Tomorrow morning, at a time yet to be stipulated, the Irish Catholic Church will embark on arguably its most challenging marketing operation ever when it releases 545,000 free tickets online for two of Pope Francis’ key engagements on his visit to the country in two months’ time.
Marketing free tickets seems like an oxymoron. But after a quarter of a century of highly-publicised, and largely self-inflicted, decline precipitated largely by clerical child sexual abuse scandals, the Church here needs a "win".
It has taken a huge gamble by booking Dublin’s Phoenix Park for the principal public event of the Argentinean pontiff’s visit. Over a million people attended the first Papal Mass at the same location on 30 September 1979 when the now-canonised Pope John Paul ll celebrated the opening liturgy of his three-day, ground-breaking visit.
Despite the capping of the venue’s capacity at half that number - for second millennium standard health and safety reasons - it is inevitable that comparisons will be made with the 1979 turnout in order to measure the once-dominant Church’s decline in cold arithmetic terms. But the chief Irish organiser of the visit is optimistic that the current pope will attract larger crowds than many expect.
Fr Tim Bartlett pins his hopes on the "Francis Factor", as others have called it. The soft-spoken Belfast-born former Christian Brother is Secretary General of the 2018 World Meeting of Families, a triennial event which Pope Francis asked the Dublin Archdiocese to host. At the Phoenix Park the pontiff will celebrate the closing Mass of that gathering, which has already broken records by attracting 45,000 registrations with a markedly young age profile.
Last Friday in Dublin Fr Bartlett hosted a news conference to explain the ground rules for applying online to attend the two all-ticket events. In dance-hall parlance, the main message was that no tickets would be available "at the door".
On Saturday 25 August Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in Dublin where he will complete a series of official and pastoral engagements, including a private visit to homeless families at the Capuchin Day Centre.
On the Sunday morning, he will travel by air to Ireland West Airport in Co Mayo and then 20km by road to the National Marian Shrine at Knock. The highpoint of that leg of the trip will be his praying of the Angelus in public, a fixture in the pontifical week.
A ceiling of 45,000 has been placed on the attendance in the plaza separating the large concrete Basilica and the much smaller limestone Apparition Chapel which commemorates the reported appearance by Jesus’ Jewish parents, Mary and Joseph, to a group of local people in 1879. The shrine attracts over a million pilgrims a year so the shrine’s rector, Fr Richard Gibbons, expects demand for these papal tickets to be brisk.
The Government says "hundreds of thousands of people from across Ireland and abroad" will attend the Phoenix Park Mass.
When Fr Bartlett is asked if he has any doubts about the challenge of finding takers for the half a million places, he avoids being emphatic about figures.
"Pope Francis is an incredibly popular person," he muses, lauding the way he speaks about family life and the planet’s environment in particular.
"He touches people in a way that we believe people even outside the Church and on the margins of church life will respond to."
The Secretary-General is confident that many people who have felt alienated from the Catholic Church over the years will be attracted by Pope Francis. That’s where the oxymoron of marketing free tickets is rooted.
While voluntary donations will be gratefully received on the Church’s behalf by the online ticketing company, it’s not an event the organisers could have realistically charged for even if they wanted to, which they did not. The fewer obstacles that are put in the way of possible Massgoers the better the outcome for the Catholic leadership here and for parishes.
Fr Bartlett says all the Church can do is to provide the facilities that will make both outings on that last Sunday in August comfortable and joyful family events. And he commends the support his committee has received from the civil authorities, support the Government says would be provided to ensure that public order is maintained during the visit of any head of state.
Already, the curious can look at the national transportation plan for the venues and an account of the feeding, toileting, resting and first-aid facilities that will be on hand to help those burdened by the inevitable very long day, much of it spent on their feet.
"At minimum you will be required to walk 4km to and 4km from the Mass and up to 7km ….(in each direction) depending on where you are coming from," the website cautions.
"However, portable seating will be allowed into the venue," it assures the non-ironmen out there in cyber-space.
And when those who feel they can hack it set about applying for tickets they should be aware that the "first come, first served" rule will apply and that the early birds will be assigned places close to the Pope, in the Phoenix Park at any rate.
The State is encouraging people to travel by public transport or in coaches, which hundreds of parishes have already hired. If you travel to the Phoenix Park in a group-hired coach, the group leader will apply on your behalf for your ticket.
Nevertheless, Fr Bartlett anticipates that parish centres and public libraries will be busy tomorrow morning assisting "non-liners" to apply for tickets for themselves, their family members and/or friends. Many will make their own way to Mayo or Dublin by whatever means of transportation that becomes available.
Those who want to spend the day away from the Catholic celebrations are also advised to monitor the State’s website for information about traffic diversions and the inconveniences that these large gatherings and Pope Francis’ other journeys here will inevitably cause.