The Church that stayed home

The Church that stayed home An aerial view of the crowds at the Phoenix Park shortly before the papal Mass.

According to the Office of Public Works, just under 152,000 people attended the papal Mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park on August 26.

While organisers’ claims that over 180,000 Communion hosts were distributed suggest a counter-estimate of about 200,000 people, a respectable figure for a miserable day where Mass attendances held up around the country, one thing seems indisputable: the crowds gathered in the Park were well under half the 500,000 planned for.

Aerial photographs on the day pointed to this, and RTÉ’s Philip Boucher-Hayes will have spoken for many when he wrote on Twitter: “Genuine question: was there any market research done before hand to gauge levels of interest? Is this a part of prudent event management?”

In fairness, polling had long pointed to a robust attendance being likely for a papal Mass.

In December 2016, for example, an Ipsos/MRBI poll found that 38% of people in the Republic planned to see the Pope when he came to Ireland, and a year later Ámarach Research found that 47% of people would like to attend a Mass celebrated by the Pope in Ireland.


So far so vague, but by March the date of the papal Mass was fixed and RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live had Amárach Research quiz 1,000 people on whether they would attend. This time 18% said yes, with a further 19% being undecided.

On the face of it then, just a few months ago almost a fifth of the country’s adults were set to go to the Park in August, with as many again at least open to joining them.

Tickets subsequently became available, but while attention swirled around the ‘Nope to the Pope’ campaign to sabotage attendance, World Meeting of Families organisers were confident they could wash fraudulent bookings out of the system, and in early July they announced that the almost 500,000 tickets for WMOF2018’s closing papal Mass had been booked.

Between July 23 and August 6, then, it was the turn of Kantar Millward Brown to poll on whether people intended to attend a ceremony linked with the papal visit, with 19% of those surveyed saying yes.

In other words, just weeks before the papal visit, around 670,000 adults from the Republic alone apparently intended to go to at least one papal event, this figure obviously leaving out both children from the Republic and adults and children from the North.

Even allowing for a hefty margin of error over 800,000 Irish people of all ages seemed set to attend papal events; even taking Knock and the Festival of Families out of the equation, the Park’s Fifteen Acres looked guaranteed to be filled.

August 7, however, the day after Kantar Millward Brown stopped polling, saw the HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre warning that mass gatherings like that planned for the Park pose “unique health risks to attendants”.

A week later, on August 14, just days after tickets were issued for the WMOF2018 Closing Mass, Dublin’s Assistant Garda Commissioner Pat Leahy advised those intending to go to the Park to “treat it as if you were going up the side of Croagh Patrick”.

Going to the Park, official Ireland seemed to be saying, was only for the hale and hearty, and around the country doubt began to set in around whether the papal Mass attendance was liable to be anywhere near 500,000.

According to Tralee’s Deacon Denis Kelleher, for instance, while there had long been an expectation that the town’s 15,000-strong St John’s parish could send three buses to Dublin, it took a long time to fill one bus, and though in the end two buses went to the capital, one included about 20 people from Cahirsiveen, over 60km away.

“Buses were leaving at 5.30 in the morning, I’m sure that put some people off,” he said, noting that buses to Dublin were to be “parked way out in the middle of nowhere”.

“I think that in the weeks leading up to the Mass there was a lot of hype about that, that there would be a long walk and there would be an early start,” he said. “When people were undecided and it was going to be a long trek from Tralee anyway, it put some people off.”

Similar stories are told across the land, while Dublin seems to have seen a dramatic collapse in probable attendance just ahead of the Mass, some frustrated by being allocated entry gates far from their homes, and many others discouraged by how a constant media litany warned of early starts, long walks, long waits, cold weather, and even forbidden deckchairs.

Dublin’s Cabinteely parish was just one of many that saw numbers melting away even in the last days before the papal Mass.

“We have had a lot of cancellations for the seats on our private bus to the Papal Mass in the Phoenix Park (from 59 down to 17),” the parish Facebook page announced on Thursday, August 23. “The main reason for the cancellations seems to be the early departure time of 7am as we were told just this week that our bus has to be parked in Kylemore Way between 8am and 8.30am.”

Previously there had been a feeling that 500,000 was an inadequate number of tickets, according to Fr Aquinas Duffy, describing how parishioners who had expected to set out around 11am for the 3pm Mass were shocked to learn of the early start time.

While many who dropped out of the private bus arrangement planned on travelling separately later by public transport, Fr Duffy said, others woke up on Sunday August 26, “looked out the window and saw the weather and cancelled”.

Just 11 people travelled by the private bus in the end, he said, though he himself was at least glad to have participated in the Mass despite everything. “Would I have missed it? No. I was delighted to be there,” he said.

For one expert in event management who asked not to be named, however, nobody should have been surprised at how attendance numbers at the Park fell far short of projections.

“It is well known in event management that a free event announced months before the actual event has a 30% no-show rate regardless of the event,” he said, adding: “To get half a million people in the Park they would have needed to shift three quarters of a million tickets.”

“It was daft to talk about 500,000, and even dafter for the OPW to be ‘dressing’ the venue for 500,000 at a huge cost,” he added, maintaining that with half a million tickets allocated, organisers should not realistically have expected more than 350,000 to attend.

Sharply critical of the HSE and An Garda’s exaggerated warnings, he added that “While the OPW was working and spending money, other organs of State were incessantly telling people for three weeks beforehand not to go. It looked like a massive anti-marketing campaign, designed to suppress the event.”

Whatever the reasons for the low turnout, some will dismiss talk of numbers as irrelevant. Numbers aren’t everything, they’ll rightly say, claiming that talk of them is ‘managerial’ and misses the point of the Gospel.

Maybe so, but anyone who pays attention to the New Testament will know that it’s not shy about counting people. Miraculous feedings of crowds of 4,000 and 5,000 men – along with uncounted women and children – are famous, of course, while Acts carefully maps out how the earliest Christian community had about 120 believers, before 3,000 were added to them at Pentecost, and it wasn’t long before there were about 5,000 adult men in the nascent Church.

We don’t know what seeds were sown during Ireland’s second ever papal visit, and numbers aren’t everything. But if they mattered to the inspired authors of our Scriptures, we’d be reckless to act as though they don’t matter to us.