In his first homily, Pope Francis called on every Catholic to make an effort to respond faithfully to the eternal mission of the Church: to bring Jesus Christ to humanity and to lead humanity to an encounter with Jesus Christ. This mission does not imply a single encounter, however, for we know that the road to discipleship is a lifelong journey of deepening relationship with Jesus.
To faithfully respond to God’s invitation, we must make time and space in order, first, to be aware of God’s presence and, second, to dispose ourselves to receive the love and forgiveness that God offers. Pope Francis asks the Church and each disciple not only to be accountable for our personal spiritual journey but to understand that we are missioned to facilitate an encounter with Christ for others. Through our words and actions, through planned and unplanned events and moments, we become living invitations for others to meet the love of our lives.
Those encounters lead to the sacred privilege of accompanying people on their lifelong journey, where they will continue to encounter Christ and seek understanding — How do I hear the voice of God revealing himself to me? What is the appropriate response of faith to this invitation?
If we view the Gospels with that lens, we can learn much from the story of the apostles. While we know the apostles spent a significant portion of three years with Jesus, there were moments along the way when there was an encounter — a deeper self-disclosure on the part of Jesus with an invitation to respond. By the power of the Holy Spirit, they surrendered more deeply to a relationship with Christ.
What better way to define the mission of the Church? We are a people called to invite others to encounter Christ. We accompany them on what will become a journey that will possess moments of encounter that will need reflection, understanding, affirmation and support. Practically speaking, what might that look like?
Pope Francis speaks of a “culture of encounter.” Culture in this instance might be understood as the behaviors, beliefs and characteristics of a particular group. So what are the behaviors, beliefs and characteristics that mark a culture of encounter and accompaniment? In “Go and Make Disciples: A National Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States,” the U.S. bishops suggest there are three necessary characteristics: welcome, reconciliation and understanding. Pope Francis surely would add mercy and joy to that list. Thinking particularly about accompanying, patience and support also would be essential behaviors. Most significant, however, would be passion — passion in the belief that we have been saved because we are loved. So, to God be the glory!
Passionate people make us take notice. They call us to attention and inspire us to appreciate. Passionate people never leave us guessing about their love for and fire about the object of their passion. When you meet a passionate person, in some way you are shaped by the experience. The first thing a child should notice about their catechist is their passion. The first thing a pre-Cana couple or parents bringing children to baptism should notice is the passion of the disciples facilitating their sessions. The first thing someone who comes to Mass should notice is the passion of the community gathered.
Do those coming to us sense that we have been waiting for them? Are they overjoyed that they are here? Do we, like Christ, meet them where they are and walk with patience and joy as they begin the journey of discipleship? This is such a delicate walk that some people call it the art of accompaniment.
As the shepherds of the flock, you must form your staff to be aware of the need to facilitate encounters with Christ as well as provide the processes and programs to accompany each disciple as they learn the treasure of God’s revealed truth in our Catholic faith. And don’t forget the passion and joy!
JO ANN PARADISE is a national catechetical consultant for Our Sunday Visitor.