As most people know, Pope Francis commissioned some one thousand “missionaries of mercy” at the start of the current Holy Year and granted them special faculties to forgive even those sins reserved to the Holy See.
The pope’s intention was that these priests would minister in dioceses or regions throughout the world as “a sign of the Church’s maternal solicitude for the People of God” and “living signs of the Father’s readiness to welcome those in search of his pardon.”
When Jesuit Father Richard Shortall read about the idea in the Jubilee of Mercy’s bull of indiction, Misericordiae Vultus, he immediately felt called to volunteer for the task.
He went to Teresa Brierley, vice-chancellor of Maitland-Newcastle, the Australian diocese where he’s been serving the past few years. She and Bishop Bill Wright, the diocesan ordinary, thought it a good idea.
But they wanted Fr Richard to carry out this special mission in a very specific way – by travelling around in a motor home.
The Jesuit told me more about his experience this week in Melbourne while we both attended the biennial convention of Australia’s National Council of Priests (NCP).
“The notion is that the Jubilee should open the doors of churches that are usually closed,” he said.
So he travels to a certain area and spends the week at a closed parish or another community, celebrating Mass each morning and then making himself available throughout the day for anyone who wants to come in and just talk.
“There is a sign-up sheet for half-hour slots and all they have to do is tick the box. I invite them to come and tell me their stories,” he said, stressing that about a third of these people end up celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
But Fr Richard stresses that the most important thing is just being there for people who need someone to listen to them. And he offered an example.
“There are a number of mothers and grandmothers who come in and start to cry out of guilt because of a son or granddaughter who has taken his or her own life. They want to know if they can be forgiven,” Fr Richard says.
“I tell them there is nothing to forgive,” stressing how moved he is to see these women visibly relieved by having a weight removed from their shoulders.
“I’m living among the sheep,” he told me.
“And I have a pretty good idea what that means, since I’m a New Zealand sheep farmer’s son,” he said.
The Jesuit missionary of mercy has already spent a week in eighteen of 28 places the dioceses has scheduled for him to visit before the Holy Year ends in late November.
But that might not be the end of his travelling motor home ministry. The experience has been so positive that Bishop Wright thinks it could serve as a new model in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.