The Personalist Project

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Accessed on September 17, 2019 - 8:53:05

The Pope strikes a personalist chord once again

Katie van Schaijik, Feb 06, 2015

A priest friend has drawn my attention to this remarkably personalistic passage from the Holy Father's November address to ecclesial movements and new communities.

 A further issue concerns the way of welcoming and accompanying men and women of today, in particular, the youth (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 105-106). We are part of a wounded humanity – and we must be honest in saying this – in which all of the educational institutions, especially the most important one, the family, are experiencing grave difficulties almost everywhere in the world. Men and women today experience serious identity problems and have difficulty making proper choices; as a result, they tend to be conditioned and to delegate important decisions about their own lives to others. We need to resist the temptation of usurping individual freedom, of directing them without allowing for their growth in genuine maturity. Every person has their own time, their own path, and we must accompany this journey. Moral or spiritual progress which manipulates a person’s immaturity is only an apparent success, and one destined to fail. It is better to achieve less and move forward without seeking attention. Christian education, rather, requires a patient accompaniment which is capable of waiting for the right moment for each person, as the Lord does with each one of us. The Lord is patient with us! Patience is the only way to love truly and to lead others into a sincere relationship with the Lord.

Note some key elements, all of which are so intimately related as to be best understood as different aspects of the same deep, basic truth:

1) Accompaniment. The term evokes the innovative thinking and pastoral approach of John Paul II, who as a young priest working with young adults at a parish in Soviet-dominated Poland developed a new mode of ministry that he called "accompaniment." Here's how George Weigel explained it in Witness to Hope (p.100):

Previously, the chaplain's task had been to provide sacramental services to students. Wojtyla, who intensified the chaplaincy's sacramental ministry and involved the 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 could 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.

Even more than the desire to be present to these students outside of church proper, Wojtyla's idea of accompaniment, as I understand it, was about conscientiously refraining from interfering with the spiritual lives of others. It sprang from Wojtyla's profound respect for the freedom of each individual and the mysterious inscrutability of his interior intercourse with the Holy Spirit. He spoke of the "impassable frontier" between my will and another's; he spoke of the need for each of us to be the "protagonists" in the drama of our own lives, and he frequently reminded those he counseled: "You must decide." As pastor and priest, he never sought to mold others according to his ideas or example, but rather to be present to them as companion and helper as they struggled on their own unique journey of self-determinating choices and challenges.

It's impossible to overstate the importance of this shift in emphasis for the Church in our day, or the extent to which most of us have yet to realize it fully in our way of living-with-others.

2) We are all wounded. This theme is closely linked to the first and a favorite one for the present Pope. We are not to approach others as superiors, instructors, or even benefactors, but rather as fellow sinners and sufferers wanting to help and be helped. A major implication of  personalism, I'm learning, is its resistance to a hierarchical habit of being in interpersonal relations, in which there are superiors and inferiors, and right-acting is mainly a question of submission to authority. (By the way, the contrast, on this point, between Christianity and Islam could not greater. But that's a thought to be developed in another post.) Instead, we should consciously relate ourselves to each other as equals—equals in dignity; equals in being ordered to truth, value, and communion; equals in our condition of incompleteness, fallenness, and need.

Of course this opposition to hierarchal relations isn't absolute. In the social and practical realm, hierarchies are often good and necessary. Commanders are, in an important sense, above footmen; adults above children; teachers above students, abbots above novices, and so on. A well-ordered common life involves respect for those differences in function. The point is, though, that hierarchical relations should be recognized by all parties as essentially superficial and temporary. Authority figures should live and act from a consciousness that their superiority is radically conditioned by the deeper equality that subsists between them and their subordinates. Subordinates, too, should live from this awareness.

So, for instance, parents should be aware that while they are duty-bound to instruct their children, they are not better than their children. They have at least as much to learn from from the young and innocent, as those children do from them. Parents should cultivate in themselves a profound reverence for the autonomous moral being of each of their children. Likewise, those under authority should be take care not to permit themselves to be absorbed into another's identity. Even servants are more than instruments of someone else's ends. As free and responsible individuals, they are to have ends of their own.

Taking a break from writing this post, I went to pray with the Magnificat and found this meditation for yesterday, Feb. 5, anticipating the Pope's theme, by lay French mystic, Madeleine Delbrél, who died in 1964: [my emphasis]

When love meets a nonbeliever, it becomes evangelization, but this evangelization cannot be other than fraternal. We do not come, in our generosity, offering to share something that belongs to us, namely, God. We do not come as righteous among sinners, as people who hold diplomas among the uneducated; we come to speak about our common Father, whom some people know and others don't; as people who have been forgiven, not as innocents; as people who have had the fortune of being called to believe, to receive the faith, not as if it were a good that is owed us, but as something that has been deposited in us for the sake of the world: and this entails a whole manner of being.

A lively awareness of our own woundedness, sinfulness, and need helps us achieve the humility, patience, compassion, mercy and openness to the gift-of-others that are the indispensable conditions of true interpersonal communion.

I have more to say about the identity crisis the Pope mentions, and about the temptation to "manipulate the immaturity" and "usurp the freedom" of others in our effort to resolve it. But I'll do that in a separate post.