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The Spirituality of Accompaniment
December 10, 2015

The Spirituality of Accompaniment
Fr. David Hollenbach S.J. discusses the Spirituality of Accompaniment during a lecture at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Dec. 8. The day also marked the start of the Holy Year of Mercy, and the launch date of the Jesuit Refugee Service Mercy in Motion campaign in support of our Global Education Initiative. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
"We surely have special duties to our fellow citizens, just as we do to members of our own families. But these national duties do not negate our obligations to all our neighbors, both those nearby and those at greater distances."

(Washington, D.C.) December 10, 2015 — On Tuesday, Dec. 8, Fr. David Hollenbach S.J. delivered an Advent Sacred Lecture on the Spirituality of Accompaniment. Tuesday was also the first day of the Holy Year of Mercy, and the launch date of the Jesuit Refugee Service Mercy in Motion campaign in support of our Global Education Initiative.

Fr. Hollenbach is the University Chair in Human Rights and International Justice and the Director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College.

The text of the Sacred Lecture follows:


Advent Sacred Lecture, Georgetown University

December 8, 2015

David Hollenbach, S.J.

Today is the opening day of the Holy Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis. A human struggle underway in our world that surely calls us to respond with mercy and compassion, namely the struggle of refugees and other displaced persons. I want to highlight some ways the Jesuit Refugee Service responds to the needs of the displaced. And I will say a few words on what we might learn from Jesuit Refugee Service for our own spiritual lives.

First, a few facts about the tragic situation of displaced people today. Migration has, of course, been occurring throughout human history. But in recent decades it has increased dramatically. In 2013, the number of international migrants worldwide reached 232 million, up from 154 million in 1990 and from 76 million in 1960. Many of these people are fleeing war and conflict in places like Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. In 2015 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that the number of people displaced by war, intrastate strife, and human rights violations had reached 59.5 million people, 8.3 million more than a year earlier. (1) This was the highest number of displaced persons ever recorded. These people have no choice about moving. Their most basic human rights, often including their right to life, are on the line. For example, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, from 2005 to 2015 over 5 million persons died, chiefly from disease and malnutrition brought about by fighting. (2) The protection of people from such severe threats remains a distant goal.

What can we say about our responsibilities in the face of this suffering? We surely have special duties to our fellow citizens, just as we do to members of our own families. But these national duties do not negate our obligations to all our neighbors, both those nearby and those at greater distances. When people are in severe need, we should recognize that “in Jesus Christ, there are no borders.” (3) This stance has biblical roots. In the gospel of Matthew, just after his birth, Jesus was driven from home with Mary and Joseph. King Herod sought to destroy the newborn child because he saw Jesus as a threat to his regime. The 1953 International Refugee Convention’s defines a refugee as a person who has fled across an international border because of fear of persecution. So to be anachronistic, we can say that Jesus was a refugee as defined by contemporary international law. Jesus also teaches that on the Day of Judgment one’s salvation or damnation will be determined by whether one has welcomed the hungry, the thirsty, and, most relevant here, the stranger (Matt. 25:40). Christians should recognize their special duties to the suffering strangers who are not members of their own communities, including migrants and refugees.

Jesus’s inclusive teachings echo the book of Genesis’s affirmation that all persons have been created in the image of God and are thus brothers and sisters in a single human family no matter what their nationality or ethnicity. Every person is created with a worth that reaches across national borders. The universality of human dignity led Pope John XXIII to insist that “the fact that one is a citizen of a particular State does not detract in any way from his membership in the human family as a whole, nor from his citizenship in the world community.” (4)

Pope Francis’s repeated stress on the fact that mercy is a central aspect of the Christian vocation also sheds light on how we should respond to refugees. Mercy is a key form of the love Jesus commands us to show toward our neighbors. Mercy is love extended to those who are suffering. Mercy is another word for compassion—com, with, and passion, suffering—to be with another in his or her suffering. The etymology of the Latin word for mercy indicates the same spirit. In mercy or Misericordia, one’s heart (cor), is full of the suffering (miserum) the beloved is experiencing. St. Thomas Aquinas saw mercy as like friendship, the form of love that most leads to a compassionate heart. "[S]ince one who loves another looks upon his friend as another self, he counts his friend's hurt as his own, so that he grieves for his friend's hurt as though he were hurt himself." This love is truly com-passion, sharing in the struggle or suffering of another. It is Misericordia, to have one’s heart—cor—touched by the struggles—the misera—faced by one’s friend.

How can this be relevant to our response to the 60 million people displaced by war today? These people often come from half way around the world; they are foreigners, not friends.

But wait. In the New Testament Jesus holds up as the prime example of compassionate love of neighbor the Good Samaritan, who stops to aid a Jew assaulted and left for dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. This Samaritan was a stranger to the Jew fallen by the roadside. Jews and Samaritans were more like enemies than friends. But compassion—mercy—breaks the boundaries of religious and national difference; it reaches across borders to aid a suffering fellow human. When it comes to the love we call mercy or compassion, again we can say “in Jesus Christ, there are no borders.”

Seeing the scope of our Christian responsibility as reaching across borders is a central dimension of the spirituality handed down to us Jesuits from Ignatius Loyola, and I think all of us can learn a lot from it in our increasingly globalized world today. When Ignatius founded the Jesuits, he had an extraordinarily expansive vision. He wrote that the Jesuit order’s activities should be directed “according to what will seem expedient to the glory of God and the common good.” (5) Ignatius’s vision of the common good reached across all borders. It is the “universal” good—the good of the whole of humanity, extending to the ends of the earth. The phrase “the more universal good” appears many times in the Constitutions of the Jesuit order as the criterion for Jesuit decisions about what is required for the fuller service of God, humanity, and the church. (6) In Ignatius’s words, “the more universal the good is, the more it is divine.” The more one’s love reaches across borders, the more it is like God’s love for all men and women.

Ignatius’s expansive vision is evident in his Spiritual Exercises. In the final contemplation of the Exercises Ignatius asks us to consider how God “works and labors for me in all creatures upon the face of the earth” (no. 236). A bit earlier, in the contemplation on the Incarnation, he asks us to consider how God’s redemptive love is directed to all human beings “on the face of the earth, in such great diversity in dress and manner of acting. Some are white, some are black; some at peace, some at war. . .” (no. 106). Just as God has compassionate care for all, no border should limit our love or mercy. Again, in Christ there are no borders.

Let me now turn to the work of Jesuit Refugee Service to help us reflect on the relevance of Ignatius’s vision for us today. I think we can all learn a lot from JRS’s definition of its mission, no matter what our work may be. JRS sees its ministry to refugees as having three dimensions: accompaniment, service, and advocacy. Accompaniment means being with the people being served. For JRS this means being with the refugees on the ground, listening to their stories, and showing them through genuine personal presence that they are not forgotten. It is a kind of friendship—the friendship that leads to a compassionate or merciful recognition that the suffering of one’s friend is one’s own. Many refugees say this accompaniment or friendship is the most important help they have received from JRS. It also has a deep impact on those providing the help, stimulating their further commitment to action.

Accompaniment of the refugees by JRS workers leads, in turn, to service. This service is shaped by knowledge of the needs of the refugees that has been gained from direct interaction with them. For example it has led to JRS education programs for refugee children and for refugees living in poor urban areas—a commitment to refugee education being expanded in the “Mercy in Motion” program being launched today. It has led to the development of a program called Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins, which links Jesuit universities in several parts of the world with people in great need to give them access to higher education, for example in refugee camps in Malawi, Kenya, Syria and Jordan. (7) These educational initiatives arose from accompanying refugees and really listening to them speak of their needs, hopes, and dreams. Creative service arises from accompaniment.

Accompaniment and the service that arises from it lead in turn to recognizing the need for advocacy of policies and institutions that respect the rights of refugees. For example, from accompanying and serving refugees, JRS workers learned that many displaced people had lost limbs due to land mines. This led to JRS engagement in research on why these mines continued to be so widely used by military forces, and ultimately to JRS participation in the global campaign to abolish land mines. This advocacy emerged from the practical engagement of accompaniment and service. It was also shaped by intellectually careful analysis, and dialogue between practitioners and analysts. It helped generate a campaign that eventually led most countries of the world, sadly not including the U.S., to ratify the global treaty abolishing land mines, a campaign that received the Nobel Peace Prize. (8) Thus accompaniment, service and advocacy support each other and can have real influence on public policy.

Providing electronic education for refugees and advocacy of land mine abolition do not provide a template for all Jesuit ministries nor tell the rest of us of how we should live. But I ask you to consider how something like accompaniment could play a role in our spiritual lives and in our work in a world increasingly aware of its cultural, religious and social diversity.

There can be no escaping the encounter with diversity in our global age, nor can we avoid becoming aware of the struggles of the poor, the displaced, and all the others who lack the privileges of education and wealth that you and I have been given. Efforts to serve these people and to advocate policies on their behalf should not start from a supposition that we already know what needs to be done, even if we have some expertise in the area at issue. Rather, service and advocacy should arise from listening to the people themselves tell of their needs and hopes, and being receptive to the realities they face. JRS calls this listening and receptivity “accompaniment.” It might also be described as a kind of contemplative openness to the beauty and the misery that mark the lives of the people one seeks to serve.

Pope Francis, who is himself a Jesuit, stresses the importance of accompaniment in shaping the overall ministries of the church in his Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel. He calls for the church and all its ministers to develop in the “art of accompaniment.” Truly accompanying another person is like standing before the burning bush in which God became powerfully present to Moses in the book of Exodus. The art of accompaniment, the Pope says, “teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5).” Recognition of the sacredness in persons in turn leads to “prudence, understanding, patience” in responding to their needs and to reluctance to stand in judgment of them. Accompaniment, Francis says, is rooted in a genuinely contemplative stance. When the other is poor or living in degraded situations, this contemplative stance “permits us to serve the other not out of necessity or vanity, but rather because he or she is beautiful above and beyond mere appearances.” Accompaniment thus leads to a loving service of the poor and advocacy on their behalf. It leads to an “option for the poor” that goes beyond ideology. It avoids any form service that turns out to be a veiled way of advancing “one’s own personal or political interest.” It responds to those in need with “loving attentiveness” and “true concern for their person.” (9) This is a form of friendship. It is the mercy and compassion to which we are invited by the Jubilee of Mercy that begins today.

Thus Francis proposes a spirituality and a style of ministry marked by the humility and openness that JRS sees at the heart of accompaniment. All the people we encounter should be approached with a readiness to listen. Real listening can lead both to discovery of who they are and of who I am myself. Listening is not a marginal aspect of the life of a Christian believer; rather, the Pope insists it is “a profound and indispensable expression” of Christian faith. (10) This dialogic or relational approach to other people can arise when we that the deepest truth is God’s embrace and possession of us, not our possession of God. The full or absolute truth of God transcends our full grasp. We are always on the way to full understanding. Traveling this path can only be done with integrity if we accompany one another in humility. We need to listen with care as well as speak, to receive from one another as well as seeking to serve each other, to contemplate the reality of the world’s achievements and miseries as well as taking action. Thus we are on a “journey” or “pilgrimage” with believers and non-believers, Christians and non-Christians. Indeed Pope Francis uses the term “pilgrim” some thirteen times in his Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel. This is not surprising, since Francis is a Jesuit follower of St. Ignatius Loyola, and in his Autobiography Ignatius refers to himself simply as “the pilgrim.”

A spirituality of accompaniment, therefore, holds promise of being able to shape our lives and the ministries of the church in ways that reach well beyond the work of Jesuit Refugee Service. Accompaniment should mark our relations with all our brothers and sisters, not just refugees or other displaced people. Indeed if Francis is right, accompanying one another by listening as well as speaking, in dialogue and relationship, should be seen as essential to the human condition itself.

The Pope’s dialogic understanding of the human condition reflects what John O’Malley has called the “style” of dialogue adopted by the Second Vatican Council, which ended exactly fifty years ago today. In O’Malley words, at the Council “for the first time in history, official ecclesiastical documents promoted respectful listening as the preferred mode of proceeding, as a new ecclesiastical ‘way,’ a new ecclesiastical style.” (11)

This dialogic style also has notable Ignatian roots. Ignatius states that the Presupposition of the Spiritual Exercises is that every good Christian should be “more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false.” If this good interpretation does not hold up, the one making it should “be asked how he understands it. If he is in error, he should be corrected with all  kindness. If this does not suffice, all appropriate means should be used to bring him to a correct interpretation, and so defend the proposition from error.” (12) A spirit of dialogue is thus the “Presupposition” of the dynamics of the Spiritual Exercises. It can and should be the “Presupposition” of all church ministries. Indeed, Ignatian spirituality suggests that all people, whatever their vocation or faith, are called to accompany one another in pursuit of the universal common good all share in, listening as well as speaking, seeking to discern where the community is being led.

This is a “Presupposition” that has great relevance in our global age. Cultures and religious traditions are interacting in intensive new ways, with a potential for conflict that has too often led to actual violence and the creation of many millions of refugees. The Ignatian tradition of working for the universal good of the whole human community has the potential to address this new interaction in creative ways. Learning from those in need as we seek justice, and from other cultures and religious traditions as we seek peace, are requirements both of the Gospel and of our human condition as pilgrims in history. The dialogic style of Vatican II, the spirit of accompaniment of JRS, and Pope Francis’s stress on the “art of accompaniment” all highlight ways toward more just and peaceful forms of politics, both in our country and globally. I suggest that we can learn something of the importance of a spirituality of accompaniment from JRS as we reflect on our own lives today. Perhaps we can learn how the mercy and compassion that link friends together can help us find better paths to justice and peace in our day.


1 UNHCR, “Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2014,” 2, online:

2 The International Rescue Committee put the number of deaths in DRC from 1998 to 2007 at 5.7 million. See “Measuring Mortality in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” online: OCHA (the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) estimated that 5.7 million Congolese were in grave need in 2015. See “2015 Aperçu des Besoins Humanitaire, République Démocratique du Congo,” online:

3 Christopher J. Hale, “Cardinals Prove Borders Cannot Block the Love of Jesus Christ,” April 2, 2014, on the Time website at: christ/

4 Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, no. 25, online at: xxiii_enc_11041963_pacem_en.html

5 This identification can be found in the apostolic letter of Pope Julius III, Exposcit debitum (July 21, 1550) that gave papal approval to the “formula of the Institute” of the Society of Jesus. It is contained in the contemporary normative documents of the Jesuit order, The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus and Their Complementary Norms, I. Formulas of the Institute of the Society of Jesus, Julius III, no. 1, p. 4.

6 See, for example, Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, nos. 618 and 623. See also John W. O'Malley, "To Travel to any Part of the World: Jerónimo Nadal and the Jesuit Vocation," Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits, vol. 16, no. 2 (1984).

7 For further information see the website of the Jesuit Commons, at: 8 For descriptions of some of the service and advocacy work of JRSzzzrelated to the abolition of land mines, see material on the “Ban Landmines” link on JRS’s Asia Pacific region website, at: 

8 For descriptions of some of the service and advocacy work of JRS related to the abolition of land mines, see material on the “Ban Landmines” link on JRS’s Asia Pacific region website, at:

9 The quotes in this paragraph are from Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium), nos. 169, 171, 172, and 199. Available on the Holy See website, at: ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium_en.html

10 Pope Francis, “Letter to A Non-believer,” a response to Dr. Eugenio Scalfari of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, September 4, 2013, available on the Holy See website at: scalfari_en.html

11 John W. O’Malley, S.J., “The Style of Vatican II,” America (February 24, 2003). 12 Ignatius Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, no. 22.

12 Ignatius Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, no. 22.

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