A “Mercy Bus” will hit the streets of the Diocese of Salford in Lent next year in response to Pope Francis calling for a Year of Mercy. Onboard the specially decorated double-decker bus will be a number of priests ready to minister the Sacrament of Mercy (Confession), give a blessing, or simply chat with passers-by.
Pope Francis has encouraged us during this Year to “go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God”. Bishop John Arnold of Salford asked his diocese for new ideas and initiatives through which God’s mercy can be discovered not only by our parish communities, but also by those out on the highways and byways: people in need of hope and mercy but uncertain where to turn for it.
The Mercy Bus has been organised by a small working party who were inspired by the Pope’s outreach efforts when he was an archbishop in Argentina.
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio celebrated outdoor Masses in some of the poorest slums of Buenos Aires, witnessing to God’s love and evangelising not only those communities but also the people going to and from work or the school run.
It was no surprise then that early in his pontificate he said: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined, clinging to its own security.” Ideas were bounced around within our group about how we could “think outside of the box” for the Year of Mercy, and that is how we came up with the idea of the bus.
The Mercy Bus will be accompanied by young adult volunteers, some of whom will play live music, while others will go out to meet people passing by. We will park up at shopping precincts, housing estates, colleges and prisons. People will be offered a Miraculous Medal blessed by Pope Francis and, we hope, get into a conversation about the purpose of the bus.
Inevitably, there will be challenges. But in my limited experience of street ministry it is very rewarding despite the difficulties. I’m extremely excited about the possibilities of the Mercy Bus, but also realistic about the struggles.
Outreach makes us vulnerable, but it can also bring great encounters with God’s love to someone’s life as we see in the Gospels. Jesus preached God’s Kingdom within synagogues, but also took the message out on the road – market squares, hill tops, dinner parties and so on – and encouraged his followers to do the same.
God’s mercy was not limited to those who knew where to find it, but was available for all throughout Jesus’s earthly life. When Jesus is asked in Luke’s Gospel “Who is our neighbour?” he recounts the story of the Good Samaritan, teaching us that the one who responds in compassion to the man who has been wounded and abandoned in an open ditch turns out to be the authentic neighbour to him.
Sometimes we are fortunate that, despite their wounds, our neighbours can make their way into our churches where we can pour God’s healing balm over them. But at other times there is an invitation for us to go out and find them.
In my short time as a priest I’ve been overwhelmed by experiences I have had outside of a church setting. A few years ago at the Edinburgh Festival, when I was wearing my Roman collar, a number of performers would approach me and ask in all seriousness: “What show are you in?” I responded: “Your local Catholic church, once a day, twice on a Sunday with four-star reviews. I can get you front row seats.” This would lead to profound conversations about faith and God, and on one occasion a young performer asked me for Confession, which was celebrated in a secluded corner of a popular venue.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.