The 188 young missionaries in the Australia Melbourne Mission came to a special conference with Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles with a question in their heart.
"In preparation for Elder Andersen's visit, we invited our missionaries to prayerfully come with questions that they may have regarding their missionary work, their future, or any other aspect of their lives," said mission President Peter G. Vidmar. "Many of the missionaries read some of Elder Andersen's general conference talks — Sister Vidmar listened to every general conference talk Elder Andersen has given since becoming an apostle."
Imagine the surprise when Elder Andersen walked in to the March 16 meeting with Honorable Tony Abbott MP — the former prime minister of Australia.
"The visit by Tony Abbott was quite a surprise," said President Vidmar. "He was so complimentary of the missionaries and the sacrifices they were making. He encouraged them to persevere and admired their dedication."
The former prime minister's visit came at the invitation of Elder Andersen, who traveled to the country with his wife, Sister Kathy Andersen, and Elder L. Whitney Clayton of the Presidency of the Seventy and his wife, Sister Kathy Clayton.
"Because of my employed role, I have a relationship with the former prime minister," said Elder Robert J. Dudfield, an Area Seventy who works for Church Public Affairs in Australia. "Mr. Abbott had contacted me about giving me a jersey [representing the Church's partnership with a community organization] and the timing worked out that Elder Andersen would be here."
In addition to meeting with the leader, Elder Andersen invited Abbott to speak to the missionaries serving in the area.
"There are so very many good and honorable men and women in the world," Elder Andersen told the Church News. "Without diminishing the truthfulness of the Restoration, we can learn much from them."
Responding to the apostle's invitation, Abbott stood from the pulpit and shared his Christian faith with the missionaries, expounding on his experience studying in the Catholic Seminary.
"As a much younger man, I spent three years trying to become a priest," he said, according to an article on the Pacific Newsroom website. "I discovered the humility and patience and the depth of faith that goes into that vocation."
He thanked the Church for its partnerships in the community, and spoke to the missionaries of the importance of loyalty. Abbott told the missionaries "no great cause is unworthy of great effort and great sacrifice. The cause you have is worthy of that great effort. Every sacrifice and effort you make is an example of your commitment."
Elder Andersen presented Abbott with a small Christus statue as a token of appreciation to the former leader, honoring their common belief in Christ.
"We know you're a man that believes in Christ," Elder Andersen said. "This statue symbolizes the Christ of the universe."
President Vidmar said, "In the days since [Elder Andersen's] visit, many missionaries have told me that their specific questions were answered during the training. Elder and Sister Andersen were so kind and generous and the missionaries felt of their love for them and the Savior's love for them."
"It was gracious of Elder Andersen to share the podium with someone who is not of our faith with the captive audience of missionaries," said Elder Dudfield.
After the meeting, former prime minister Abbott posted a picture on Facebook of himself with Elder and Sister Andersen at the Church building, and expressed gratitude for the Church's support to a program helping veterans in Australia.
"I'm very grateful the Mormon Church has been supporting Pollie Pedal for over a decade," the former leader wrote on Facebook. "This year the Mormons are helping Pollie Pedal support Soldier On's efforts to assist veterans in Victoria and throughout Australia."
The meeting represents the strong relationships in the communities of the Pacific Area of the Church.
In addition to their time in Australia, the Andersens and Claytons joined Elder Ian S. Ardern, a General Authority Seventy and member of the Pacific Area Presidency, and his wife, Sister Paula Ardern, for a meeting with the Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Right Honorable Jacinda Ardern. The prime minister is also Elder Ardern's niece.
"The 45-minute discussion included tending to the needs of the poor and the needy, including the plight of the growing number of homeless people in some New Zealand cities," Elder Ardern said.
The Church leader's visit to the Pacific Area of the Church, from March 6 through March 18, included many meetings with members and missionaries.
"We loved being with the saints in Australia and New Zealand," said Elder Andersen. "We felt of their tremendous faith and love for the Savior, and of His love for them. Wherever we visited, the saints asked that we carry back to Salt Lake City their love and affection to President Russell M. Nelson."
Although area visits of General Authorities often include meetings with large groups of members and missionaries, the visit still felt personal, said Elder Ardern.
"Their personal ministering was inspiring; I am already aware of one young man who has turned from a previous decision and has determined he will serve an honorable mission."
The most recent visit felt special, especially with general conference near.
"It was neat, this close to conference, to have an apostle take time in his busy schedule and minister among the people," said Elder Dudfield. "Whenever a member of the Twelve visits it is such an uplift. We felt the love of the president of the Church — President Nelson. That message was conveyed many times, in addition to feeling the love of the Savior from a member of the Twelve in his role as a special witness."
For local Church member Pania Pickford meeting with Elder Andersen helped her realize he "was such a normal relatable man."
"But when he bore his testimony with such certainty I knew he was an apostle of the Lord," she said. "As he gave his witness of the Savior and His second coming I felt peaceful and confident that He will come again and that I'm on the right track. I'm so grateful we live in a time when Christ calls apostles to reveal His word to us wherever we are in the world."