Written by Carol Baass Sowa, for Today’s Catholic
“We are here today to look at accompaniment,” proclaimed Father Daniel Horan, OFM, “to reflect on how God is calling us in our time and in our place, to exercise our baptismal call to be disciples of the Lord.” Addressing the gathered faithful of the Archdiocese of San Antonio as keynote speaker for Assembly 2019, the Franciscan theologian and author referenced Pope Francis’ observation that we live in a world “torn apart by wars and violence and wounded by widespread individualism which divides human beings.”
The task of the church of San Antonio and worldwide, said Father Horan, is to reflect on how God has called us to accompany one another and to do so with courage, strength, conviction and even humor, but always with love of God. This year’s assembly builds on the work inspired by the Spirit last year on being a church of encounter, he noted, and St. Francis of Assisi is an excellent model for the church, especially in a city named after St. Anthony, one of the great saints of the Franciscan tradition.
St. Francis moved from encounter to accompaniment in his famous contact with the leper, lepers at that time being generally despised, ignored, and even denied participation in the sacraments. He had previously loathed them, until called by God to go among them, an encounter which changed him, as well as the world.
Another notable encounter by St. Francis took place in 1219 during the Fifth Crusade, when he crossed the battle line to visit Sultan Malek al-Kamil, spending several days with him in dialogue about faith, but with the intention to accompany rather than convert the Muslim leader. Francis returned home afterwards, strengthened in his Christian faith, but deeply inspired by the faith of people he had been taught to hate as an enemy. “If you and Iare called to be people of encounter,” said Father Horan, “you and I are called to be changed in the process as well.”
However, the most significant transformation in Francis is found in The Rule (the way of being a Franciscan), which he wrote near his life’s end, Father Horan explained. The future saint devoted a whole chapter instructing his brother friars that if they went into ministry in places of nonbelievers or of different faith traditions, they were not to engage in arguments or disputes, but to impart their Christianity through their way of living. “You are to go about the world as if everyone is your brother and sister,” he told them, rather than “demonizing” them.
St. Francis encouraged his followers and thus the whole church to do three things, said Father Horan: be renewed in our baptismal call to be missionary disciples; be committed to walking in the footprints of Christ; and recognize the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
All the baptized receive at baptism the shared vocation to be missionary disciples, he pointed out, and this takes a variety of forms. While it may have seemed, in the past, that this only meant those in professional ministry, we are all called to be involved. “Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome, is no more Catholic, no more Christian than the newest baptized baby last Sunday,” he said. As missionary disciples of Christ, we are all sent forth from our comfort zone to reach out to the peripheries of those forgotten and overlooked. No special training is required for this.
People are drawn to the church to be closer to Christ because they are attracted to the person of Christ, Father Horan related. “God desires community,” he said, “and it is in the formation of community that we walk with one another, accompany one another.” St. Francis walked in Christ’s footprints. People were drawn to him because they saw no greed or desire for power, and we too must be missionaries in this way of attraction, living the message of the Gospel in all we do.
Being a Christian means being in communion,” Father Horan stated, and there is no such thing as an independent Christian – no solo contractors or rogue “I’ll do it my own way” Christians. The Road to Emmaus is a post-resurrection story, he pointed out, with the disciples disillusioned and walking away. “How many people are walking around the roads of San Antonio, in our parishes, and in our work places and in our communities, who are like those two disciples?” he asked. These people too may have encountered Christ at one time, but may now feel disillusioned and betrayed for various reasons. “Who will walk with them?” he asked.
Like St. Francis was called to accompany the leper and the Muslims of his time, there are those today whom we need to accompany as brothers and sisters – migrants at the border, those of African and Hispanic descent suffering the consequences of structural racism, those from the LGBTQ community, the incarcerated, the unborn, the elderly who are pushed to the margins and the rest of God’s family of creation. “Who will walk with them?” he asked.
The final component of accompaniment is recognition of the Holy Spirit, which is often overlooked, Father Horan related, leading to “Holy Spirit atheism,” a belief that God is not at work in the church and the world today and “it’s all up to me.” This can lead to fear, despair and poor judgement. Here, he quoted St. Oscar Romero: “A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that DOESN’T touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed – what Gospel is that?”
To build a culture of accompaniment, he said, we need to risk the encounter we promised at last year’s assembly, have the courage to preach the true teaching of Christ and recognize the Holy Spirit calling us to be missionary disciples, walking in the footprints of Christ to accompany others.