This article is the second installment of a two-part discussion of an area of critical importance for those working in any ministry setting—clergy or laity—whose interactions with others require mentoring skills, evangelical hospitality, ongoing pastoral interactions in the course of catechetical work, small group facilitation, parenting, nurturing, and intercessory prayer outreach. The first article addressed pastoral accompaniment’s fundamental relation to good catechetics. This second article will explore practical and creative ways to implement such formation in ministry settings.
Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.”
– Matthew 26:38
A good friend of mine recently said to me, “I like to think of my desire to be with Jesus as a desire to live with him in the garden.” The garden she meant was not Eden but Gethsemane.
That terrible and titanically vital Thursday night, Jesus asked for accompaniment. Jesus called a collection of tired apostles beyond expectations, as ever, but this time it was to a closeness to struggle and need and unmeasured strain in following our good Father’s leading. This call to accompany continues.
Desiring to salve Jesus, being balm for the Man of Sorrows, is the specific calling out to others that Jesus identifies for us in Matthew 35:31-46: “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Accompanying others in their yearning to grow, their struggles, messes, and lowness is accompanying him.
Questions: An aid in Developing a Tone of Accompaniment
Good accompaniment depends on good questions; it means that I want to listen to you. This is a skill that usually needs specific training to reach excellence, both in one-to-one settings and public teachings. Our own verbal teaching, private conversations with those we teach, small group dialogue, as well as times set aside for questions and answers, can all bring out questions, intended or not. Be grateful for questions: it means that someone is interested! Questions asked by participants are always good. It is important though, that catechists not relate to questions passively, much less view them as potential distractions. Good catechists invite and work for questions.
It’s helpful to consider the following questions: When does learning begin? Was there ever a time in your own education when a particular teacher left you feeling lost? The teacher may have expounded on several ideas with great passion, but left you wondering, “What is the point here?” If at some level that question was not satisfied, you may have continued to be present, but you had to force yourself to pay attention, unaided by any internal need to know. If you have had this experience, you discovered that learning does not begin when the teacher simply starts to speak. Rather, it begins when the learner fashions a well-framed question in his or her mind, a question of such interest that it demands an answer. When the learner “owns” a question, when it strikes to the core of his or her own curiosity, then the proper dynamic is at work for real engagement. Learning has begun. To be clear, we are not talking about simple factual questions like, “In what year was the D-Day Battle fought?” Rather, we are talking about broader questions, such as: “What would have happened if the Allies had not prevailed at Normandy? How would it have changed the face of Europe?” While dates are important, these larger questions are more interesting and present a framework that tie together otherwise disparate facts. In turn, they elicit other, more detailed questions.
When participants in catechesis feel lost or bored, it is often because they have not considered these larger questions or their underlying importance, or have not been helped to do so. One hallmark of a great catechist is the ability to initiate curiosity with a well-framed question, and guide those being catechized to ask their own questions along the path toward conclusions. This is accomplished through a series of guided questions posed by the catechist to elicit thought, discussion, and conclusions from participants. It demands thoughtful preparation on the part of the catechist, but when well executed, this method gives participants a chance to experience, in the midst of an indifferent culture, that truth is surprisingly relevant, and more important, to consider the invitation to conversion at a more personal level.
Eye Contact as Accompaniment
Eye contact is one of the most crucial skills of a good catechist. It is certainly the case that a solicitation of participants’ questions or thoughts, small-group discussion, group dialogue during a teaching, and individual conversations afterward will all give a catechist insight into how a teaching is being received, but for those portions of a teaching in which such means are not used, it is indispensable for a catechist to learn to closely observe participants as truths are unfolded to them. Very often, unless otherwise trained, most catechists (and speakers in general) will unconsciously begin to make eye contact with only those faces in the room that seem to be responding most positively.
During a teaching, the presence of a person with a happy face and a head nodding in apparent agreement will soon attract a catechist’s eye contact in great disproportion to others in the room. For example, in an RCIA setting, it can even get to the point that if the most positive faces in the room are from RCIA team members, godparents, or sponsors then the catechist will begin to make eye contact only with them. Often the result of this unconscious action is that the catechist mentally shifts to teaching them, instead of participants, usually evidenced by an increasing use of terminology and phrases that may be meaningless or confusing to non-Catholics. If a catechist can’t make eye contact with all participants, then he or she has no real sense of how the teaching is being received in the moment.
What could be missed? A confused look on someone’s face (or many faces) that signals a need to slow down or stop to clarify or repeat; or to back up and come at a point from another direction; or to directly ask the quizzical ones a question. A change in expression that indicates some encouraging level of understanding or recognition. A slight shift in the mouth and slight clouding of the eyes that lets you know emotions have been stirred to the point of tears. A sleepy-eyed look (maybe from a long day, a good meal, or lackluster teaching) that calls you to work harder to engage a particular person, or simply to pause for a coffee or tea break. A questioning look that may benefit from an opportunity to ask one. An angry look that may need pursuing immediately, or perhaps in private after the session. A sudden turning down to write, implying you’ve perhaps said something of value.
All of these, and other reactions you observe as you teach, point to one of the most important aspects of relationships in your catechetical work. Yes, you may be diligently seeking to build relationships with participants in many ways in addition to the actual catechesis; but does the importance of knowing who you are teaching now extend fully to knowing them as you are teaching?
Taking Real Steps
The idea of pastoral accompaniment is readily attractive. But how does a diocese, a school, a parish, a person of good will, actually move in this direction, and pragmatically train others in the skill set of accompaniment? Here’s some solid, attainable, steps forward:
Buy some books, maybe for a whole group if you are part of one (RCIA team, school faculty, youth group leaders, parish council, knights council, etc.). Here’s some of the best out there:
- The Good Listener by Fr. James E. Sullivan. I have used this little book (less than 130 small pages) for years to train small groups facilitators, aide professional counselors, and encourage catechetical leaders who desire to grow in the most important teaching skill of authentic relational catechesis – listening. You will not be the same in any of your relationships after you read this brief masterpiece.
- Unrepeatable by Luke Burgis and Dr. Joshua Miller. This book aims to develop each person’s ability to foster the vocation of another—not solely a state-of-life vocation but to live deeply the daily life calling of God. This is not merely an idea book; it helps you grow very specific skills to foster awareness in another. There are other aspects to these authors’ work beyond the book itself, thereby allowing excellent follow-up: the apostolate founded by these authors (www.inscapevocations.com) helps build a culture of vocation through mentorship training, events, and programs focused on experiential learning.
- Fruitful Discipleship by Sherry A. Weddell. A sequel to her famous Forming Intentional Disciples, this new text delves into the pragmatic nature of growing and encouraging individuals towards a vision of being a disciple-maker. This book is about the details of building up people in one-to-one outreach and helping them to see their call in a personal, clear way.
- The Hidden Power of Kindness by Fr. Lawrence G. Lovasik. This book has been around awhile and has proven value in its deep exploration of a key virtue of anyone desiring real excellence in person-to-person formation. To be grown well in a soul, virtue must always be pursued with nuance, with devoted focus. This book helps mightily with challenging all that is in you that can be a barrier to closer human sharing and an authentic generosity of spirit.
- Keys to the Hearts of Youth by Fr. Paul P. Avallone, SDB. This Salesian book unfolds St. John Bosco’s unmatched methodology of catechetical accompaniment enshrined in the “reason, religion, and kindness” mantra of that Order. It also puts on display what it looks like in the personal example of this storied catechetical saint to live pastoral accompaniment in an unreserved manner within a teaching apostolate.
- Educating in Christ by Dr. Gerard O’Shea. This brand new book is the best single volume in print that explains how to see children and develop faith in them in a way completely dependent upon the skills and priorities defined in this article’s description of pastoral accompaniment. Focusing on pastoral accompaniment changes everything in how a person approaches ministry; this book will change how a teacher of children handles his or her classroom.
Beyond the books, I’d like to recommend a new online formation program by Franciscan University of Steubenville is available that is very inexpensive and designed for group or individual use. Its website, www.FranciscanAtHome.com, includes a set of formation workshops called the Pastoral Accompaniment Track. The primary audience is those working in any ministry setting—clergy or laity—whose interactions with others require mentoring skills, evangelical hospitality, ongoing pastoral interactions in the course of catechetical work, small group facilitation, parenting, nurturing, and intercessory prayer outreach. Anyone who has some degree of work in the care of souls can benefit significantly from these workshops. This track is divided into three areas of emphasis in pastoral accompaniment: 1) Mentoring; 2) Spiritual Guidance; and 3) Counseling. Workshops in each of these areas are not designed for professional counselors, spiritual directors, or similar niche roles, but instead for those in more general catechetical or ministerial roles.
I wish I had these resources 20 years ago when I was a young DRE, trying to figure out effective and affordable ways to grow volunteers into a stronger ability to disciple others.
Finding Good Examples
Having noted some excellent books and online resources in this article, we have thereby stressed that what you read and study is indispensable in the acquisition of the skills of accompaniment and your acquaintance with new, great ideas, truths, and fresh ways to see how to be effectively present to others in ministry. Such sources of enrichment are the daily bread and drink for the catechist. Yet all the inspired writing in the world will not alone make us great at pastoral accompaniment. Weshould seek to become more competent by seeing and hearing those who do this kind of ministry well in action.
Make a study of why people who are well known to be effective in person-to-person discipleship are so. Whether you discover such people in your own diocese, parish, school, neighborhood, or even via videos of interactions, carefully analyze what you see (hand gestures, body movements, special actions, facial expressions, movements of the hands and eyes, etc.) and also analyze with care what you hear (tone of voice, techniques for emphasis, evidence of emotion, injection of humor or fear or disgust or gentleness, use of softness of voice to emphasize an effect, how the eyes and hands accompany verbal effectiveness). Practice, primarily in the form of imitation, of what you have seen and heard should be repeated until you have confidence that what has been seen and heard, analyzed and imitated, has been absorbed and actually has become part of yourself. Learn all you can from those who have mastered ministerial presence. Make use of their techniques, but make what you learn your own. Do not try to become them. While using what you have seen as effective in others, retain your own spirit. If your effort is sincere and diligent, the Holy Spirit will do his part.
This is daunting. And yet this is doable, in God. So long as this daunting call drives us to prayer, instead of driving us away in fear, then all things become possible (see Lk 1:37). What we have to give—Who we have to give—is worth surmounting this fear. To see a single soul receive the message of salvation in joy, in thanks, in hope – to see God change a life through our help – what an unparalleled privilege! It is this that, year after year in RCIA, over and over again completes our joy (see 1 Jn 1:4), until that day when we attain that timeless completion of he who “fills all in all” (Eph 1:23).
Bill Keimig, D.Min is the Assistant Director of the Catechetical Institute at Franciscan University of Steubenville. For 15 years, he served as a parish Director of Religious Education and for nine years as the Director of the Association for Catechumenal Ministry (ACM). He and his wife, Heather, have six children running around.
This article originally appeared on pages 14-16 of the print edition.
Art credit: public domain image from Pixabay.com