A caress from God

I met Fr Richard Shortall sj at the Mayfield West parish church on a windy Thursday morning. Settling into a camper style chair, the very one he sits in when listening to people who seek his ear as our diocesan Missionary of Mercy (MOM), I asked him what had been the highlights of his very special ministry so far.

“That’s easy − the privilege and the level of trust that people have placed in me in telling their stories. Over and over again I have realised that what Pope Francis had in mind when he called for Missionaries of Mercy around the world, is happening right here,” explained Fr Richard.

He feels that Pope Francis was primarily thinking about the sacrament of reconciliation in his call, but Fr Richard has made the ministry his own.

“To me the most important thing is to allow the person to speak about something from their past life which is weighing on them, their burden. And what I have seen is that as they tell their story, as they hear themselves speaking and sense that I am listening, their shoulders droop in relief.

“People have told me as they have left that they have felt like a great weight has been lifted from them. And when that is spoken by a senior aged person I realise that they will now be able to die a happy death because these burdens that have troubled them for a very long time have been lifted. It’s a moment of grace. So that is the high point for me because that’s what I hoped and it has taken place,” said Fr Richard.

Fr Richard has been surprised by the kindness of people around the diocese with so many offers of assistance everywhere he goes.

“People offer to do the washing, invite me to dinner or just drop dinner in. A couple I had dinner with this week gave me a bottle of brandy and port to keep me ‘warm in the winter’ and in the rural communities I am never without a fridge full of eggs,” Fr Richard said.

The routine in each community is basically the same with Fr Richard arriving on a Saturday, setting up the motor home and then presiding at the Vigil or Sunday Mass. While he’s there the doors of the church remain open, there is daily Eucharist and catechesis and time for one-on-one talks and/or reconciliation. On Thursday nights Fr Richard leads guided prayer for healing and mercy and this feature of his weekly visits has been life-giving. He has also spent a lot of time with students from the local Catholic schools, mainly talking about Pope Francis because “that’s what they want to hear about”.

When asked if he has noticed a difference between people’s concerns in urban and rural areas Fr Richard is unequivocal.

“Pain is pain, suffering is suffering. People carry the same burdens no matter where they live so the stories they tell are all very similar,” he said.

Describing life on the road as ‘taxing’ and sometimes ‘daunting’, Fr Richard is sustained in his ministry by his time of prayer each day, contact with family and friends, his brother Jesuits and “just knowing that I’m being faithful to what Francis wants”. He has also had some short breaks away from being our MOM, which he acknowledges help him maintain his enthusiasm.

I ask Fr Richard to define mercy and forgiveness.

“In English, if you ask someone to define mercy, many will just give it a legal interpretation and relate it to justice. So while I do refer to the Jubilee Year of Mercy, I talk about it as being a time when we are focusing on the face of God. Importantly, the words I use are kindness, compassion, welcome, inclusion, being non-judgemental, because these are the words that really help people.

“When I was in Rome being commissioned I witnessed Pope Francis leave his vehicle and go to a sick person on a stretcher. He stroked their arm, then their cheek and put the sign of the cross on their forehead. He gave an interview about mercy being like a caress from God and I realised that was what he was doing to the person on the stretcher,” he said.

“For me, it’s in the talking about the past, in my listening, that people here experience the caress of God. Many think that they need to be forgiven but, in fact, there’s nothing to forgive,” Fr Richard explained.

He hopes that the impact of the Year of Mercy continues into the future.

“We cannot underestimate the importance of having someone available to allow ordinary people to tell their stories. There would be no need at the end of the year to sell the motor home because you now have a new model of ministry for a priest and there are many ways it can be used,” said Fr Richard.

Our Missionary of Mercy paid tribute to Vice Chancellor Pastoral Ministries, Teresa Brierley, and Bishop Bill Wright, for their support.

“Teresa had the vision and the plan for making this happen and she is very caring to me, which I have needed,” Fr Richard said.

So with his mini-herb garden and his motor home, Fr Richard will continue to travel around our diocese between now and November. He will continue to listen to people who need to share their stories and feel that ‘caress of God’. You will enjoy any time spent with this special man, reaching out to our communities in a unique way.

To find out when Fr Richard will be in a community near you, please visit www.mn.catholic.org.au

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Joanne Isaac Image
Joanne Isaac

Joanne is a Communications Officer for the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and a regular columnist for Aurora Magazine.

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