Fr Richard came to our diocese in July 2013, introducing parishes to his Come Walk with Me Retreat in Everyday Life program. During 2013, 2014 and 2015, 150 people from seven locations participated in this retreat over three weeks, meeting Fr Richard five times while at the conclusion of the retreat celebrating Eucharist and having a meal together.
Retreatants were enriched and built up a more intimate, friendly relationship with Jesus, particularly through scripture and prayer. Those who participated set aside time for praying with the scriptures while listening to the stirring of God from within and as part of their daily experiences. In many communities, Fr Richard broke open the Ignatian discernment process, providing people with a model of making individual and group decisions.
Then in 2015, Pope Francis delivered a Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus (Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy). I recall Fr Richard and I meeting up in a café in Hamilton, with the intention of speaking with each other as to what Fr Richard might be called to in our diocese for 2016. As part of that conversation, Fr Richard, began talking about this ‘Bull’ with particular reference to paragraph 18:
During Lent of this Holy Year, I intend to send out Missionaries of Mercy. They will be a sign of the Church’s maternal solicitude for the People of God, enabling them to enter the profound richness of this mystery so fundamental to the faith. There will be priests to whom I will grant the authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See, so that the breadth of their mandate as confessors will be even clearer. They will be, above all, living signs of the Father’s readiness to welcome those in search of his pardon. They will be missionaries of mercy because they will be facilitators of a truly human encounter, a source of liberation, rich with responsibility for overcoming obstacles and taking up the new life of Baptism again. They will be led in their mission by the words of the Apostle: “For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:32). Everyone, in fact, without exception, is called to embrace the call to mercy. May these Missionaries live this call with the assurance that they can fix their eyes on Jesus, “the merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God” (Heb 2:17).
I ask my brother Bishops to invite and welcome these Missionaries so that they can be, above all, persuasive preachers of mercy. May individual dioceses organize “missions to the people” in such a way that these Missionaries may be heralds of joy and forgiveness. Bishops are asked to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation with their people so that the time of grace offered by the Jubilee Year will make it possible for many of God’s sons and daughters to take up once again the journey to the Father’s house. May pastors, especially during the liturgical season of Lent, be diligent in calling back the faithful “to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace” (Heb 4:16).
It became clearer as we spoke that Fr Richard was feeling a real yearning and call to be one of Francis’ Missionaries of Mercy. I responded enthusiastically, sharing with him the way in which I thought this could occur around our diocese. This of course required the Missionary of Mercy to travel around our diocese offering God’s mercy and forgiveness. The idea of the motor home was conceived and as we walked back from the café in Hamilton to the diocesan offices we explored the way in which this could work. Fr Richard returned to Melbourne so as to discern his calling to such a mission.
Upon his return to the diocese, a meal was arranged for about a dozen people to meet with Bishop Bill and Fr Richard to discuss the proposal of having a Missionary of Mercy in our diocese during the Year of Mercy and how this might unfold. It was on this night that the idea took shape and all that was now left was for Bishop Bill to talk with the Provincial of the Jesuit order to seek support for us to have Fr Richard in the diocese during 2016. Fr Brian McCoy SJ, the Provincial, was very supportive of Pope Francis’ request for our diocese to have among us a Missionary of Mercy (MOM). It was from this time that I would address Fr Richard as MOM, much to his delight.
It was conceived that those communities, with a church, without a resident priest, would be the places for MOM and the motor home to visit and present the merciful face of God. Amazingly MOM moved house each week during 2016 visiting thirty communities. Fr Richard’s last report to Bishop Bill, Archbishop Fisichella in Rome and to me, began with the following words:
After eight months on the road living in the motor home, spending a week in twenty-nine communities and sitting each day in thirty-four different churches engaged in the 'apostolate of the ear', I reached Morpeth − community visit number thirty and the final one for this Jubilee Year of Mercy.
Each Saturday, Fr Richard would depart one location and arrive in his motor home, with eager parishioners waiting to assist in the set-up – electricity, water, levelling the motor home, keys to the church, directions to local shops, etc − and then Mass to begin the week of mercy. Fr Richard broke open in each place his experience of Pope Francis, in Rome, where he was commissioned as a Missionary of Mercy. Those who encountered Fr Richard, not only came to know him, but they also came to know Pope Francis and the Pope’s desire for God’s people.
We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to a hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness. (MV 2)
Fr Richard would often refer to Pope Francis as the pastoral pope. In following the Pope’s example, Fr Richard faithfully travelled across our diocese, meeting people and making God’s mercy real, both to individuals and to communities. The door of mercy was opened in every church so that those who entered would experience the love of God who consoles, pardons and instils hope.
Each day, Fr Richard would celebrate Eucharist and then sit in the church waiting for those who were desiring God’s mercy and healing touch. God, through him, has been attentive to the great burdens, pain and sadness of some of our people and their communities. It was through this ‘apostolate of the ear’ that God’s healing presence was encountered and people felt their loads lighten. God’s grace was not only in these moments, but when people gathered at table for morning teas and dinners, very frequently in the local pub. The following comment picks up on this:
Yarning, eating, joking and taking a genuine interest in our little town and in each and every one of us…. our faith has been strengthened and deepened.
Whole communities valued the doors of their churches remaining wide open for the week in which the MOM was present. I recall Fr Richard telling me that in one location someone travelled from Sydney seeking out the MOM and God’s mercy and forgiveness. Some who shared with Fr Richard had carried their burdens for some 50 or 60 years before finally handing them over to God, through him.
I am mindful that as I write these words, how generous Fr Richard and the Jesuits have been. The Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle was the only Australian diocese to take up the challenges and opportunity to have a Missionary of Mercy present in the diocese. Living in a motor home and moving each week was very challenging and I know that the winter months were cold and particularly difficult. And yet he was buoyed by the words of Pope Francis, by those he met and by his Jesuit community, when he would return home for some much-needed R&R after several weeks on the road. Fr Richard’s deep faith and sense of call to be a Missionary of Mercy gave him the grace and courage to continue this mission, even when it got really tough. I am reminded of these words from Misericordiae Vultus:
During this Jubilee, the Church will be called even more to heal these wounds, to assuage them with the oil of consolation, to bind them with mercy and cure them with solidarity and vigilant care. (MV 15)
Even though the Door of the Jubilee Year of Mercy closed at the end of last year, Pope Francis decided that those he commissioned to be Missionaries of Mercy would continue in their mission. So this year, Fr Richard has once again, taken up residence in his motor home in six locations in three week blocks, offering a retreat called Prayer in Everyday Life along with his discernment process. He finishes this week at Wallsend-Shortland Parish.
So, now it is time for our Missionary of Mercy to respond to another stirring of the spirit. Fr Richard and the motor home will be missed and yet I am mindful of the graces we as a diocesan community have had bestowed on us. We will take the chance on Sunday to acknowledge Fr Richard and the Jesuits, including Pope Francis, for the gift of mercy in our diocese. Fr Richard has been a faithful servant of God’s joy, mercy, compassion, forgiveness and tenderness. He has been a friend to many.
It is certainly my hope that lots of people will gather on Sunday to thank Fr Richard and to say farewell. I do wonder whether we have yet begun to realise the gift of God’s mercy in our diocese! I still sense our need for healing and to live lives that are more joy-filled and merciful. I am mindful that when we come together as a diocesan community there is a great sense of belonging and happiness.
Thank you to the many people from around our diocese who have welcomed and cared for Fr Richard. I have a sense that we have been on a wonderful pilgrimage.