The Personalist Project

My concern here is not with a dictionary definition, but the meaning of "accompaniment" in the specific context of contemporary papal teaching—what the term meant to John Paul II, what it means to Pope Francis; how we, the faithful—priests and laity alike—are to receive it and live it.

It's not a pat answer, so bear with me.

I first came across the concept reading George Weigel's magisterial biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, shortly after its publication in 1999, on p.100, where Weigel is recounting the period of the young Fr. Wojtyla's university chaplaincy in Krakow in the 1950s.

Previously, the chaplain's task had been to provide sacramental services to students. Wojtyla, who intensified the chaplaincy's sacramental ministry and involved students in it liturgically, thought of his chaplaincy as a ministry of "accompaniment," a way to "accompany" these students in their lives. The chaplain's presence couldn't be limited to the sanctuary and the confessional. A really effective chaplaincy, he believed, had to be present to these young lives in the world as well as in the church.

I fell in love with the idea immediately and have cherished and brooded over it ever since. That spontaneous response in me has something to do with my particular background, which is part of a larger pattern I see almost everywhere I turn in the Church and in society these days. So, at the risk of being too self-referential, let me explain a little.

The formation of my soul involved a large element of authoritarianism in various guises and modes. There was sternness and staunchness in my upbringing; many rules, demands and expectations, and too little in the way of affection, closeness, and encouragement. I grew up "good", morally and religiously, but shy and insecure, full of anxiety, self-doubt, and self-reproach.

The friendship of evangelicals in my adolescence—the consciously personal and affective character of their spirituality—and then later, the warmth and liveliness of the religious atmosphere of my alma mater, saved me. Most importantly, I learned, slowly and spastically, to cultivate the interior life. I grew to understand that holiness was much more about intimacy with God, about love and self-giving, than obeying the law or living up to an ideal.

But that was not the only thing I learned at my alma mater, alas. Mixed in with all the warmth and joy and genuineness of the religious atmosphere of the Franciscan University in the late 80's was a regrettable and damaging element of authoritarian control, which came through its association with the Covenant Communities of that day. There was a lot of sincerity in the communities' attempts to embody in policies and customs a way of life grounded in the experience of grace they'd received through the charismatic renewal. But, it went off the rails somewhere along the line, and eventually bishops had to intervene and force reforms. 

That story is for another time and place. Here I will only zero in on one central element, for the sake of the light it throws on the meaning of "accompaniment" in contemporary Catholic life and thought.

In those communities and on our campus—no doubt in reaction to the laxity and relativism then sweeping the wider culture—the role of authority and obedience was stressed excessively. While there was much preaching and teaching about God's love for us personally, very little was said or taught about the prime importance of conscience and self-determination in the moral life. Conscience was viewed as something suspect and dangerous; we students were deliberately "formed" to "submit to authority." "God always blesses obedience." And by that was meant not only obedience to the objective moral law or the positive obligations of our Faith, but obedience to a spiritual director, your "pastoral leader" (who was typically another layman in the community), the residence hall director, your household coordinator, the student life staff, and to the rules that constantly proliferated, both spoken and unspoken. There were rules regarding how to dress, whether and whom to date, how much money you needed to be earning before it was okay to propose to your girlfriend, how children should address adults, how wives should speak to their husbands, whether men should change diapers, and on and on. We weren't punished for breaking the rules. It wasn't like that. It was a matter of indicating how serious we were about wanting to please God. 

We were taught to mistrust ourselves and our own powers of discernment. The path to holiness lay in handing over more and more of our decisions to someone else—someone "holier" and above us in the communal hierarchy. And meanwhile, the "leaders"—those in positions of authority—were taught to believe that it was their role to control others' lives. That was how they served God and the community.

Most of us meant well, but we were under a sort of spell. The encounter with personalist philosophy snapped me out of it, though the bad habits of externalism, judgmentalism, and self-doubt I'd acquired took many years to unlearn.

More soon.

Comments (8)


#1, Dec 13, 2017 10:57pm

Love JPII’s view of accompaniment. My understanding of it is the importance of bringing God to the ordinary – to the job, the classroom, the sports field, parties – our celebrations as well as our struggles.  But it would be difficult for me to believe he meant chaplains ought to get stoned with the students, or even support students getting high just because the student currently thinks it is harmless or possibly even good.  I look forward to your part 2 because I am still a little unclear on what accompaniment means to you.  


#2, Dec 13, 2017 10:58pm

Also, I am unfamiliar with covenant communities.  Do you have any specific names of perhaps some of these types of groups you are referring to that I might have heard of?  Whether men should change diapers and how much money should one make prior to proposing?  I’ve never heard of such spiritual micromanagement.  Though some of the other things you mentioned liked modesty advice or choosing a potential spouse seem right in line with what Paul might have spoken to the Corinthians in Scripture.  It’s a fine line, wouldn’t you say?  And all about perception.  To the right audience, Paul’s words can be helpful.  To a hostile audience, someone would say, “Who is this single Paul guy to tell me the proper way to find a good life partner!”.  So, should Paul not speak about certain things that could be very helpful to many, because it might rub others the wrong way?

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Dec 14, 2017 9:12am

I think JP meant a lot more by accompaniment than is captured in the quote above (which I love), but I'll need more posts to spell it out.

Of course he didn't mean "go ahead and commit sin, if that's what the one you're with is doing." He also didn't mean "never mind the law."

The Sword of the Spirit was the overarching group. The one in Steubenville was called Servants of Christ the King. See also the People of Hope, The Mother of God, etc. For another example of authoritarianism in the Catholic world, see the Legion of Christ. You can find lots of articles and books on the same phenom in the evangelical world. 

The problem is with the spirit of control. More in follow up posts.

Rhett Segall

#4, Dec 14, 2017 10:52am

The idea of "accompaniment" is important and I'm glad Katie introduced it and look for further development. I also think your response, Joy, astute. Regarding preaching Paul within a hostile environment I would say ,"be careful"!  There's no doubt that much of American society is hedonistic and, according to Jesus, presenting the wisdom of the Gospel to such would be "casting pearls before swine." . As Jesus also said "Leave them alone; they're blind guides";  and "This kind can be cast out only by prayer..."

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Jan 2, 2018 4:09pm

A friend has just let me see a report issued by the "Visitation team" Bishop Ottenweller appointed to investigate the local community (after he'd received complaints from members) in 1991. [emphasis in original]

Teachings and disciplines of SOCK [Servants of Christ the King] were neither in accord with the Documents of Vatican II nor in keeping with the mind of the Church. Rather they come from self-developed programs highly (if not totally) influenced by the later association with the Sword of the Spirit.

In addition to these questionable teachings and discipline, a system ‘pastoral leadership’ came to SOCK when they affiliated with the Sword of the Spirit. By all accounts it began as an honest attempt to provide people with a system of security as they lived out their commitment in the community. However, it eventually developed into a system of manipulation and mind control that can best be described as devastating. It was as if the individual had surrendered his/her conscience to the community. It not only CONTROLLED the lives of the people but it also directed their way of thinking, their family and other personal relationships, and often times was in direct conflict with the teachings of the Church.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Jan 3, 2018 12:29pm

Again, that is from the report submitted by the team appointed by Bishop Ottenweller of Steubenville to investigate the community after he'd received numerous complaints from members and ex-members. Here is another quote from the same report. It comes after a section showing that while the community used the term "covenant" in its name, its relations were not covenantal (e.g. there was no reciprocity and no transparency), but legalistic, based on power. [my emphasis]

Perhaps the question needs to be asked why SOCK calls this a covenant when it is not. The answer could be a lack of understanding of what covenants are. But the answer also lies with the founders of charismatic covenant communities, for they wanted control without accountability. And they wanted to be able to dissolve the relationship at their will. “Covenant” is a loaded term. It carries the weight of sin and guilt and strong emotion.

This is what I experienced personally: Law replacing conscience, and leaders who wanted control without accountability. 

And, as I say, it wasn't only there. The same evil principle governed the Legion of Christ. I've come across it elsewhere in the Church too, in both groups and individuals.


#7, Jan 3, 2018 10:10pm

Interesting.  Thanks for sharing.  I am not very familiar with those groups.  The only one I have heard of is the Legionaries of Christ.  They offered some youth group type of activities when my kids were younger.  At the time I was grateful for the programs they offered combining things that interested kids like sports and crafts, while sneaking in a virtue talk.  I was disappointed years later to read about the accusations against their founder.  I feel bad for those who were misled.  And it certainly helps me understand your justified fear of ‘law replacing conscience’.  The result of that can never be good.  Of course one would have to be careful of overcompensating and going too far toward the other end -- allowing ‘conscience’ to replace law?  I fear I have seen both mistakes. 


Rhett Segall

#8, Jan 4, 2018 9:55am

In the 60's I made temporary vows in The Society of Mary (Marianists). After six years I decided not to renew my vows, judging  the religious life style did not bring that joy of  heart that was the sign of the Spirit. It's relevance to the present thread has to do with the premise that was operative in religious orders at the time but was to dissolve under the teachings of Vat.II.The premise? "If you are recruited or join the religious order then you have the vocation.  You are justified in leaving only if your superiors tell you to leave. If you decide on your own to leave  then you are rejecting God's grace."  In other words, and here I see a connection with the groups Katie references, there is a guilt patina, difficult  to avoid, for one who turns to their own heart and says "my vocation lies elsewhere".

I consider my time in the religious order an incomparable gift. But it had its albatrosses which still linger.

I recommend the film Higher Ground, dealing with fundamentalism, feminism and authentic faith, as worth viewing in this context.

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