On pastoral accompaniment to nowhere
In a brilliant column entitled ”The Obedience of Faith” posted on The Catholic Thing, Fr. Robert Imbelli captures what is wrong with the kind of pastoral accompaniment which assumes that people are doing the best they can when they still refuse to turn away from sin. Imbelli understands that initiation into life in Christ is a radical change, a true remaking of the human person.
This means that pastoral ministry to Christians may well entail recognizing and forgiving repeated falls, but it does not entail the acceptance of a state of sin as an acceptable way of life. Every one of us is not only called but expected to depend on Christ—to put on the new man. “It is no longer I who live,” as St. Paul said, “but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). This new identity leaves ample room for the forgiveness of sins, but no room at all for regarding a sinful state as the best one can do, as if a fully Christian life is merely an ideal that we can never be expected to reach.
Or, as Fr. Imbelli puts it:
The obedience of faith commences with baptismal surrender: “branded” as Christ’s, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. But it also entails free consent to ongoing transformation. So the Apostle urges: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” (Rom 12:1-2)
The Apostle’s call to transformation can be easily muffled by the dismal din of our contemporary therapeutic culture. And the widespread appeal to “my experience” risks canonizing an individual’s present condition and foreclosing authentic change. In this context, the increasingly rote rhetoric about “pastoral accompaniment” can reinforce, rather than counter, this cultural declension. Pastoral accompaniment needs clearly to incorporate and be governed by the challenge to conversion, an imperative that lies at the very heart of the Gospel: “metanoeite!”, i.e. repent. (Mk 1:15)
For the telos of pastoral accompaniment is not a gradual approximation to an “ideal,” however sublime. It is the entrance into a new life, defined by a new, life-altering relationship with Jesus Christ.
If we have been liberated by Christ, then we must commit ourselves to live that way. This means that we may fall at times, and so recognize the need for repentance. But it also means we must not pretend that holiness is impossible. For insofar as we refuse to accept the possibility of change we reject Our Lord’s gift of new life, for one of two reasons. Either we do not trust Him or we do not want Him.
In His infinite love, Our Lord thirsts for souls; and in that Divine thirst, He makes each of us a miraculous offer: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (Jn 4:10). Our part is simple. We have to ask.
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