Sunday, September 12, 2010

All the Sanctuary's a "Stage": On PopeTrip Eve, the "Ticket Slump"

It's an old axiom of event planning -- well, the successful kind -- that an organizer never books a room he can't fill.

Even better, you book a smaller space that either brims beyond its bounds, or -- best of all -- sells out, with demand (and buzz) to spare.

Along these lines, it's almost three years now since B16 arrived in a country of some 68 million Catholics for a PopeTrip whose three outdoor events, at their largest, had a capacity of roughly 65,000 (and, even then, saw some underfilled sections on the journey's last day).

This week, the pontiff heads to a land where his flock numbers less than a tenth of said millions... but for which journey, crowds as large as 200,000 were (at least, initially) floated by church officials.

Three days before Benedict XVI departs for Britain and (just to start) an anticipated congregation of 100,000 at Glasgow's Bellahouston Park, the rush is on... to fill the seats:
Organisers have blamed poor communication between dioceses and the parishes distributing tickets as well as early application deadlines for the low take up. Some Catholics, especially the elderly, have also been put off by the pre-dawn starts and long journeys demanded for many events. Because of tight security arrangements, attendees must attach themselves to a local parish group and travel with them from designated departure points.

Although just 400,000 tickets had been allocated for the open-air masses which will be presided over by Pope Benedict in Glasgow, London and Birmingham, organisers are now racing to ensure the parks will be full....

Parish priests have been urged to distribute thousands of tickets to schools, while the Archbishop of Westminster, Rev Vincent Nichols, wrote to Catholic school heads in London last week asking them to organise parties of schoolchildren to attend the evening prayer vigil in Hyde Park on Saturday....

The visit is expected to cost the Catholic Church around £10m (US$15.5mil), and applicants were told they had to make a financial contribution to attend the masses. Attendance at the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham on Sunday, the final day of the Pope's visit, costs £25 (US$38.50). The afternoon mass in Glasgow's Bellahouston Park on Thursday was priced at £20 (US$31), while the evening prayer vigil in Hyde Park cost £5 (US$7.70). Organisers have denied that the charges are an entrance fee but would go towards transport and security provisions.

Jack Valero, a spokesman for Opus Dei, said that there was "huge excitement" and "no lack of enthusiasm from Catholics" about the upcoming papal visit but admitted there had been administration problems which meant that there was a "redistribution of tickets going on now".

He added that he believed the Hyde Park event would be at full capacity at 80,000, but was less confident that Cofton Park in Birmingham would receive the full number of 60,000 visitors. He attributed this to health and safety and security arrangements which would necessitate visitors arriving at the park between 3am and 7am for the 10am mass, and said that "those who can't face getting up at 2am" would be deterred.

Peter Jennings, press secretary to the Archdiocese of Birmingham, said the process of allocating spaces for the mass was a "huge and complicated task". He added that visitors were "not paying to go to mass, which is free – the £25 contribution is for the cost of travel and the travel arrangements."
On the UK PopeTrip's climactic Sunday, while a six-figure crowd had initially been anticipated at Coventry Airport -- the first proffered venue for the beatification of John Henry Newman -- as of this writing, the latest estimates for Cofton Park stand "quietly mentioned" in the area of 35,000.

And in an age where optics are everything, for all the controversy that's preceded the visit, the numbers on the day will arguably cast the journey's definitive storyline... and, ergo, its lasting verdict.

* * *
Meanwhile, in but the latest black eye taken by a PopeTrip planning effort beset by spats, shifts and outright slams -- and those just from within the church -- an official visit guide prepared by its organizing team has garnered "excruciating embarrassment" by describing Mass as a "show" or "gig," the sanctuary as a "stage," and its celebrant as the "headline act."

Revealed by today's Sunday Mail, the glossary -- said to have been prepared for the benefit of non-Catholic security, media and planning personnel -- has been dubbed "cringe-making."

Then again, as ecclesial administration goes, that tends to be par for the course... yet clearly, not just on these shores.

PHOTOS: Cofton Park, Birmingham(1); Reuters(2); Daily Mail(3)