A church measured in millions

Pope Francis made headlines around the world last month after drawing a reported six million people to the closing Mass of his visit to the Philippines. It was hailed as the largest ever turnout for a papal event and, possibly, the largest gathering in human history.

While it’s a little crude to focus on crowd sizes at religious events, the aerial photos of the gathering in Manila suggest the attendance was nowhere near six million. Measuring large crowds is always an inexact science, particularly in the absence of aerial imaging and sophisticated calculations of crowd density. But, having studied aerial photos and even accounting for the hundreds of thousands on the motorcade route, one Filipino news outlet put the turnout at a more modest three million.

I suspect the authorities were under pressure to talk up the attendance as they had confidently predicted that Pope Francis would smash the record of five million set by Pope John Paul during his 1995 visit. Anything smaller risked being spun as an under achievement. 

While it’s par for the course for organisers to over-estimate their attendances, the media typically provides a more sober estimate. But, in this instance, the world’s press, unquestioningly, seemed to run with what appears to be an inflated figure.

It’s not the first time it has happened in this pontificate. The attendance at the closing Mass of the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro was reported as 3.7 million. The aerial photos of the mobbed Copacabana beach certainly looked impressive, but a Brazilian statistics agency, after studying those pictures, calculated a maximum attendance of between 1.2 and 1.5 million. The area in the photo simply could not physically accommodate any more than that, they said.

News agencies ran with the larger figures in both instances probably because they conveniently supported a particular narrative. In Brazil, millions were welcoming the world’s first South American Pope to his home continent – so, the larger the crowd the better. In the Philippines, the story of a wildly popular Pope shattering world records was irresistible. It shows how an excited media can shape a story.

It was never a problem Pope Benedict had to deal with. Even though he drew well over a million people to Masses in Madrid and Cologne – an impressive feat, particularly on a continent grappling with secularism – they never attracted too much attention and were quickly forgotten.
All said, it’s remarkable that a Church which numbered dozens 2000 years ago is today measured in millions.


A life worth living

Consecrated Life got plenty of attention at this year’s Divine Mercy Conference at the RDS which seemed to draw a particularly large attendance.

“I’m 54 years in religious life,” the irrepressible Sr Briege McKenna told the gathering, “and it just keeps getting better”. Later, Vincentian priest, Fr Kevin Scallon, described his experience as a religious with a bold simplicity: “It has been the greatest life”.

Meanwhile, over on RTÉ Radio’s Sunday with Miriam, Sr Consilio Fitzgerald was describing her years as a religious sister with a disarming simplicity: “I’ve had a great life,” she said. “There’s no life like it.”

Over the last few years we’ve heard plenty about what was wrong with religious life. It’s important now to hear the other side of the story: that religious life also creates the space and freedom for individuals and groups to achieve much good. An authentic personal testimony is more powerful than any vocation brochure or website. This is the year for many more voices to be heard – nationally and locally.


  •    “What do you do to relax?” RTÉ’s Miriam O’Callaghan asked Sr Consilio last weekend. Consilio’s answer explained a lot: “I get up and do a day’s work wherever I am,” she replied, “and the day runs into the night, and I go to bed and wake up in the morning and start again.” Her Cuan Mhuire (Our Lady’s Harbour) addiction centres have now helped over 90,000 people around the country.

Before the interview finished, Sr Consilio described her dream of offering Dublin’s homeless a place where they can come and be ‘loved unconditionally’ while receiving the best of professional help. “I’ve my eye on a place actually, if I can get someone to support me…” Anyone with a few bob to spare this Lent might like to help bring this great woman’s dream to fruition. She can be reached at 086-2438058.