Father Richard Shortall sj has been the Missionary of Mercy to the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, appointed by Pope Francis. Only one of two Missionaries of Mercy in Australia, and one of a thousand world-wide, Fr Shortall is probably the most mobile and innovative in his outreach.
Home has been a mobile home. Fr Shortall has motored to all points of the diocese, to localities where church doors are mostly kept closed. Near to those doors he has located his temporary home.
For a week the doors have been open. The merciful Lord has been present to celebrate Mass daily, to listen to every comer’s story – often of grief, hardship, misunderstanding and isolation – and to bestow mercy and peace on the seeker.
Pope Francis envisaged the availability of the sacrament of Reconciliation as key to the role. Father Shortall’s experience has been not quite so. In Australia, and especially in our diocese, he says, “the key has been the opportunity, in a safe environment, to tell one’s story – and to know it is believed – whatever the story! I have found, day after day, that is the case.”
After “such moments of extraordinary grace” the story-teller would sometimes, not always, request “could I celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation?” Fr Shortall would see the “freeing” in faces and shoulders. “Some will actually say ‘I feel a great burden has been lifted’”. Some conversations have ended in tears – tears of joy – as penitents “have let go of the fearful God, the vengeful policeman drummed into us by Irish Catholicism”.
The mercy of God that Fr Shortall heralds is found in his emphasis on misericordia – “compassion, kindness, acceptance, the welcoming, non-judgemental attitude of God”.
The first time that weekly flocks have encountered their Missionary of Mercy has been at Sunday Mass. The homily has set the tone. Many have been drawn to daily Mass throughout the one week when they have had a resident priest literally at their door.
Father Shortall has, at every location, been “faithful to the rhythm of the day” because he knew it worked. A major feature of that rhythm was availability. Individuals could make appointments to come and converse. However, if there were gaps in the daily schedule Fr Shortall would still be there at the church, available. He would sit, read, pray, knit.
Sometimes people would just wander in and start to talk. The sight of an open church door, usually closed, could entice the curious and lead to an encounter with mercy.
‘Merciful like the Father’ expresses the theme of the Holy Year. However, it has been the motherly kindness of God that has resonated with this Missionary. Throughout his life Father Shortall has observed and even been subjected to a degree of bullying and abusive behaviours from males in society and in the church. Lamentably it is true, he says, and needs to be faced. “It’s part of the story.”
The upside from this experience is that it has produced in Father Shortall a certain sympathy with those telling of their issues, and enabled them to relate with ease. It has also fostered devotion to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Wisdom envisaged in the Scriptures in feminine vesture. Readily he has responded to Pope Francis’ call upon his Missionaries of Mercy to express “the Maternity of the Church”.
“To me the great image of the Year of Mercy and the expression of the Maternity of the Church is your patron, the patron of the Diocese – Our Lady of Perpetual Help” says Father Shortall. He has been saddened to find a few churches where her image is not displayed, where one is unable to encounter the icon which “holds you in Mary’s gaze”.
He has brought the mercy of God to isolated communities; he has seen the kindness of God at work; but has Father Shortall himself experienced mercy while on mission? “Yes” he says emphatically, and commends those communities which welcomed him, rallied to help set up his residence and provided him with meals. Not all were so supportive, he sadly relates, but once again, “It’s part of the story.”
Our Missionary of Mercy has brought the kindness of God to many far and wide in our diocesan community. Father Shortall has been a channel of God’s mercy and peace. The Year of Mercy comes to an end and the dedicated Missionary of Mercy travels no more, however, the mercy of God, the kindness of God, the compassion of God, continue to move abroad in our diocese.