THE son of a New Zealand sheep farmer who joined the Jesuits in the 1970’s has spent the last three months travelling Australia with a relic of a Jesuit co-founder.
Fr Richard Shortall, a member of the Xavier College, Melbourne community, is the custodian of the relic of St Francis Xavier on its Australian Pilgrimage of Grace.
He said his “duties” began on September 20.
“With the exception of just a few days here and there, when I’ve needed to stop and rest I have actually accompanied the relic anti-clockwise right around Australia,” he said.
Those duties included being present for both air and ground relic transport and delivering orations on the history of St Francis Xavier’s life and mission.
Fr Shortall said it was only the fifth time in almost 400 years that the relic had left its home in the Gesu, the main Jesuit church in Rome.
The Australian visit was the idea of Sydney auxiliary Bishop Peter Comensoli.
“He is the one who came up with the idea and presented it to the Bishops conference,” Fr Shortall said.
“He needed to have the permission, and its not easy to get off the Jesuits in Rome, the Congregation for Saints and Relics, and the most difficult of all – the government of Italy – because the relic is considered a treasure of Italy.”
Fr Shortall said as with Blessed Peter Faber, he was the son of a sheep farmer, but his family came from an area near Palmerston, on New Zealand’s south island.
He was educated by the De La Salle brothers in New Plymouth at Francis Douglas Memorial College
A college named after New Zealand-born Columban missionary Fr Francis Douglas who was martyred by the Japanese in the Philippines during the Second World War.
“What drew me to the Jesuits was Ignatius, I almost knew nothing about Jesuits because I lived in New Zealand, but it was Ignatius that drew me,” he said.
Joining the Jesuits in 1971, Fr Shortall has been a part of the Australian-New Zealand province ever since.
He spent two years as a young Jesuit teaching English to novices and young students in Indonesia and has worked in the parishes of North Sydney and Norwood, Adelaide as an assistant priest and as a parish priest at Hawthorn, Melbourne and Manoora in the Clare Valley, South Australia.
Fr Shortall said he wasn’t the only Australian-based Jesuit priest to play a leading role in the relic’s Australian visit.
“Once he (Bishop Comensoli) had the permissions and therefore could get the relic, he then turned to the Jesuits in Australia and asked firstly if someone could prepare pre- catechesis material,” he said.
He said Fr Robin Koning, superior of the Jesuit Xavier Community in Melbourne prepared all the material and wrote the prayers on the cards distributed during the relic’s Pilgrimage of Grace.
As well as accompanying the relic on its Pilgrimage of Grace, Fr Shortall was also asked to prepare and present a catechesis on the life of St Francis Xavier and decided the most engaging way to deliver the information was to speak as St Francis.
“I chose six areas of his life and then I spent weeks preparing a text,” he said.
He said as the relics travelling custodian he had several tasks.
“I present the catechesis, I preach at the Masses and then I always do the introduction to the relic and the reliquary because I think it is really helpful for people to have a good sense of what it is and why it is here for the Year of Grace,” he said.
That reason was to encourage people to “see the face of Jesus” or the “face of God, afresh”.
“Bishop Comensoli thought that if we had something special in our country this might help us as we are trying to do that and because Francis Xavier along with Thérèse of Lisieux had been the patrons of Australia and there is a significant relic of Francis that you can see and touch he decided to see if we could get that relic,” he said.
Fr Shortall said he received comments during the pilgrimage about spending more time with St Francis than anyone else ever had.
“I sometimes say to people ‘we have become very good companions’ or if you like ‘we have become very good mates’ and that has been particularly true when I’m on an aircraft and he is sitting beside me and his arm is nestled in my shoulder,” he said.
He said the relic travelled on commercial flights in a special travelling case.
“We have to buy a seat for the relic and it travels in a special travelling case and an engineer seats it in place and then I sit beside it,” he said.
He said only a few fellow passengers had “tweaked” and realised what he was sitting beside and would then give him a nod or a wink.
“The greatest impact has been on the cabin crew and the flight deck who have been fascinated and have felt so privileged,” he said.
“On the flight from Townsville to Brisbane the captain was a Xavier College parent from Melbourne so he was so excited that he was flying the relic.”
Fr Shortall said he was always the first to board the plane and the last to leave and before disembarking would open the case so the crew could see the relic.
“So it is amazing that it has touched people in all sorts of ways,” he said.
Fr Shortall said he could feel the presence of St Francis travelling with him.
“I realise that one of the hardest days is going to be December 4 when the relic must go back to Rome,” he said.
“I know we’ve been together for so long and I will have to say goodbye.”
As for whether the Pilgrimage of Grace has produced those “moments” of grace sought by the Bishops?
Fr Shortall has no doubt there have been many.
“I often phone Bishop Comensoli and I say ‘now Peter this happened today and you should be just so thrilled all the effort you’ve made to obtain the relic has born so much fruit’ and he is so happy whenever I say that,” he said.
“When people do come it is a very graced moment for them.”