The Personalist Project

Karol Wojtyla, poet, philosopher, exegete, and great lover-of-words, is known to have preferred the term "accompaniment" to "discipleship" for describing the priest's relation to the laity. Why? What's better about it?

I say two key things at least:

1) It recognizes that in spiritual matters, a person is designed to be guided from within, by conscience and the Holy Spirit. Every person is unique; every situation is unique, and every journey is unique. In a key sense, no human being can guide another. Nor should he try. To try is to be impertinent. Often, it's to interfere and cause unnecessary problems.

(I love the line in the literature of Adult Children of Alcoholics: "We avoid giving advice to others and work on taking responsibility for ourselves." Catholics (self included) in my experience have a lot of work to do on this front. We've got seriously bad habits of clericalism and moralizing.)

It's different on the objective level. If I know your destination and have traveled it many times, I can say, "Turn right at the stop sign and then continue till you come to a gas station, where you'll make a left..."  If a man wants to learn carpentry, he will want to be guided by  someone skilled in the trade. If an inquirer wants to know what the Catholic Church teaches on this or that issue, it makes sense to ask an expert or study the Catechism. But the question "What should I do in this situation?" or "What does this teaching mean for me?"—in other words, questions pertaining to my subjectivity—can only be answered by me.

Good spiritual directors take great care to refrain from telling their directees what to do. Rather, they help them learn to discern for themselves. Fr. Wojtyla was known among those he served as priest for for ending spiritual counseling sessions with "You must decide." He made a passionate point of directing spiritual attention inward and of stressing each person's freedom and responsibility for himself.

Notice, too, that the relation between a spiritual director and a person he's working with is particular and freely chosen. If even a spiritual director—someone I have given special access, as it were, to my soul and its happenings and doings—would be out of bounds to tell me what to do in the spiritual realm, how much more would a priest, who has no personal knowledge of me, and whom I haven't invited to help me in that way?

Jules and I once had a professor who liked to say, "I've had many great teachers, only one Master, Jesus Christ." By virtue of our being persons and then in another way by being baptized, each of us has an original relation to God Himself. We are no human being's disciples, except in limited circumstances. (For instance, if I want to become a Benedictine oblate, I may want disciple myself to someone who's been one for many years, until I find my own legs, as it were.)

Compare it with love and marriage. Think how impossible it is for anyone to pick a spouse for someone else. Our spiritual life is even more personal and intimate to us than our romantic life.

I'll never forget that the week before our wedding 30 years ago, Jules' family and groomsmen were all staying at a nearby country inn. The innkeeper, who had spent a year in the Netherlands after college, was completely charmed to be surrounded by so many handsome young Dutchmen again. I remember her exclaiming to me, "They're all so good-looking! How did you ever pick one?!"

I knew what she meant. I could see how, to a bystander, they were all equally attractive.  But to me, it was a ridiculous question. As far as I was concerned, none of them came even CLOSE to Jules in looks. Also, it's not as if all of them were in love with me and begging for my hand. For me, there was only one. 

Love is a mystery. So is the relation between any given soul and God. 

2) Relatedly, the term accompaniment emphasizes the reality that each person is, or is called to become, the protagonist in his own life. It deliberately counteracts the clericalist habit of thinking of the priest as above the laity. A master is unquestionably above his disciple. One who accompanies, though, plays a supporting role. This is as it should be between priest and laity.

A priest has authority that no lay person has. I cannot give absolution; I cannot consecrate a host. But when it comes to my own interior terrain, I'm in charge. Everyone who wants to help me "become perfect" or find my way to God should approach me with respect for that fundamental truth.

This is true even in cases where an objective hierarchy obtains—in the relation of parent to child or teacher to student or officer to foot soldier, for instance. Even there, it's vital that the authority figure understand the due limits of his authority, and that he act and speak from an awareness that, at a more fundamental level, he's not in charge at all. It's all the more the case when there's no objective hierarchy in the relation. 

I want to say more. Priests who think they are in charge of the laity do harm. Laity who think and act as if priests are in charge of them also do harm, and they remain spiritually and morally stunted. They are incapable of serving the Church according to their unique gifts. Multiply this across whole congregations and you have a badly impoverished, dysfunctional Church.

Accompaniment obtains on the communal level too. In my ToB talk, as in my posts below, I make the case that the relation between a priest and his congregation is meant to be spousal. Further, John Paul II's personalist legacy entailed a profound development in the Catholic understanding and teaching on marriage. It's no longer understood to be a hierarchical relation, where the wife owes her husband obedience, and it's no longer one understood primarily in terms of roles. 

In the Jeweler's Shop, when Andrew proposes to Teresa, he asks her, "Will you be my life's companion?" It's a deliberate choice of words. He's not asking her to play a particular role in his life, but rather to be a particular someone for him, as he will be for her. Each commits to helping the other achieve his or her fulfillment as a unique person, and as a mother or a father.

To me, it seems obvious that since the relation between priests and their congregations is meant to be spousal, and since the teaching of the Church has developed to emphasize both subjectivity and reciprocity, as well as the polarity of sexual difference in marriage, it follows that our understanding of parish life should change too.

Specifically, priests should learn to relate to their congregation less as ruler and CEO and shepherd and more as husband. They should think, as John Paul II often said and as Pope Francis, too, says, in terms of accompaniment. The laity, for their part, should learn to be less passive and dependent and subordinate. They should become protagonists in the life of their parishes, and the companions of their priests in the mission to redeem the world.

I'll have lots more to say about this in the weeks and months ahead.

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