“But a moment in time”

In April, diocesan Missionary of Mercy (MoM), Richard Shortall sj, participated in a gathering of MoMs in Rome. Richard was one of those chosen to share his story of being a ‘Missionary on Wheels’. Here are extracts from his diary of those special days.

Sunday 8 April

This morning the MoMs join Pope Francis for the outdoor Eucharist in St Peter's Square. We are ushered into our seats in the square, just to the right of the altar behind the concelebrating cardinals and bishops….definitely, a seat with a view!

Alas, I cannot tell you what Francis said in his twelve-minute homily, but what an experience to be so near to the sanctuary area.

At the end of the Eucharist Francis pays tribute to us and we are applauded. He greets a line of special guests before walking in our direction. As he moves along the line of cardinals and bishops, a group of 'unmerciful' MoMs surges forward to greet him. Not even the Papal Secret Service can hold them back! I am content to remain where I am and just soak up the atmosphere.

Throughout the morning I find myself remembering so many people with gratitude: family, friends, Jesuits and those whose lives I touched during my eighteen months of ministry as Maitland-Newcastle’s MoM.

Monday 9 April

A wet day dawns as I set off for the Great Hall (Aula) of the Pontifical Lateran University. I wish I could have sent the rain to Melbourne and Sevenhill!

After collecting my simultaneous translation headphones, I settle a few rows from the front with a good view. However, an immaculately-suited young priest is soon calling me to the front row, where the other 'Witness' speakers are seated. I am reminded of the gospel text, "Come higher, friend"!

Soon it’s time to hear from the five chosen Missionaries of Mercy. The second speaker wows the audience as he speaks passionately about what it was like to be a MoM on wheels, communicating with his hands and filling the room with laughter — especially when he ends one sentence by saying, "and I am a very good knitter." Alas, the projector system is not working and I am unable to show my photographs and maps.

Over lunch I’m amazed by continual expressions of appreciation for my 'witness'. A Polish bishop says, "Thank you so much for your words. I would like you to come to my diocese.”  I believe I have done so many at home proud.

Tuesday 10 April

After Morning Prayer, we listen to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation, on “The Missionary of Mercy According to Pope Francis”. I’m distracted as I keep wondering how I’m going to get the album of my travels in the motor home into Francis’ hands.

Finally I’m able to entrust the photo album to a Scottish monsignor, a member of Archbishop Fisichella’s staff. This seems to be the best I can manage, as there is no suggestion I might be allowed to hand it to Francis himself.

Francis arrives to the sound of sustained applause. One MoM has the temerity to stand in the aisle snapping away while Francis is speaking, until one of the Swiss Guards deals with him — unmercifully!

One phrase of Francis stays with me, “the prodigal son did not have to walk through Customs.”

Once he has finished speaking, Francis stands to greet individually all 600 of us. I have just enough time to say, Jesuiti Australia—to which Archbishop Fisichella adds, familia. It is but a moment in time, but one marked with a feeling of special joy.

We make our way down the main aisle of St Peter’s into the area between the papal altar and the Altare della Cathedra. Here we celebrate with Francis in a rather intimate liturgical space. I find myself soaking up the emotion of feeling, as it were, recognised for all my efforts in the motor home during the Year of Mercy, through the simple gesture of shaking Francis’ hand and being held in his smiling, gentle, gaze.

Wednesday 11 April

We walk to the Lateran Cathedral for our final Eucharist together. When I notice the Scottish monsignor to whom I had given the Maitland-Newcastle photo book yesterday, I thank him for accepting the book on behalf of Francis. He is clearly not pleased to see me as he says, “The book was full of photos of YOU — of YOU!” What can I say in the face of such lack of mercy?

Archbishop Fisichella is the principal celebrant. I notice how at home Fisichella is in this role, with no sense of Roman stuffiness. Suddenly it is all over… I find myself recalling that apart from the personal encounter with Francis, one of the significant graces of these days has been the opportunity to chat so easily with priests who were total strangers to me!

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