24 February 2016, The Tablet

Hundreds of lapsed Catholics reached by Mercy Bus in Lancashire

Pope Francis has welcomed the outreach initiative for the Year of Mercy

Outreach in the Year of Mercy has taken an interesting turn in the Diocese of Salford, with lapsed Catholics being invited to reconnect with their faith aboard the Mercy Bus.

The bus, which has a giant image of Pope Francis emblazoned on its side, is touring the diocese during Lent. Each Saturday, the bus parks in a busy area of Manchester or one of the outlying towns and volunteers engage shoppers by offering as gifts miraculous medals blessed by the Pope.

Those who want more information about the times of local Masses, or who wish to speak with a priest, receive a blessing or go to confession, are invited on the double-decker where two priests offer the sacrament of reconciliation. 

Father Frankie Mulgrew, a Salford priest who helped devise the project for the Year of Mercy, said interest from the public had "out-passed expectations".

In the first two weeks, when the bus visited Salford, then Bolton, more than 400 people visited, he told Catholic News Service. Priests later reported hearing the confessions of "significant numbers" of lapsed Catholics, some of whom had not been to church "for decades".

"We are meeting people where they are, we are parking up beside their lives," said Father Mulgrew, 38, a former stand-up comedian who turned his back on a career in children's television to become a priest after he said he personally experienced the mercy of God in confession.

"We are saying: 'If you have got any burdens, come on the bus and be free from them. If you are going through any struggles right now - a family feud, financial problems, a broken relationship - come on board the bus and experience God's mercy'".

Father Mulgrew said the initiative was inspired by the public ministry of Jesus "on the hilltops, in marketplaces and at the dinner tables" and also by the open-air Masses celebrated in the slums of Buenos Aires, Argentina, by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio before he became Pope Francis.

The initiative was conceived by a Salford diocesan Year of Mercy "outreach group" of which Father Mulgrew, a curate in Blackburn, is a member.

Initially, the plan was to use the bus on each Saturday in Lent, but the initiative is proving to be such a success that diocesan officials said they plan to retain the vehicle until the end of the holy year in November.

The front of the bus is emblazoned with the diocesan Year of Mercy logo with its destination entry designated as "#nextstopmercy."

According to Fr Mulgrew Pope Francis has given his personal blessing to the initiative and even "laughed spontaneously" when he was presented with pictures of the Mercy Bus.

"He gave me this great beaming smile which I took as a great encouragement and affirmation of what I was working toward," Father Mulgrew said.

Ahead of the launch, Bishop John Arnold of Salford announced in a press release that "the Mercy Bus is a way of reaching out to people who might not otherwise have contact with the Church. We are going out to them, rather than expecting them to come to us," the bishop said.

The bus is accompanied by up to 40 volunteers and a band of musicians who play live music to draw the attention of the passing crowds.

Among the volunteers is Hannah Beckford who, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. each Saturday, approaches shoppers with the offer of a miraculous medal.

“It is what the church should be doing,” said Beckford, 25, who also serves as a chaplain in St. Joseph's Catholic High School, Horwich. “For a long time I have wanted it to go out, and it's wonderful that in Salford that's what the church is doing," she continued. "It is a joy to be a part of it. I love it."

Other Year of Mercy initiatives include special candle-lit liturgies in schools and parishes in the Diocese of Clifton, social outreach to the poor and those in need of healing in the Diocese of Brentwood and Holy Doors being made available for Catholics to enter into across the country. 

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