Sunday, February 17, 2008

Preparing the Way

Eight weeks from Tuesday, Pope Benedict touches down in Washington for what might well be the only US trek of his pontificate, continuing on to Gotham and the United Nations before jetting back to Rome.

Preparations continue apace, of course. And from the Big Apple's burbs, Gary Stern checks in with 1011 PopeTrip Supremo Mark Ackermann, whose official title is "director of the Office for the Papal Visit of the archdiocese of New York"

Whew... mouthful.
Maybe the hardest part of Mark G. Ackermann's job is reading the letters that come in every day from people pleading for any chance to be close to their pope.

"They're heart-rending stories of people who have been through great tragedy and just want to be somewhere near the Holy Father," he said.

The problem is that there have been more than 180,000 requests for 90,000 total tickets for the six events that will take place in New York when Pope Benedict XVI visits from April 18-20.
(New papal moniker: "Ratzi Montana.")
And Ackermann is looking at two more months of desperate requests.

"Every piece of paper - everything - comes to this office," he said.

Ackermann is executive director of the archdiocesan Office of the Papal Visit, a temp job that packs a decade's worth of responsibility.

Reporting directly to Cardinal Edward Egan, he is in charge of planning for every papal minute from when Benedict arrives at John F. Kennedy International Airport from Washington on April 18 to when he lifts off on Shepherd One about 8 p.m. April 20, heading for Rome.

It is a unique job that covers everything from planning security with the Secret Service and a litany of government agencies to preparing 550 priests and deacons to give Communion to 58,000 people at Yankee Stadium in 15 minutes.
(And you thought your parish was chaotic.)
For almost 20 years, Ackermann, a devout Catholic, has served Mass for the archbishop of New York on Fridays at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Now he would work for the archbishop, taking over day-to-day planning for Benedict's arrival.

It's not surprising that Ackermann believes that Pope Benedict's stop at Ground Zero on the morning of April 20 promises to be the most poignant part of the papal visit.

"The Holy Father will actually go down and touch bedrock, spend a period of private prayer, bless the area and then visit with 24 individuals, some of whom lost loved ones in the attacks on our country," he said....

"New York has been through a lot; this region has been through a lot," he said. "The level of preparedness - people have no idea - when a major event happens is overwhelming."

Then there are the protocol people from the White House, the State Department, the Vatican, city and state agencies.

Then there are the logistics. A database, growing by the day, will include the names of every person ticketed to every event. It's a requirement of the Secret Service.

For the pope's youth rally at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers on April 19, more than 20,000 youngsters from across the region will be bused to Yonkers Raceway. From there, they will be shuttled to the seminary, where Secret Service will be waiting to check bar-coded tickets.

"Nationally known entertainment" is being lined up for both the seminary and Yankee Stadium, Ackermann said.

More than 800 buses will descend on the stadium April 20, bringing representatives from all 195 dioceses in the United States. After hours of waiting, they'll see Benedict celebrate Mass from a stage above second base - assisted by more than 200 cardinals and bishops and some 800 priests.

And that's not all.

About 250 Christian leaders from across the country have to get to St. Joseph's Church in Manhattan on April 18 for an ecumenical prayer service.

A good 2,500 priests, deacons and nuns will fill St. Patrick's Cathedral on April 19, when Benedict becomes the first pope to celebrate Mass there.

Hundreds of volunteers are being enlisted (and checked out) for all the events.

Every step the pope will take - every left turn, every right turn - is choreographed in a big book that Ackermann keeps close at hand. But who's to say Benedict won't get out of line, like when John Paul II popped out of St. Patrick's in 1995 and walked down 50th Street?

"In this post-9/11 world, I'm not sure we'll see that kind of spontaneity, but not every step can be choreographed," Ackermann said.

Ackermann will be near the pope's side the whole time, of course, but he can't be more specific than that. Security reasons.

And when Benedict leaves and the Office of the Papal Visit evaporates? On April 22, Ackermann has to give a speech in Calgary about emergency preparedness for hospitals. He committed to it more than a year ago.

Then he will take a non-temp job with the archdiocese, which he prefers not to identify for now. He has more immediate concerns.

Like the 100,000 ponchos he'll need in case the pope brings rain. happened in 1995.

In the capital, the Washington Times has a blog up and running with Visit News from the Potomac end of things.

Worthy of note: the pontiff's first Stateside host -- DC Archbishop Donald Wuerl -- will talk PopeTrip in the context of "Who is Peter?" at a Theology on Tap this Tuesday night, the 19th.

PHOTO: Mark Vergari/Westchester Journal-News