NEWCASTLE, Australia (CNS) — After opening holy doors in Rome to begin the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has now pushed those passageways even wider by sending forth hundreds of “missionaries of mercy” to every corner of the earth.Their special mission, he has said, is to be a living witness of God’s closeness and love — to knock on the doors of people’s hearts and let God into their lives, especially those who have become distant from the Church.
The jubilee’s call for a Church to “open wide the doors” has percolated down to local dioceses so that all people, not just Catholics and Christians, can feel welcome, said Jesuit Fr Richard Shortall.
The priest was one of the more than 1100 religious and diocesan priests who applied for and received the special papal mandate to be missionaries of mercy.
Fr Shortall, a New Zealander by birth, said in February that he will serve as “a missionary on wheels” for Australia’s extensive diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, taking God’s mercy on the road to more than two dozen rural communities that lack a resident priest.
An old boy of Francis Douglas Memorial College in New Plymouth who joined the Jesuits in 1971, he is one of two missionaries of mercy for Australia.
Having a camper, donated by the diocese, will allow the priest to just pull up to a parish, “plug into an outlet” for electricity and carry out his ministry.
A calendar online shows where Fr Shortall will be as well as a telephone number to contact. He said he plans on setting up a whiteboard with times throughout the day so that people can reserve a slot to sit down with him, either in the church or outside if being inside a church makes them uncomfortable.
“We have lost so many people in our congregations because of the history in Australia of the sin of the sexual abuse of children and others, and practices of bullying,” he said. So the Year of Mercy is another opportunity “of dealing with that” and reconnecting people to God.
He said his hope for the jubilee is to help people “tell their story” because so many want to be heard “and to have their hurt acknowledged”. Through Confession or prayerful conversations, he wants to help people leave their hurt behind and “experience the healing offered by a God of mercy”.
Fr Shortall said he was inspired to step forward after reading the Pope’s words in “Misericordiae Vultus” (“The Face of Mercy”) instituting the year: “I intend to send out missionaries of mercy. They will be a sign of the Church’s maternal solicitude for the people of God, enabling them to enter the profound richness of this mystery so fundamental to the faith.”
“As soon as I read that, I felt this call. Yes, I want to be one of those missionaries of mercy,” Fr Shortall told Catholic News Service.
Having worked with the people of the diocese since 2013 and understanding the particular hurts felt by many of them over news about clergy sexual abuse, he felt called to offer his services.
“I had no idea how I’d do it or what was involved in being one of these missionaries of mercy, but when I shared this desire with Teresa Brierley, a vice chancellor at the diocese, her eyes lit up. She said, ‘Don’t worry, I know how.'”
Ms Brierley has long wanted a priest to travel to remote communities without a resident priest. With the approval of Maitland-Newcastle Bishop William Wright and Fr Brian McCoy, provincial of the Australian Jesuits, Fr Shortall is making her wish possible.
The diocese spans more than 13,000 square miles. Thirty priests serve in 39 parishes, which include 77 churches. An additional 17 parishes with 27 churches have no priest. It is hoped that Fr Shortall will have ministered in all 27 of those communities by the time his mission of mercy on wheels ends.
“The concept of having priests moving around to rural and remote communities is not a new one,” Fr Shortall said. “During the early settlement times, there were priests traveling on horseback, and even in our early Jesuit tradition, we have sent out missionaries on foot or horseback for weeks at a time. So you could say we’ve just reverted to what we’ve always done. I just happen to be on wheels.”
At a recent Mass at St Patrick and St Brigid church in Cooranbong he shared: “We have been discovering over the week what Francis had in mind in calling this Jubilee Year of Mercy, that when we look at the merciful face of God, it is a God of compassion, a God of kindness, a welcoming and nonjudgmental God. So as we take these qualities of God into our own hearts, when we connect with the mercy of God, we in turn become more merciful people.”
Each morning, Fr Shortall opens the doors of the church at which he is staying and they remain open throughout the day. He celebrates Mass in the morning and remains in the church, sitting quietly, reading or praying, while waiting for anyone to take up the invitation to come through the door.
Fr Shortall said his biggest hope is that people accept the invitation to experience God’s love and mercy by walking through the doors he has opened.
“When I first arrive, I invite people to feel free to come and talk to me about something that may be weighing them down from the past. Perhaps they’ve never had an opportunity to share the story with anyone else,” he said.
“Now they have an opportunity to share their story to someone who is listening with compassion and who is not going to judge them. And I know from watching them and sitting with them, how important this has been for them. There is this incredible sense of relief, of being free. And for me, that’s the key component of a missionary of mercy during this jubilee. The conversation may lead to the sacrament of Reconciliation, but not necessarily, and that’s OK.
“When someone is sitting in that chair and I might be feeling weary, I tell myself the most important person I am meeting today is that person. And the most important thing I will do today is to listen to them and give them my attention. I’ve heard many people say, ‘Father I feel like a great weight has lifted from my shoulders.’ It’s so simple. All you need to do is love them and accept them, to be available and present to them and to listen gently, instead of shouting at them and judging them and making things difficult for them,” he said.
“This is what Francis is saying, we must reach out, and make sure people still feel welcome and part of the Church.”