TRAVELLING Missionary of Mercy Fr Richard Shortall has finished an exhausting mission to lift the burdens of people in regional Australian communities.
Living out of a motor home that ran off the water and electricity of churches, the Jesuit priest spent the past nine months visiting 30 communities in Maitland-Newcastle diocese to bring God’s mercy as a commissioned Missionary of Mercy.
In February, Fr Shortall and 1071 other clergy around the world, including Sydney Ukranian-Catholic priest Fr Simon Cjuk, were commissioned by Pope Francis as Missionaries of Mercy, and expected to be “a living sign of the Father’s welcome to all those in search of his forgiveness” with a special focus on being confessors.
But Fr Shortall took the title one step further.
“I believed that for us as Australians, in that part of the country, the emphasis would be on allowing people or giving people the opportunity to sit down with me and to tell their stories,” he said.
Every day between 10.15am and lunch, and again in the afternoon, Fr Shortall would sit with people to hear not just their confessions, but also their burdens.
Like the inside of a confessional, all of Fr Shortall’s conversations were private, and some, but not all, turned into the Sacrament of Penance.
“If people wanted the sacrament that was fine,” he said.
“Some people have come along to me and said specifically that they wanted to celebrate the sacrament and they’d been enabled to speak about matters which have been sitting in their hearts for years and years and they’ve been just too frightened to mention them in the sacrament in churches.”
Fr Shortall also offered nights of guided prayer and healing services “that proved to be very helpful to many people”.
In his nine months as a Missionary of Mercy, Fr Shortall has recognised the power of spiritual conversation for the broken.
“And as people have told their stories, many of them have said, ‘I’m sorry I’m laying this burden on you’,” he said.
“So part of my work has been the burden of carrying the stories.”
That burden has taken its toll on the Jesuit.
Some nights, Fr Shortall can’t get to sleep, admitting his sleeping pattern had been disrupted by some of the stories he has heard.
“And I deliberately tried to forget (the stories), because some days after listening to the stories it was very difficult to sleep,” he said.
“And I never kept any records or account, deliberately, because I think to do that is to be influenced by the evil spirit, not the good spirit.
“This has been all absorbing and exhausting.”
Fr Shortall believed his outreach during the Year of Mercy was “a very Australian” initiative.
“The first Jesuits who came to South Australia did a very similar thing on horseback,” he said.
“In that part of New South Wales, the settler priests did the same thing on horseback, Fr (John) Therry and some of these other ones.
“But in terms of the Jesuits, the early Jesuits, Ignatius sent them out from Rome and they did exactly the same thing but they did it on foot, walking around Europe, engaging in spiritual conversation.”
At the invitation of Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Bill Wright, Fr Shortall will go back behind the wheel to continue his outreach, spending three weeks at any given community giving retreats and spiritual direction.
The plan to continue using the motor home also coincided with an official invitiation from Pope Francis for all commissioned Missionaries of Mercy to continue their service.
Announced in his apostolic letter, Misericordia et Misera (Mercy and Misery), released on November 21, the Pope asked all Missionaries of Mercy to continue leading retreats, missions and prayers services, and hearing confessions.
“This extraordinary ministry does not end with the closing of the Holy Door (of the Year of Mercy),” he said.
“I wish it to continue until further notice as a concrete sign that the grace of the Jubilee remains alive and effective the world over.”
Fr Shortall said he was “thrilled” but not surprised the Pope had invited the Missionaries of Mercy to continue their outreach.
Before the official close of the Year of Mercy, Fr Shortall made a visit to Brisbane, the fulfilment of a promise to Toowong parish priest Jesuit Father Peter Quin.
“Just over a year ago I spoke at the Vigil Mass at St Ignatius (Toowong) and the Sunday-evening Mass, and when I explained what we intended to do in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese for the Year of Mercy, there was just a spontaneous applause,” he said.
“They were just so excited to think something like this would happen in Australia.”
Fr Shortall promised Fr Quin he would return to Brisbane to give the congregation a taste of his experience of being a Missionary of Mercy.
The pontifical invitation for Missionaries of Mercy to continue their outreach is just one of the provisions offered by the Pope.
He also extended other initiatives undertaken in the Year of Mercy, including the permission for all priests to grant absolution to those who confess having an abortion.
The provision to absolve sins of abortion, which the Pope restated in his letter as being a grave sin, is usually limited to bishops or priests with special episcopal permission.
According to canon law, procuring an abortion brings automatic excommunication to those who know of the penalty, but procure the abortion anyway, and priests were required to refer the case to a bishop if someone sought absolution.
The Pope has also granted those faithful who attend churches officiated by the Priestly Fraternity of St Pius X to receive valid and licit sacramental absolution of sins in confession with priests in the society.
By Emilie Ng