Wednesday, December 28, 2005

B16 By the Numbers: Initial Reviews Are Very Good

The Prefecture of the Papal Household -- still headed, for now, by Milwaukee-born Archbishop James Harvey -- this morning released the annual tally of attendance figures for papal events in 2005.

Due to the interregnum, to be precise, the figures accounted solely for events (general audiences, liturgical celebrations and the Angelus) presided over by Benedict XVI as Pope. John Paul II held his last on-the-ground public function on 31 January, the day before he was admitted to the Policlinico Gemelli, when he presided at a general audience in the Paul VI Hall.

Any way you slice them, the '05 numbers are solidly impressive. When stacked up against the whole of the last full year of the reign of John Paul II, one which was replete with the usual load of events, Benedict exceeded in nine months the whole of 2004's draw for his predecessor by a wide margin: 2,855,500 to 2,231,800.

The most significant differences come at the Audiences and the Angelus. Be wise to remember that while John Paul presided over several outdoor liturgies annually in the Square, Benedict has held but two: his Inaugural Mass on 24 April and the Closing Liturgy of the Synod of Bishops for the Eucharist, which included five canonizations, on 23 October. (Also included in the count was the outdoor liturgy and procession for Corpus Christi, which follows the traditional route down Via Merulana from St. Mary Major to the Lateran Basilica.)

To contrast even further, while John Paul's high-watermark for a monthly Angelus turnout last year was 150,000, such a number was closer to the lower end of the new Pope's crowd curve. In June and November, monthly turnout for the Sunday blessing was estimated at 250,000, rising in December to a stunning 350,000. As for the Wednesday audiences, while John Paul's 2004 high was 74,000 in October, Benedict dominated the same month this year, being seen by 190,000 people in the Square for the month's four audiences.

Increases of this scale were consistent throughout the dossier released by the Prefecture.

Of course, a lot of this is curiosity about the new Pope. But then again, it also speaks to two other realities:

1. By this stage in his pontificate, John Paul II had already done a week in Poland and had made it clear that he would travel almost to excess -- the trips to Ireland, the US and Mexico were already announced and being planned nine months in. This time around, the message has been made clear that to see the Pope, with the exceptions of certain spots in continental Europe and Rio de Janiero, one must go to Rome.

2. People seem to want personal contact with Benedict XVI before passing judgment on him. Obviously, the unfortunate caricatures have preceded him, and this time last year Cardinal Ratzinger was more accustomed to walking across the Piazza alone, reading his breviary and engaging visitors in conversation in the evening twilight as opposed to being driven across the cobblestones to the cheers and squeals of hundreds of thousands. While John Paul won the world over one television audience at a time, his successor is more of a "retail" figure -- the connections made one-on-one, without the interference of telecommunications. It's another message which the general population has warmed to.

We'll see how long the bubble keeps up. Should make for a crackin' 06.