Missionary of Mercy Fr Richard Shortall, SJ, is offering “lockdown conversations” to people who may be missing the opportunity of talking to their priests about their worries and concerns.
Fr Shortall, who is currently living in Rotorua, said these conversations are similar to the ones he had with people in the Australian Catholic diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, where he served as a missionary of mercy in 2016, except that this will be done under the present circumstances over communication apps or over the phone.
“I thought, given that experience (in 2016), perhaps people in this diocese [Hamilton], missing the opportunity to talk with their priest, might appreciate the opportunity in a different context, to have a conversation about the worries and concerns they are experiencing now in this time of lockdown leading into level 3, and hopefully to level 2 whenever that would happen in the future,” he said.
He said people might want to talk about “their own fear about would our lives ever be the same, will we get our lives back again as a result of what happened in China at the end of December”.
The project started on April 27 and will end when the lockdown is lifted.
“It will be their conversation. They will have the opportunity to speak to an experienced and qualified spiritual director, retreat director and missionary of mercy,” he said. “The conversations will be gentle, easy, very respectful of whoever wants to talk, just as they were in the jubilee year of mercy. The difference is that we will not be sitting in the same room, because we cannot do that.”
Fr Shortall said, when he was a missionary of mercy in Melbourne, he went around different communities in his motorhome, celebrating the Eucharist and sitting inside a church to give people the opportunity “to tell their story”.
He said it was the time of the Australian Royal Commission of Inquiry into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. And so while Pope Francis thought those conversations would be more about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, this wasn’t the case.
“What happened was over that year, I listened to person after person telling me their stories, and many of those stories were stories of abuse in one form or another in their lives. And I realised on more than one occasion when they told me the story, they were telling it for the very first time. And sometimes those people were in their 60s or 70s,” he said.
Fr Shortall had just finished a Holy Week retreat which was livestreamed through the Hamilton diocese’s website. He did this at the request of Bishop Stephen Lowe.
He was surprised at how popular that retreat was, with more than 1400 people from this country and overseas participating.
“I then began to think, well, we still have more time of lockdown and we will move hopefully to level 3 and we’ll still be in this situation of incarceration,” he said. So he decided to offer this service.
Fr Shortall is currently isolating at the Rotorua parish with Frs Eamon Kennedy and Prakash Somu, CMF. He was at the end of a three-week retreat at Cambridge parish when the national lockdown happened.
“This meant that I could not go back to Australia to my home with my Jesuit community in Melbourne. I was happy not to do that because, in fact, I felt much safer being here in New Zealand. So, like everyone else, I had under 48 hours to find a place to stay during the lockdown. And so, I came to the presbytery in Rotorua,” he said.
More information about arranging a talk with Fr Shortall can be found through the diocesan newsletter on the Hamilton Catholic diocese website. www.cdh.org.nz