

5 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, No. 169.

6 Ibid., No. 170.

7 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, No. 171.

8 Ibid., No. 171.

9 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, No. 171.

10 Ibid., No. 172.

11 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, No. 173.

12 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, No. 24.

13 Ibid., No. 44.