The Pope of accompaniment29 Oct 2023
In November’s prayer intention, Pope Francis asks us to pray for him as he accompanies Catholics on their journey to Christ.
No one who follows Pope Francis in his daily, weekly and monthly engagements will grudge him prayers. In his late 80s, suffering from painful sciatica, confined in public events to a wheelchair, we find him in September at World Youth Day delighting in the company of almost a million young Christians, in October, visiting Mongolia and its handful of Catholics there, and then simultaneously leading a Synod on which he has put enormous weight and writing a document on the climate in preparation for a Conference on climate change.
In his life he embodies his mission to encourage Catholics to go out to people outside the walls of the Church to make them feel welcome.
The Pope sees his own mission of one to accompany Catholics throughout the world, sure that the Holy Spirit will work in these encounters in unforeseeable ways. Accompanying is a telling world. The prayer could have referred to Pope Francis presence in the Church in other ways – by leading, guiding, visiting, presiding over or ruling Catholics, for example. These are all appropriate styles of leadership and presence that have been identified with other Popes.
In accompanying Catholics, the Pope is seen to be on the same level as them. We are to imagine that he walks with them, shares their conversation, their food and their anxieties, and speaks and prays in their language. And, of course, he trusts that the Holy Spirit will be with him as he accompanies them, enabling them to meet Jesus through him.
In describing Pope Francis as walking with people rather than ahead of them or at a distance from them, the prayer also describes the way in which Pope Francis lives. He moves into crowds to meet people, weeps with them on hearing of their suffering, goes into prisons to visit them, and encourages priests to leave the security of their churches to reach out to people on their margins. The image also helps us understand the weight that he has placed on the Synod and on its way of proceeding. He has made its consultation of people in parishes, in dioceses and internationally in the Synod a model for the whole church to follow. God’s guidance is sought at each level in conversation where people accompany one another as brothers and sisters, listen to one another and discern where God is calling them.
Priests and bishops, including Pope Francis as Bishop of Rome, are not above the people but are part of it with different gifts and responsibilities. If they are shepherds of their flocks, they are there as servants, not as wise persons among dumb animals. The Pope models this relationship, and that is why we are asked to pray that the Spirit will continue to be with him. The Spirit is the love and energy of God that turns individuals into a community, followers of Jesus into the family of God, dying causes into seedbeds of life, and an ageing bishop near retirement into a source of youthful energy.