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In the homily for his first Mass as the Holy Father, Pope Francis spoke about our call as Catholics to be always journeying, building, and professing Jesus Christ.
Since that day, the pope has been telling us that we are on a journey. It’s a journey along the path of holiness, a journey to the margins to help the needy, and a journey out to the world so that we can share the gospel with more and more people.
But we aren’t on this journey alone. Another one of Francis’ favorite words is “accompaniment.” He urges us to walk together, to help each other reach our destination.
In an address to the bishops of Brazil, Pope Francis said, “We need a church capable of walking at people’s side” (Address on July 28, 2013, 3). He lamented that so many have left the Church because they found it to be “too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself,” and he urged us to focus on “warming people’s hearts,” to become “a Church capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy” so that we can show that mercy to everyone around us.
Accompany Them. This is Pope Francis’ vision of how God wants to use us. The Holy Father knows that we need to be willing to accompany people, to make ourselves available to them, if we are going to offer them the good news of the gospel. Simply telling people about Jesus or the Church is not sufficient; we need to show them through our own actions and compassion how much the Lord loves them. As Jesus said, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Throughout her public life, St. Teresa of Calcutta repeatedly urged people to make themselves approachable to the people around them. “Spread love everywhere you go,” she said. “Be the living expression of God’s kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness in your warm greeting.” So let’s look at a few ways that we can follow her advice.
Smiling Eyes. Scientists tell us that smiles make us more attractive and that they can lift the moods of other people. Smiling can lift our mood as well. Psychiatrists have found that when we smile, even if it’s somewhat forced, “happy” neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins are released, making us more peaceful and hopeful. They tell us that a smile is contagious, that a smile often leads to a smile in return.
Further studies—as well as common sense—tell us that people who join eye contact with a smile are considered more trustworthy and sincere than those who look away or who have blank or negative expressions on their faces. Making eye contact tells people that you are concerned for their well-being. It tells them that you respect them and that you are open and welcoming toward them.
So make it a point to smile. When you are talking with people, do a quick self-check to make sure you are demonstrating a positive, inviting attitude. Let your body language tell them that you are willing, even eager, to accompany them on their journey.
The Value of “Small Talk.” If you want to accompany someone, you need to be traveling on the same path. That isn’t always easy, but it can make a world of difference. Especially when we follow the Holy Father’s exhortation to accompany those who are “on the margins,” we may not feel very comfortable. We need to be willing to find common ground with everyone we meet. We often dismiss the value of small talk, but it is one of the most important ways we can connect with people and make ourselves available to them.
Show people that you have a real interest in them, that you care about their challenges and victories. Talk about a parish event you might have seen them at. Share about your family, and find ways that their family life is similar. Be willing to engage with them on an everyday, but personal, level, and you’ll find a friendship developing. You’ll find that they already are fellow travelers with you, simply because you share the same basic hopes and dreams, concerns and frustrations.
Everyday conversations can open the door to deeper relationships. They help us find the common ground where we can meet so that we can begin traveling together. They help us develop friendships in which we begin to influence each other. They help us to learn from each other, to open our hearts to each other, and to share our lives with each other. Isn’t that what it means to be used by God—to share the presence of Jesus with someone whom you have come to know and love?
So find ways to reach out to people in your neighborhood or parish, even people who seem very different from you. Initiating a conversation just may lead you somewhere special.
Listen Carefully. Of course, there are two sides to every conversation: talking and listening. Listening is probably the most powerful way we can accompany people. St. Luke tells us how the risen Jesus accompanied two disciples on the road to Emmaus. If you look carefully, you’ll see that Jesus spoke only in questions at first. “What are you discussing?” he asked. “What sort of things” have happened to make you feel so sad (Luke 24:17, 19)? Of course Jesus knew what they were talking about, but he let the two disciples tell him their story anyway.
By listening to their account of his death on the cross, Jesus allowed two disciples to express their grief and sense of loss. By listening, he entered into their world as a compassionate friend—but he didn’t stay there. Because he had made a connection with them, he was able to draw them out of their sadness and rejuvenate their faith. Even before they recognized Jesus, they felt their hearts burning within them. He had formed a bond with them as he listened carefully, and that made it easier for them to open their hearts to him.
This story is a moving example of accompaniment. The disguised Jesus displayed all of the key ingredients of one who accompanies others: entering their world, listening respectfully, and speaking to their hearts. Who knows? Maybe he made it a point to smile and look them in the eye! We may not be as talented or as caring as Jesus, but we can still make a difference as we learn to be exceptional listeners.
Whose Views? A husband and wife were at a party chatting with some friends when talk of marriage counseling came up. “We don’t need counseling,” the wife said. “My husband and I have a great relationship. He studied communications in college, and I studied theater arts. So he communicates well, and I know how to act as if I’m listening.”
We can laugh at a story like this, but the truth is that our communication can all too easily focus on how we present our views instead of listening to someone else’s views. An approach like this can lead to missed opportunities and shallow relationships. It can also keep us from following Pope Francis’ call to warm people’s hearts. How can we make a difference in people’s lives if we are too caught up with talking about our lives? How can we warm their hearts with the message of God’s love if we don’t try to understand what is on their hearts?
It may sound a little too pre-planned, but think about the way a man named Jeremy tries to make himself available to be used by the Lord. He makes it a point to try to reach out to at least one new person each Sunday after Mass. Introducing himself casually, he draws on a few questions to help start a conversation: Where do you live? What do you do for a living? How long have you been a member of the parish? Jeremy has one goal in mind: to open the door. He makes sure that he listens, asks another question, and tries to follow where the conversation leads.
Over time, people have come to like Jeremy and trust him. They feel free to share their worries and cares with him as well. And because he has shown himself to be a good listener, they return the favor and pay attention to him when he shares about his love for the Lord. They see his faith in action, and it inspires them to draw a little closer to Jesus. They see his commitment to the parish, and they feel more encouraged to get involved as well.
A Simple Formula. It’s really a simple formula: if you want to be used by the Lord, make sure you talk less than you listen. If you want to help people on their journey of faith, find common ground and walk alongside them. Get to know each other, and you’ll build up greater trust in each other. Not only will you make a difference in their lives, but they’ll make a difference in yours. You’ll find that you have far more brothers and sisters in Christ than you ever imagined. That’s how the kingdom of God is built.