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On Holy Friendship and “Accompaniment”

“Accompaniment” appears to offer holy friendship, but it is holy friendship on the cheap–just as we cost-benefit analyzing materialists would have it.

(Image: Harli Marten @harlimarten |

One of the more distressing aspects about living in the modernist/post-modernist age is the tendency for certain words to gain a currency which outwardly appears to connote one thing, but upon further reflection tends to cloud rather than illuminate what the word is meant to denote. Consider, for example, the term “social media”—a term denoting a series of phenomena such as Facebook and Twitter, which to my way of thinking, at least, are in fact media which often mitigate against we understand or desire to be truly “social.” The term allows us to let ‘virtual’ communications serve as a psychological stand-in for the actual communion obtained through, say, sharing a good pot roast with family and friends after Sunday Mass.

The latest buzzword that seems to have garnered considerable cache in Catholic circles in recent years is the term “accompaniment.” Used by our Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, to describe the specific situation of a priest counseling a divorced and remarried couple, in recent years it has come to be applied in much wider and more varied contexts, and at once promises more while delivering less when applied to our spiritual lives.

To see what I mean by this, contrast the term “accompaniment” with St. Francis de Sales words in his Introduction to a Devout Life, “Love everyone with a strenuous love based on charity, but form friendships only with those who can share virtuous things with you.” The Gentleman Saint stratifies our relationships, boldly calling us to ‘love everyone’ while carving out the prerequisites for a subset of holy friendships in our lives. How, exactly, does “accompaniment” fit into all this? It seems to promise friendship—or at least relationship—without the demand of self required by the love we owe even to the more generic “all”.

Accompaniment has about it a flavor of what my great-aunt Reva (a lady who knew a thing or two about good pot roasts) might call “stand-offishness”. It offers an illusion of “friendship” yet with a certain implied distance between the parties involved in the relationship—a distance no doubt welcome to we moderns, allergic as we are to the solidity and sacrifice demanded by true and holy friendship. Yet it is a distance that robs us of a true connectedness. The word “friend,” on the other hand, comes from the Old English word which literally means “to love,” and to befriend is to commit, to risk, to die to self in a certain sense—all that is entailed in the notion of love. To accompany? Well, it sounds like what one does when one serves as a chaperone for a bunch of kids on a school bus.

Some might argue it is harsh to chastise those many well-meaning Catholics for their various calls to “accompaniment”. And I truly do not mean to disparage or harm the well-intentioned, faithful souls who hear the “call to accompaniment” and are warmed by the thought of it all. Indeed, sometimes the kids on that school bus do need to be chaperoned. It is to say, rather, that while “accompaniment” may have some role in the spiritual life, it is no more than a slice of it, and probably a rather small slice of it at that. The word “accompaniment,” when used in Scripture, virtually always refers to the simple act of musical accompaniment at worship. Similarly in Scripture, the word “accompany” most often refers to just what one might expect: to the physical accompaniment of one on a journey. There seems little basis in Scripture or Tradition for this new category of apostolate.

Others might argue that I’m nitpicking here, and shrug their shoulders while asking, “Friendship, accompaniment—what’s the difference?” In speaking of writing, Mark Twain once noted, “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” So, too, the words we use to structure our spiritual lives. Here, I would argue that “accompaniment” plays the lightning bug to “holy friendship’s” lightning bolt. Accompaniment appears to offer holy friendship, but it is holy friendship on the cheap–just as we cost-benefit analyzing materialists would have it.

Part of the problem stems from the stunted notion of just what “love” means in a culture adrift in the wake of the Sexual Revolution. The Sixties’ folks did quite a number on the word. Advocating an oxymoronic (or just, moronic) “free love,” they successfully drained the word of any meaning besides the Greek’s eros and, frankly, even reduced it beyond that to just the most rudimentary of sex. Gone are the subtle connotations the word used to have –the brotherly love of the Greek’s philia, the total gift of self in agape, or even the playful love of young lovers, ludus. (Witness in regard to this last, the need for The Dating Project.)

No, in the final analysis all that’s left after the Left’s triumph is a twisted form of what the Greeks termed philautia, or self-love. Thus, we recoil to consider the advice of a Saint Francis de Sales who urges us to love all “strenuously,” yet who also set apart a special category of relationships within that love for ‘holy friends’. We much prefer the barrenness of a term like ‘accompaniment’. Having rendered love as eros sterile biologically so that it may be “free,” we’ve similarly rendered all the other variants of love sterile psychologically, emotionally and spiritually.

Hollywood, surprisingly, has offered a richly textured portrayal of the love in ‘holy friendship’ recently in the film Paul, Apostle of Christ. Starring James Faulkner as Paul and Jim Caviezel as Luke, the film captures in its essence the complexity of two, uniquely different men bonded together in Christian mission. In Paul we’re encounter the fiery preacher thirsting for souls, while in Luke we find the gentler contemplative called to chronicle the gospel and its announcement. At one point the intensity of Paul comes through when Luke’s faith seems to wane and Paul, as Brad Miner precisely nails it in his review at The Catholic Thing, “fairly assaults” Luke with love. Similarly, though more subtly, the film depicts the comfort Luke offered Paul, soothing and softening Paul’s rough edges.

Some reviewers found the movie ‘wordy,’ not in keeping with the epic biblical fare usually offered by Hollywood. Yet, as Carl E. Olson noted here at CWR in his excellent review:

To the credit of the writer and director Andrew Wyatt, the film does not aim to be epic or even, in many ways, intensely dramatic. This has been a point of criticism in some reviews; I suggest they are missing the point, which is to depict the daily struggles of an extraordinary man among ordinary people living a radical faith in a death-dealing, soul-crushing culture…

Olson gets this exactly right, the film depicts two men engaged in a “holy friendship,” which is at once extraordinary since it is being lived by two men “living a radical faith”—a faith grounded upon Jesus Christ—and yet also ordinary in the very nature of what it means to be friends and share the “daily struggles” of life together.

Finally, the film depicts another aspect of “holy friendship”. Personally, I’ve always found the Paul presented in Luke’s Acts more approachable, and in some ways less frightening, than the self-portrait Paul presents of himself in his own epistles. Often, and blessedly, it is our friends who see the best in us which we, ourselves, may overlook and in their shared compassion, they bring it out of us. The film excels in showing this aspect of Luke and Paul’s “holy friendship”. Through such friendships, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Holy friendship, then, is a gift, but a gift purchased at a price. It is but a subset of the “strenuous love” to which de Sales, and more importantly Our Lord, calls us—a love far more active, much more engaged, and considerably more costly than the rather desolate word “accompaniment” might suggest.

One of the more stirring calls offered us by Pope Saint John Paul II during his pontificate was that we should “Be not afraid.” Allow me to specify it a bit, ‘Be not afraid’ to befriend—and don’t settle for mere ‘accompaniment.’

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About Alan L. Anderson 17 Articles
Alan L. Anderson teaches theology at the Chesterton Academy of the Sacred Heart in Peoria, Ill.


  1. Clearly – “accompaniment” means something utterly non-Catholic.

    Here is what it means to the conference of “Catholic” Bishops in England:

    (1) When a hospital is violating the human rights of a child and his parents in a life-and-death struggle…try to avoid getting involved if at all possible.

    (2) If you are the Bishop in the city (like Liverpool) where the family is being abused, do NOT involve yourself personally, nor try to understand what is happening, nor travel to visit those suffering. This will ensure that you remain IGNORANT of the important facts, for instance, that the child and his father are Catholic members of your own flock.

    (3) Have your staff publish memos expressing your sympathy with the suffering, but reminding the world that you the shepherd have no role here, because in your GROSS NEGLIGENCE and IGNORANCE, you wrongly assert that these poor suffering people are not even Catholic.

    (4) defend the hospital and the court to the bitter end, because they truly represent your post-Catholic world view.

    (When optics get bad, as real Catholics in the flock start “bleeding” that there is danger from wolves, smear them as being politically motivated.

    (5) While never traveling a few miles to see the suffering or defend them, by all means travel all the way to Rome and see the Pope when optics are bad, so that your reputation as an “authentic shepherd” is somehow re-asserted by sanction of the Pope.

    (6) When the child finally dies in prison as you thought appropriate, double-down and make sure that everyone in your flock knows that this is the way it’s going to be from now on. All the way to the grave.

  2. I’m pleased someone has decided to address ‘accompaniment’. First because I’ve become sick of hearing it constantly spoken without a semblance of meaningful definition from all quarters and secondly because its initial coining by the Pontiff in AL simply made reference to complicity. And Anderson is insightful that it’s stand offish [honest writer he is crediting Aunt Reva]. From my perspective as a priest if all I were to do is just be kindly, nod my head at what the penitent says, which soul condemning cowardice has happened long before Pope Francis’ pontifical blessing–then Christ Crucified was a kindly gesture and my priesthood is equivalent to the smiling airline steward. Talking about the definitive nature of sin with the penitent is not precept idolatry. Rather it’s true faith in Christ and salvation for priest as well as penitent.

    • Though the conditions for playful love are not simply going to be recovered through something superficial like the Dating Project.

  3. Thanks for this article. It is not “nitpicking” when one considers we (Catholics and men of reason) have lost the battle over language. The problem with “accompaniment” is that it requires an obnoxious politeness that is the death knell of any true friendship; therefore it only perpetuates an over-sensitivity to the other person that makes deep friendship impossible. Incidentally, my favorite essay on friendship was written by Michelle de Montaigne.

  4. It just so happens that, as I read this column, I had my well worn copy of Familiaris consortio open to no. 65, published after the 1980 Synod. After echoing Gaudium et spes’ (1965) characterizing the need to strengthen marriage and family as “urgent,” St. John Paul concludes this section with the following: “The church’s pastoral action must be progressive also in the sense that it must follow the family, accompanying it step by step in the different stages of its formation and development.” No. 69 explicates this further.

    I submit, having taught this document in numerous clergy and staff workshops in the 1980s and 1990s, that accompaniment is not blithely smiling on couples and parents. It is to continue to evangelize them as they walk through their life cycle, for which the next 4 sacraments that follow Matrimony, make excellent intersections, a nature and grace motif if you will. I also submit that most parents drop out of faith formation after a boring, underwhelming infant baptism class (often the only time we see them between the wedding and first Reconciliation, over which 8 to 10 years may pass). For some who drop off their kids at “CCD,” their faith begins to atrophy. It is not possible to form children in faith one hour a week as if they are autonomous adults, apart of the context of their family life. St. John Paul knew this.

    Had our bishops heeded St. John Paul’s instruction in nos. 65, 69 and 70-71, and supported the attempts of dozens of family life personnel who tried to implement strategies of pastoral care within the life cycle, we might not have needed another, more contentious Synod 35 years later! And, just maybe, we would have more happy, healthy, on-the-path to holiness couples and families, celibate vocations, and “credible witnesses” to the teachings our bishops spend so much time defending when action is what is required. So accompaniment needs a plan and a strategy to form catechetical ministry partnerships with couples and parents, to help them fulfill their mission as the PRIMARY educators of their children, for which the church cannot be an adequate substitute (Decl. on Christian Education, no 3. 1965 – and – FC, no. 36). Couples need the Holy Friendship of their parish. That’s what I believe and I’m sticking to it.

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