Pope Francis sometimes reminds us that Jesus’ religion was one of accompaniment. Though Jewish, He didn’t view Judaism as a set of rules, rubrics, customs, or costumes, nor merely the observance of dogma and doctrine. Rather, He viewed religion as a way of life that helps people find a path from their current messy situation to God’s heart—from their darkness into His light—and He accompanied them as they found the way.
When Jesus told Peter that he was the rock foundation upon which His church would be built, He didn’t intend to establish different rules and rubrics or more dogmas and doctrine. He was establishing a way of living and way of loving in which His followers would accompany one another to the place that God prepares for them while assisting those who suffer to join them on the journey. Ben E. King’s lyrics, now nearly sixty years old, echo the sentiments of our biblical psalmists: “When the night has come and the land is dark and the moon is the only light we see…If the sky we look upon should tumble and fall or the mountains crumble to the sea…I won’t be afraid just as long as you stand by me.” Jesus, likewise, incorporated that message, Be Not Afraid, into His practice of religion. We won’t be afraid because we won’t be alone; we’ll be in good company.
Francis seems to suggest that, because of our human condition, each of us exists in a place that is dark, sinful, sometimes frightening, and outside of God’s divine grace. At the same time, each of us, on a deeper spiritual level, is tuned into that place where we are called and for which we yearn—the dwelling God prepares for us. On that same deeper level, we are aware that Christ stands by us. Our task is to take His hand, often in the form of another who adheres to His church, and discover the path that leads from our mess to God’s grace. As we travel the road, we are asked to be companions who help others advance from their messes also.
You and I could each list our messy situations. Francis lists some of them for us in his papal encyclicals and daily interactions: divorce, severe domestic dysfunction, children growing up in multiple homes with multiple parents and step-parents, orphaned or abandoned children, individuals and families fleeing poverty and/or oppression, LBGTQ identity in a heterosexual-preferred church, alcohol or drug addiction, ecclesial leadership that is tainted with sexual deviants or tolerance thereof, victims of racism, sexism, or other forms of persecution… Our own issues may not seem so bad in comparison with these insufferable challenges; but our issues create their own messes nonetheless. Francis challenges us to imagine who we need to be (or what we need to do) if we were perfectly aligned with God—never mind being aligned with the church just yet. After we imagine this union with the Lord, he suggests that we assess our mess or review our condition that makes it so difficult to be in communion with God. As we surface aspects of our attitude, preferences, responses to challenges, actions, behaviors, habits, patterns, lifestyles, etc., we can list those things that are messy—maybe our parenting style or our work relations or our cynicism toward leadership or our prejudices or our unwillingness to help those who are less fortunate. We realize that we want to be better. We might even be able to behold the state of grace where we want to be. But usually we have a tough time walking the path that leads from our mess to God’s good grace. Pope Francis suggests that the chief job of the church is accompaniment or taking the hand of one another and standing by them along the way. Our role model is Jesus who stands by us, consoling us to Be Not Afraid.
If we are able to become more properly aligned with God, we also will find ourselves more properly aligned with others, including the church—though I will be the first to admit that our ecclesial institute has not always been properly aligned with the Lord, either. My point, however, is simply to echo that of our Holy Father who tells us that whatever mess we are in, we can journey from it to a greater union with God along His path. We travel it best when we accompany one another. Let the church help, for our primary task should be to imitate Jesus by being companions that bring healing and hope, who assist fellow Christians get oriented toward heaven. As Jesus stands by us, let us also be there to accompany one another.