If there’s one thing St. Francis of Assisi is known for, it’s his focus on brotherhood and sisterhood. Wherever he went, he called everyone his brother and sister, from the men who joined his community to the sultan of Egypt.
He went so far as to talk about Brother Sun and Sister Moon! Whenever I think about this, I think about how words like “brother,” “sister,” and “friend” are words of encounter. They speak of a relationship that goes beyond mere acquaintance. This is someone you are comfortable with, someone you have shared your life with, someone you know well, even if you don’t always agree.
I also like this image of brotherhood and sisterhood because it reminds me of Pope Francis’ emphasis on encounter and companionship. Francis often highlights the fact that we all share in the grace of Christ, whether we are priests or bishops or lay people. He likes to talk about how this grace helps us to have sincere encounters with each other because we are all part of the same family.
The pope sounded this theme early in his papacy, when he visited Assisi in October 2013. At a gathering of priests, he said:
I think this is truly the most wonderful experience we can have: to belong to a people walking, journeying through history together with their Lord. . . . We are not alone, we do not walk alone. We are part of the one flock of Christ that walks together. . . . While you walk you talk, you get to know one another, you tell one other about yourself, you grow as a family.
A Model for Listening. This, I think, is at the heart of Francis’ vision for the Synod on the Family, which will have its second meeting in Rome this October. In this synod, he has called for a conversation with the whole world. When he began the process, he told the bishops, “I want you to have a conversation with your people so that their voice reaches my ears.” He asked them to send out a questionnaire to all their people, not just their priests, so that everyone could share their stories about the joys and challenges of marriage and family.
Then, at the first meeting last October, Francis told the bishops who had gathered, “I want everyone here to be able to speak boldly and freely about their concerns. But I also ask you to listen humbly. Don’t worry about disagreements. I will take care of the unity of the Church.”
Pope Francis created an atmosphere of encounter at the synod. He created a space where the bishops could have real conversations with each other. Gone were the scripted speeches of leaders talking past each other. Now there was a new model—a model of encounter, a model of journeying together. And he made it clear that he wants all of us to follow the very same model.
As a pastor, I am trying to take up the pope’s call, and it’s making a clear difference. I have felt more free today than I did in the past to talk about sensitive issues with the people in my parish. Even more important, I feel more free to listen to what they are telling me. It’s not just me, either. I hear a lot of pastors saying the same thing. Pope Francis has told us to go and “make a mess” in the sense of going beyond the status quo, and I see this happening. But it’s a holy, God-inspired mess! Speaking frankly and listening humbly are not always easy to do, but I am convinced that this will help us discern more clearly what the Spirit is saying.
Break through the Barriers. I’m encouraging my parishioners to listen as well. One of the ministries we support is a soup kitchen in downtown St. Augustine. I have discovered that plenty of well-intentioned people are willing to serve the food at this ministry. You cook the food, you set it up on a table, you stand behind that table, and you give the food to the people who come. Yet it’s safe because the barrier of that table stands between you and the poor and homeless you are feeding.
But it’s much more difficult to sit down with these people and have dinner with them. That’s when they tell you their stories, and it can be uncomfortable. So many of the people who come to the soup kitchen tell us about how they ended up on the streets. One was a legal secretary. One was a businessman. Another was a school teacher. But something tragic happened, whether unexpected or brought on by poor choices, and that person’s life began to unravel.
When you listen to these stories and let them confront your story, these homeless people are no longer aliens. They are no longer strangers or “others” whom you can dismiss. At first, they appear to you as dirty or drunk or failures, but as you listen, you realize that they are not all that different from you. So I urge our parishioners not to stay behind the table, protected by the barrier. All of us, including myself, need to touch the lives of the people we are serving and to let the people’s lives touch us.
Traveling Companions. There is a Jesuit tradition, stretching back to St. Ignatius of Loyola and his Spiritual Exercises, that focuses on the word “accompaniment.” I think this is what Pope Francis is asking us to do. He is asking us to become companions with each other as we walk toward the Lord together.
In my parish, I invite people to consider that there isn’t only one type of person whom we should accompany. We shouldn’t think only about the people like us. We should be open to people with different backgrounds, different levels of education, and in different age brackets. There are also people in broken marriages, people in same-sex unions, and people with different political viewpoints than ours. There is a whole spectrum of people out there, and we need to recognize that no matter how different they are from us, Jesus is still present in all their stories.
For instance, let’s say a woman comes to me who is divorced and has remarried without an annulment. She is in a situation that is clearly contrary to the discipline of the Church. As a pastor, I recognize that this woman, and everyone else in her situation, needs to have the gospel addressed to her situation. But I also understand that I don’t have to focus only on that issue. I can also focus on her need to walk with people right now, people who hear her story and love her for who she is—a child of God.
In our RCIA program, I encourage the team and sponsors to see that their work is not a matter of theological teaching as much as it is a matter of a shared journey. I want them to focus on sharing their stories and listening to the candidates so that they will feel welcomed and appreciated. I don’t need them to be theology experts or teachers who just pass on information. I need them to be traveling companions who will join the candidates on their journeys.
Listen, Love, Learn. So the question for each of us is “How can I become a more accompanying person? How can we become a more accompanying family?” I want to suggest three ways.
First, listen. Many of us have children who have different opinions from ours, and some of those opinions diverge from Church teaching. Or we know neighbors or fellow parishioners with whom we disagree. Try to listen carefully to what they are saying. Avoid the temptation to jump to conclusions or interrupt. Instead, just try to listen with a compassionate heart.
Second, love. Scripture tells us that love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Love also helps us consider other opinions peacefully. It can bring about a meeting of hearts, even if there can’t yet be a meeting of minds. Remember that the person you are listening to is loved by God just as much as you are. Think about that love, and let it guard you from judging, condemning thoughts. Let that love keep your heart soft and your mind open to hear what God is saying to both of you.
Finally, learn. If you are listening and if you are loving, you will always find something new—a new insight or a new way of understanding the truths of our faith. But you have to be willing to learn. Try to be open to the other person’s point of view. Look for ideas or thoughts you never considered before. Test them against what you already understand, and see if God is helping you and the other person to grow closer together.
Walking Together. In his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis asked us “to encounter others with the right attitude, which is to accept and esteem them as companions along the way, without interior resistance” (Evangelium Gaudium, 91). May we all put aside our resistance and walk together toward the kingdom of God.