I remember my mother telling me that when she was a little girl growing up in rural Virginia, she was fascinated by the beauty of the goldfinches that would fly around her home. She wanted to catch one to keep as a pet. She would stand very still in the place where the goldfinches frequented and hold out in her hand some seeds of grain to attract the birds. Though she was never successful in catching one, I was always impressed with the fact that she did not try using a net or some other means to trap them. Instead, she tried coaxing them, standing near them quietly.
When I think about ministering to people, that image of my mother often comes to me. It is so very important to stand near the people in their struggles. As ministers in the Church, we do not always have the answers to people’s trials and problems. But it is very important to accompany them in their struggles and their sorrows.
When I worked as a missionary in the Dominican Republic, I was often faced with trying to decide on the best way to minister to the people in their poverty and their difficulties. I remember one instance when the staff our mission parish was called upon to serve as mediators in a three way discussion among a group of campesinos looking for arable land, a landowning family seeking to protect its property rights, and government officials in charge of land distribution. We did our best to try and help create a situation that would be beneficial for the campesinos, while respecting the rights of all involved. Unfortunately, the landowners were not interested in the plight of the struggling farmers, so the negotiations bore no fruit. While these talks were in one sense a failure, the campesinos were extremely grateful that the Church leaders would care enough about them to walk with them in their struggles. They even invited us to celebrate a Mass with them at one of their organizational meetings, acknowledging the importance of the Church’s presence in their pursuit of justice.
It became very clear to me early on in mission work that I did not have all the answers. Nor was I expected to have them. It was more important for the people I was serving to have a minister who could empathize with their struggles than to have one offering overly simple solutions to very complex problems. The people did not expect me to change their world, but they did expect me to walk with them as they moved themselves toward change.
Accompanying others as Church involves both communal and spiritual elements. It is communal in that accompanying others always involves a willingness to participate in the life of the community in order to understand the people, their concerns, their feelings and their hopes. Accompanying the people often means walking with them as they undertake activities that will shape their future and contributing whatever is possible for them to realize their goals.
Accompanying others has a profound spiritual dimension, because it is an essential part of the evangelization process. When ministers strive to be in solidarity with the people, new possibilities for proclaiming the Word of God arise. The Gospel will resonate with people if they see that it has to do with their day-to-day lives, and that the God being proclaimed is relational, caring and present in their lives, especially in moments of difficulty and pain.
There are so many ways in which we as a Church are called to accompany others. We are called to be present to families grieving the loss of loved ones. We are called to aid and encourage those struggling financially due to job loss or underemployment. We are called to walk with people who struggle with their faith and go through times of doubt and confusion. We may not always have the ability to offer ready-made solutions to their difficulties, but we can certainly accompany them, and be instruments of the love, the mercy and the compassion of God, who cares for the people in their need.