One of the great gifts of Pope Francis, as witnessed during his recent visit to the United States, is his ability to touch the hearts of believers and nonbelievers alike by his willingness to engage in conversations that bring and lead to a fuller share and life in Christ.
In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis said that “the church will have to initiate everyone — priests, religious and laity — into this ‘art of accompaniment’” which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5). The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life.
Although it sounds obvious, spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God, in whom we attain true freedom. Some people think they are free if they can avoid God; they fail to see that they remain existentially orphaned, helpless, and homeless. They cease being pilgrims and become drifters, flitting around themselves and never getting anywhere. To accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father.
Pope Francis’ words speak of a generous hospitality we are to extend to another. It is this type of generous hospitality to which our diocesan stewardship initiative has been calling us. It is this generous hospitality that has the power to reignite a lively faith in the heart of another person.
This past summer I heard an amazing story that illustrates the art of spiritual accompaniment, which truly does transform and changes hearts. Here is the story of Kamren Horton:
“I came back to the church this year, at 26, after a very long (and tough) decade away. Thankfully though, God never gave up on me and patiently waited for even the slightest opening in my heart to give the faith another look. My story of coming back is a total testament to the profound power of simple love and hospitality and how God can use even small, seemingly insignificant encounters to do incredible things.
“Last January, God started laying the groundwork for my homecoming by sending me Judy as a regular in my line at a coffee shop. She was a familiar face from going to church growing up and she was such an incredible light in my life at a time I was harried and stressed and stuck. She quickly became one of my favorite customers and was always so radiant and joyful. And best of all, she was radically in love with God, and would share these amazing stories about these unbelievable ways God was working in her life.
“Though I had no intentions of returning to the church, her confidence and bold, authentic faith sparked enough of something in me that I ended up participating in (my own version of) Lent that year. I had been wanting to do some kind of spiritual practice for 40 days, and with Lent beginning, I decided to jump in on the pre-configured timeline of the season, and on a last minute whim ended up at Ash Wednesday Mass.
“I felt totally out of place at the standing-room-only Mass, yet the beauty of the Mass and the church is that even with new Mass translations and an unknown priest, there was still a thread of something all too familiar. As much as I felt like a total stranger, it was so awesome to get to share the sign of the peace and settling into the rhythm of the Mass.
“God took a tiny step forward inviting me to come and meet him. He gave me an incredibly powerful experience. There was this huge spark within me and my heart leapt at the encounter, much like the baby John leapt with joy at the presence of Jesus at the Visitation.
“It was an amazing moment and the Lent was unbelievably powerful. I ended up making some massive changes over those 40 days and quit both my jobs. (Kamren decided to move to Seattle for school at the suggestions of her aunt.)
“I pulled into town feeling completely crazy and shocked at the insane and totally irrational move I’d just made. I had found a woman on the school’s online housing board I might live with, but had never met her and didn’t even have a guarantee I could move in, just that I could come see the place once I got to town.
“She thankfully took me and I moved right in and planned to get settled in for a new year of school. God had way bigger plans for me though than just a simple school year.
“Two days after being in town, He got right to work. I came back to the house after orientation and my landlord had a friend visiting. I walked upstairs for coffee and this incredibly cute older woman, Patricia, hopped right up and came toward me to say hello.
“She introduced herself and immediately asked if I was a Christian. I quickly told her, “No, I grew up Catholic, but I don’t go anymore.” It didn’t seem to bother her though, and she told me that when I went, I had to come to her church across town instead of the one right near the house. She grabbed my name and number and hugged me and welcomed me to my new home.
“I wasn’t so sure about going to a Mass, but it was such an awesome thing that this woman had reached out and followed up to check in and invite me to join her on Sunday. I fought getting out of the car, but touched by her hospitality and warmth, decided not to leave her waiting, and figured ‘just one Mass’ sure wouldn’t hurt.
“After the Mass, she invited me across the courtyard, for “just one cup of coffee” at their cafe. Little did I know I was walking into much more than the usual coffee and donut hour; it was set up as a restaurant style buffet with a full staff of volunteers and more than 200 visitors per Mass.
“It was such an incredible atmosphere and Patricia made a point to introduce me around to all these people who were so warm and inviting and joyful and full of life and love and fire. It was so comforting and absolutely contagious, I ended up coming back. Within two weeks of that first Mass, I was signed up to volunteer at the cafe welcome desk, had been invited to a regular rosary prayer group, and was meeting with the pastoral assistant to be signed up for RCIA so I could get confirmed in the spring.
“I wish I could fully explain how amazing and life changing this year has been and how incredibly grateful I am that Pat ‘found me’ at my house and brought me back. Her simple invitation absolutely changed the course of my life.
“God has really healed my heart and wooed me in the sacraments — so much so that I’m visiting orders and now discerning a call to the religious life! The blessing of this amazing extended family that we get as members of God’s church is more than I could have ever hoped for.”
This month, let us all work on the art of spiritual accompaniment by inviting others to join us for the Eucharist, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ who leads us to the love of the Father.
Not sure it will work? Consider how Kamren Horton’s life was radically transformed by one simple invitation to Mass.