"Wherever you looked, you could see people experiencing the love and kindness of God." These were the affirming words of a parishioner of St Margaret Mary's, Knotty Ash after the first day of pastoral area pilgrimages to the Metropolitan Cathedral for the Year of Mercy.
That gathering of pilgrims on 27 February marked the beginning of a Saturday series of pilgrimages to the Cathedral as the celebrations of this special year gathered momentum within Liverpool Archdiocese. More than 700 pilgrims descended on the Cathedral from Liverpool North, Stoneycroft and Croxteth on the first Saturday and the following weekend, another group arrived at the Door of Mercy at the East Porch, this time from Liverpool South, Woolton and Halewood, and Liverpool Central. A week later, on 12 March, it was the turn of the new pastoral area of Knowsley (Prescot, Huyton and Kirkby).
Bishop Tom Williams led each of this opening trio of pilgrimages and each started with words of welcome from Canon Anthony O'Brien, Dean of the Cathedral, who said: "It is good to stop here on the threshold of the Holy Door and give thanks for all the 'doors' God opens for us."
For every Year of Mercy pilgrim in 2016, their pilgrimage will follow the same format: it will begin with the Stations of Mercy, continue with a Service of Reconciliation and private confessions, and then conclude with midday Mass.
Father Mark Moran, parish priest at St Margaret Mary's, spoke of the affecting experience of the opening pilgrimage at the end of February. "Fifty parishioners attended and we did not know what to expect," he said. "We went because we had been invited to go by Archbishop Malcolm but what a wonderful morning we had. The Stations of Mercy were beautiful and the accompanying booklet with the reflections allowed you to really focus on the mercy of God. The Cathedral was packed but there was a great sense of peace."
As Father Mark mentioned, every pilgrim receives a booklet to accompany their worship and help them reflect on the six Stations of Mercy. Each station provides a specific theme to ponder. The first offers an image of the face of Jesus and an opportunity to follow the call of Psalm 46 and "Be still ... and know that I am God". Next comes an invitation to experience the forgiveness of God. The image inspired by Luke's Gospel of the sinful woman washing Jesus's feet with her tears and drying them with her hair is a cue to consider how "God loves you and forgives you just as you are".
The third station focuses on the Eucharist. "The Mass," we are told, "is a meeting with mercy. Jesus said, 'This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, poured out for you.' For most Catholics Mass is the place where we know we are close to God."
The fourth station, titled Mercy When We Die, is a reflection on Psalm 23 ("Even if I walk in the valley of death ..."), presenting a contemplation on death – a subject often evaded in our contemporary culture. After station five, which looks at the healing power of mercy through the parable of the prodigal son, we are asked in the sixth and final stations to consider ways of "living mercy" in our world today. The words of Pope Francis are particularly pertinent as he tell us: "Prayer that doesn't lead to concrete action towards our brothers and sisters is a fruitless and incomplete prayer."
For Father Mark, other aspects of the pilgrimage were equally fruitful. He said: "As a priest I found it humbling to hear so many confessions of people who had not been to confession for many years but felt they had to come and receive this outpouring of God's love for them. The Mass was a real celebration too, a wonderful sense of togetherness and community. To be fair, I was sceptical about what was going to happen when we all turned up at the Cathedral that Saturday morning, but I left at 1pm full of joy, peace and feeling the real forgiveness and mercy of God in my life once more."
Canon Anthony O’Brien was equally pleased with the success of these first few pilgrimages. "The feedback from the days has been very positive with pilgrims commenting that the mornings have been enjoyable, prayerful and very worthwhile. Even the clergy have enjoyed them! We are looking forward to welcoming more groups from across the Archdiocese as the Year of Mercy continues."
9 April – Leigh, Ashton and Wigan
16 April – Widnes and Warrington
23 April – St Helens
30 April – Bootle and Crosby
1 October – Southport and Leyland
8 October – Chorley
15 October – Ormskirk and Upholland
"‘I found it very emotional as we walked through the Holy Door to think of the first door into Church, baptism, and all the doors that have opened since in our lives. It was great to see so many at confession – people have told me they had not been for years and that they really felt the mercy of God expressed by the priests who welcomed them. For some people it was their first time in the Cathedral. It was good to see what a wide age range was there." Mary Colghlan
"A warm and uplifting experience of peace, pilgrimage, companionship, community and God's mercy." Maureen Wilcock
"I wanted my sins, past and present, to be forgiven by Jesus but I was nervous as I did not really know what it would entail. We went outside and walked to the side of the Cathedral and I could see a door. I asked one of the group: 'Is that the Mercy Door?' 'Yes,' they replied. I started to feel excited inside my soul as I knew the moment I walked through and asked in my soul for Jesus to forgive, he would. We all said a small prayer before entering and then walked through. I noticed a picture on the wall saying, 'As soon as we repent, God forgets.' I thought this was beautiful. I am truly glad I went." DelRita Abdulah
"Going through the Door gave a sense that we were really passing through something special. We blessed ourselves in the font and then were off to the Lady Chapel where Father Grant Maddock gave us a fantastic reflection on Mary and the Year of Mercy. After this we journeyed on around the Cathedral, which gave us the sense of pilgrimage, to the baptistery. After another wonderful reflection and renewal of baptismal promises we moved on to the stations. The reflections were beautifully presented, after which Canon Tony O'Brien brought us back together to experience a beautiful reconciliation service with individual confessions. This was a most wonderful time, with the Cathedral still bathed in a strong red glow from the reconciliation chapel window." Peter Benson
"It is quite a while since I have been at the Cathedral as part of a celebration, but I was truly amazed and heartened to see so many young families taking part. They are a credit to our parish and wider Catholic community." Liz Scrutton