From Amoris Laetitia to Christus Vivit, one of Pope Francis’s greatest gifts to the Church has been his emphasis on spiritual accompaniment. Pope Francis has exhorted the Church to make use of accompaniment in response to sensitive pastoral situations, ailing youth ministries, and even to a humanity suffering from isolation and anonymity. Accompaniment, to Pope Francis, is a way of being in intentional relationship with another in order to lead them “ever closer to God” (EG, 170). In addition to being oriented towards leading others into closeness and intimacy with God, Pope Francis also describes accompaniment as healing, liberating, gradual, encouraging growth, and fostering freedom. Perhaps the most beautiful words that Pope Francis uses to shape the Church’s understanding and practice of accompaniment is an “art…which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” (EG, 169).
What does it truly mean to “remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” in terms of accompaniment? How does this shape the apostolate of a mentor? A key to understanding this meaning lies in the scriptural story found in: Exodus 3—the story of Moses meeting God in the burning bush. In this story, Moses beholds an awe-inspiring sight, a bush that is on fire but unconsumed by it. He then turns to look more closely at the bush, from which comes a theophany, or an instance of God revealing God’s self to a human person. God calls out to Moses by name, to which Moses responds, “Here I am!” Before Moses can come any closer to the bush and consider it further, God exclaims to him:
“Do not come near! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father, he continued, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:5-6).
What are we to make of this scripture passage, especially in light of Pope Francis’s understanding of accompaniment? Firstly, the Exodus reference exhorts us to view the other we are accompanying not only with respect, but with reverence. As we begin to accompany others, we must look upon them not as receptacles to be filled with knowledge, passive recipients of teaching, or soft clay to be modeled into our own images and likeness as ministers. Instead, in accompaniment, we are called to witness to another’s belovedness as a child of God. When we enter into a relationship of accompaniment with another, we must have a posture of humility and honor before those we accompany. This posture of reverence is fundamental to a mentor’s practice of accompaniment, rendering them better able to foster a relationship that is truly transformative.
Secondly, the theophany in the Exodus story gives us another clue into understanding more fully the duties of accompaniment. We must respect the accompanying relationship as a legitimate place where God reveals God’s self to both mentor and the one accompanied. Accompaniment takes seriously the fact that human experience is a space where God reveals God’s self; in other words, accompaniment affirms that the life experience of the one accompanied is “a locus for the manifestation and realization of salvation, where God consistently with the pedagogy of the Incarnation, reaches man within his grace and saves him” (General Directory for Catechesis, #152c). In a relationship of accompaniment where a mentor is asked to “remove their sandals before the sacred ground of the other,” mentors must help the ones they accompany interpret their experiences in light of scripture, discern more fully the action of God in their lives, and wait with full anticipation to respond to God’s voice in the midst of their daily life.
Finally, this scriptural passage exhorts mentors to maintain and cherish the mystery of the one they accompany. As Moses hides his face before God present in the burning bush, so too must mentors respect with holy fear that which is mystery in the life of those they accompany. Though we might come to know those who we accompany well or even develop a deep bond with them, they never belong to us completely, but are instead placed in our path for a period of time so that we might help them foster connection and intimacy with God. Though we might have plans, hopes, or desires for those we accompany, we must always ensure that we respect the work of the Holy Spirit in the relationship of accompaniment. Accompaniment cannot be reduced to a neat list of objectives or learning outcomes; rather, it is a “pedagogy which will introduce people step by step to the full appropriation of the mystery” (EG, 171). True accompaniment wrestles with the intricacies of human life, cautioning mentors that “realize that each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without” (EG, 172). As mentors, we cannot assume that we are the ones that ultimately decide how or why the Spirit moves the way it does in the life of those we accompany. Instead, we must continually reflect on how the person before us in the relationship of accompaniment is being formed not by us, but by the Holy Spirit.
Accompaniment, when contemplated as an “art” that “teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other,” calls us to have a posture of reverence before the ones we accompany, regard their human experiences as privileged places for God to reveal God’s self, and maintain a sense of mystery in the relationship of accompaniment. How are we being called to remove our sandals before others in our life and ministry? How might removing our sandals before those we accompany allow us to travel more readily on the journey towards growth in holiness and transformation in the Person of Christ?
Colleen Campbell is a collaborator of the Catholic Apostolate Center, and a 3rd year PhD student studying Catechetics at The Catholic University of America. She holds an MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame and a BA in Pastoral Ministry from the University of Dallas. Colleen is also an alumna of Notre Dame’s Echo program, where she served in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. She is co-author of The Art of Accompaniment: Theological, Spiritual, and Practical Elements of Building a More Relational Church.