ADDRESS TO STUDENT LEADERS, SYDNEY CATHOLIC SCHOOLS
“Accompaniment with Young People in the Senior Year and Beyond”
St Mary’s Cathedral Hall, Sydney
A warm welcome once again to our forum for the student leaders in the systemic and congregational schools. I thank Mr Tony Farley, Mr Anthony Cleary, and other education leaders and staff for this initiative. But above all a very warm welcome to our student leaders for the year ahead, since you represent the 90,000 students in Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Sydney and, I hope, many of you will in due course also represent our Church in the wider world in the years ahead.
In 1912, Emma Hardy died. Though the two had been estranged for many years, her widow – the famous novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy – was heartbroken and inconsolable. But out of his trauma he revisited the places linked with their courtship and he wrote some of his most poignant poetry, his Poems of 1912-13. One of the most powerful in this collection is a sixteen-line poem called The Walk. It describes how Emma’s absence changes not only all the things they shared, but even those things they didn’t share. In this poem Hardy describes how he used to love walking alone up a hill near their house. Though his wife never accompanied him he says walking up that hill no longer feels the same – not because she isn’t there beside him, but because he knows she won’t be there when he returns.
The word ‘accompaniment’ has been an important one in the thought of Pope Francis. You find the idea again and again in Christus Vivit, his Exhortation to young people published earlier this year which we will discuss today. The accompaniment idea begins with the notion of things that go together: a DVD might accompany our course notes; thunder accompany lightning; a salad accompany a steak. We might accompany someone to a party, holiday or rally, or play a guitar to accompany someone’s singing.
All too often we think or feel that accompaniment requires thinking, feeling and doing everything together. If I’m going to accompany you in some cause, I need to agree 100% with everything you think and say and do. We need to stand and walk together on everything.
Hardy’s poem calls this notion into question. For him, the accompaniment wasn’t in the walk: he often walked alone, after all. Instead, the poem implies, Hardy’s sense of accompaniment came from the knowledge that his wife was there to share in the afterglow, so to speak, of that walk. He felt her with him because he knew he could and would return to her, and share with her what he had seen, and so his journey was made alone but without him being alone.
So, too, we know that accompanying someone on the guitar does not require that you play a note every time they sing one, let alone that it always be the same note. Nor do we have to see all the same monuments or drink in all the same bars and cafes in order to really have a holiday together.
So accompaniment is a rather more nuanced reality than we might first think. In Pope Francis’ thought it highlights the importance of spiritual accompaniment over merely physical accompaniment. How many of you here have experienced being in the same room as someone, or doing the same task as them, without there being any real connection; indeed, being quite indifferent to each other or even hostile, preferring to be elsewhere and apart? Hardy might have hated his wife actually joining him for his walks and then moaning the whole time about how exhausted she was, didn’t see the point of the walk, and so on. The kind of accompaniment he craved was deeper, more spiritual, than co-location.
So today’s theme of ‘accompaniment with young people in the senior year and beyond’ isn’t about just getting together in one place, or doing some activity together. These things are valuable, no doubt, but first and foremost true accompaniment has to be personal and spiritual. Christus Vivit uses the story of Emmaus as its touchstone. When Jesus accompanied the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35), He wasn’t just walking the same route – lots of people did that on the very same day. No, He was keeping company – ac-companying – them, and that meant listening to them, sharing at a deep level in what was worrying them, offering them His counsel, gently helping them to recognise their mistakes and think bigger. He does not force faith or friendship on them, even after He has risen victorious over death. Indeed, when they reach the town, Luke tells us, ‘He made as if to go on’, letting them decide whether to press Him to stay with them or not. Jesus doesn’t force us to break bread with Him: He leaves us free to invite Him into our hearts, to join us on our journeys, to be with us in the Eucharist. He’s willing: it’s up to us to invite Him to accompany us or not.
True accompaniment is deeply personal. Though the two disciples didn’t recognise Christ at first, as they walked the Emmaus Road filled with their grief; but their hearts burned within them as He spoke the Word of God to them; and they finally recognised that He was really present in the Eucharist. Ever since that day the phrase to ‘break bread’ with someone has come to mean more than merely eating with them; it’s about sharing food for friendship’s sake.
It’s only in such deeply personal encounters, in such spiritual accompaniment, that we discover who someone else is, and indeed discover ourselves. It’s only though coming to know them, at least a little, that we can befriend the real person rather than some mirage. Only once we’ve started on that journey together can we get to know and befriend them more deeply. Knowledge and friendship accompany each other, truth and love nourish each other.
As student leaders in the year ahead your task will be to accompany all those in your school as they engage in the great adventure of Catholic education. That includes the school leaders and staff, those in your own year group, the younger ones, and the surrounding families, parishes and society. Your accompaniment task will, as today’s theme suggests, stretch out beyond your school years to your years in the world of tertiary education, work, friendships, leisure, new family formation and more. The skills you learn and apply this year in listening, sharing, advising and leading according to the paradigm of accompaniment will be applicable for years to come.
We Aussies have some wonderful things to offer the world. We come from a land blessed with extraordinary natural beauty and resources, an affluent economy, a peaceful, democratic polity, a well-established Church still young enough to recall its missionary history, and a culture of vibrant hope and youthful energy. Many lay people, clergy and religious are active in works of evangelisation and catechesis, education, healthcare, welfare, youth ministry and parish life. We have Good News to tell about the progress of the Gospel in Australia.
Yet the Church in Australia is also confronted with a range of cultural and spiritual challenges such as individualism, consumerism and secularism. We have sometimes failed, catastrophically in some cases, to live up to our ideals as a Church and, though we are doing our best to reform ourselves appropriately, it has left many people understandably disillusioned, even cynical. Sometimes we are the subject not just of justified scrutiny and criticism, but of misunderstanding and plain hostility in the old and new media and other institutions. Some contemporary ideologies marginalise Christianity and all Christians. Many people are disoriented about what to believe, and what is right and wrong, and so live in a kind of ‘spiritual desert’ without any spiritual or moral guide to accompany them through their struggles. As a result God and Church, human life and love, marriage and family, justice, ecology and peace: all these things can be insufficiently reverenced. The faith and practice, vocations and mission of Catholics down under need to be reinvigorated. The Church needs you to be accompanying her in this renewal, even as Christ accompanies you through the Church.
All of you here today are walking a similar road, and yet your path is also unique to you. But the Church through its schools and parishes, its pastors and people, want you to know that we are here for you, today and always. We want to walk with you in an ever-deepening accompaniment. It doesn’t mean we’ll stalk you. As I said before, accompaniment doesn’t mean someone looking over your shoulder all the time and wagging a finger. But as you reshape your character this year and beyond, cultivating habits of listening, pondering, speaking and acting, hopefully in service of God and others, the Church wants to help. And when hard times come, or confused times, or dry times, when you might want Christ’s hand more than ever, remember He wants to walk the road with you. As our future spouses and parents, priests and religious, professionals and workers, teachers and politicians, I pray you will be young leaders with a sense of purpose, of mission, of readiness to accompany andto transform our world. God bless your discussion today, and the years ahead.
 E.g. Pope Francis, Evangelium Gaudium: Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World (24 November 2013), 44, 99, 169-73, 199, 214, 285-6; Amoris Laetitia: Exhortation on Love in the Family (19 March 2016), 46, 60, 217-23, 241-55, 291, 300, 308, 312; Address to the Bishops of Brazil (2013); Address to Ecclesial Movements (22 November 2014); Address to the US Bishops (2015); Address to the Bishops of Congo (4 May 2015); Message for the 2016 World Day of Peace (8 December 2015); Address to Religious (28 January 2017); Address to Participants in a Formation Course of the Roman Rota (27 September 2018); Message for 2019 World Day of Vocations (31 January 2019); Christus Vivit: Exhortation to Young People (25 March 2019), 30, 45, 99, 170, 185, 194, 230, 237, 239, 242-7, 282, 297-8.