People walk by the Mercy Bus in Burnley, England, Feb. 20.

CNS PHOTO | SIMON CALDWELL

People walk by the Mercy Bus in Burnley, England, Feb. 20.

March 7, 2016
SIMON CALDWELL
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

BURNLEY, England - A diocese in England is using a double-decker bus for priests to hear the Confessions of people who have stopped going to church.

The Mercy Bus is touring the Diocese of Salford during Lent in an attempt to reach out to lapsed Catholics.

Each Saturday, the bus parks in a busy area of Manchester or one of the outlying towns, and volunteers try to engage shoppers by offering miraculous medals blessed by Pope Francis as gifts.

If they receive a positive response, they are invited on the bus, where they can talk with a priest or receive a blessing - and also go to Confession.

Three priests are on board to offer the sacrament of Reconciliation.

Visitors can also depart with information about the Catholic faith and about times of Masses in their area.

Father Frankie Mulgrew, a Salford priest who helped to devise the project for the Year of Mercy, said interest from the public had surpassed expectations.

In the first two weeks, when the bus visited Salford, then Bolton, more than 400 people visited, he told CNS Feb. 20.

Priests later reported hearing the Confessions of "significant numbers" of lapsed Catholics, some of whom had not been to church "for decades," he said.

"We are meeting people where they are, we are parking up beside their lives," said Mulgrew, 38.

"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.'"

INSPIRED BY JESUS, POPE

Mulgrew said the initiative was inspired by Jesus' public ministry "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.

Initially, the plan was to use the bus on each Saturday in Lent, but the initiative is proving to be so popular that diocesan officials plan to retain the vehicle until the holy year ends in November.

The sides of bus show images of Pope Francis and priests hearing Confessions on either side of "Mercy Bus" in huge letters.

Pope Francis has given his personal blessing to the initiative and, according to Mulgrew, "laughed spontaneously" when he presented the pontiff with pictures of the Mercy Bus.

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.

DOORS THROWN OPEN

Among the volunteers is Hannah Beckford who approaches shoppers with the offer of a miraculous medal.

"We say 'Would you like a free gift from the Holy Father?' and they often come back and ask a bit more about it," said Beckford, 25.

"The amazing thing about it is that it has thrown open the doors of the church," she said. "People are coming off the bus smiling and expressing sincere thanks.

"It is what the Church should be doing. 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."