Thursday 13 December 2018

Preparing for the Pope: 'We'll need more volunteers'

Fr Richard Gibbons. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Fr Richard Gibbons. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Sarah MacDonald

There are 5,500 choir members to be signed up. 3,000 journalists to be accredited. A vast order of communion wafers. A specially constructed papal altar.

Such are the tasks facing organisers of Pope Francis's visit to Ireland.

"From wheels down to wheels up" is the euphemism for the two-day papal visit among those managing this colossal event.

The only concern for the vast majority of people interested in seeing Pope Francis over the August 25-26 weekend is getting hold of a ticket for Croke Park, Knock or the Phoenix Park. The enormity and complexity of the organisation will likely pass over their heads.

But behind the scenes, the co-ordination of the various strands is gaining pace now that the Pope's official itinerary has been confirmed.

The World Meeting of Families' office in Clonliffe College in Dublin is the hub for the planning and decision-making. With less than 10 weeks to go, many details remain under wraps for security reasons.

Gardaí have put a lock on information concerning where the Pontiff will stay; and the route of his popemobile, which will be brought in specially for the occasion, is not being made public for now.

According to spokeswoman Brenda Drumm, the final design for the papal altar in the Phoenix Park will be signed off on, and construction will begin, in two weeks. The signature structure of the papal Mass, it has to be visible from every corral into which the anticipated 600,000-strong crowd will congregate.

It will be located under the papal cross, which marks the spot where the last papal altar was erected, linking John Paul II's visit in 1979 with Francis's visit in 2018.

Two religious orders are involved in producing the thousands of communion wafers for the crowds that will descend on the Phoenix Park on August 26 as well as the tens of thousands of participants who will attend the pastoral congress in the RDS, which incorporates a Mass on each of its three days between August 22-24. The identities of the host-making orders won't be revealed for another while. But according to Drumm, they have gifted the hosts as a gesture of goodwill for the success the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) and the papal visit.

Likewise, anticipation is building around the design of the vestments which the Pontiff and all concelebrating bishops and priests will be kitted out in. All that is known for now is that a lot of sewing is going on and at some stage over the coming weeks, these trademark vestments will be unveiled.

Though Pope Francis' visit is not formally a state visit, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has stressed that the assistance provided by the statutory authorities will be same as if it were. That means the gardaí will provide security, the OPW and other statutory agencies will oversee transport, safety and medical care.

"Health and safety as a concept back in 1979 didn't really exist," Drumm acknowledges. There is a lot less wriggle room 40 years on. She pays tribute to the state agencies who have "come front and centre" in the organisation of the various pieces of the papal jigsaw.

In Knock, Fr Richard Gibbons seems undaunted by the demands of the papal visit which will see 45,000 pilgrims assemble on the concourse in front of Knock shrine. He already has 700 dedicated volunteers he can call on through the corps of stewards, handmaids and VAKS (the young Volunteers At Knock Shrine). "We possibly need more volunteers. We are in the process of seeing how many we would need and where we need them. Our own volunteers have been working with us for years and are well trained. They are used to big occasions here anyway."

Knock's annual novena sees crowds of up to 150,000 over nine days, so 45,000 does not faze him. "It is manageable; we know our own resources and we are in the process of making sure that we have everything in excess of what we need to cater for everybody." This includes making provision for toilets, ensuring people have access to food, water and medical attention. "What if somebody trips and falls - what happens to them; where do we put our wheelchairs; what happens if it rains; have we the power and IT back-up for the streaming of everything to the screens outside and online; what happens if somebody gets lost; what happens if people want to leave the area - are there routes available. We are working very closely with all the other agencies to make this happen."

Meetings with the gardaí between now and August 26 will be a regular feature according to Fr Richard as details are firmed up. At the moment, no decision has been taken on whether or not to allow people to line the road that the Pope will travel on from Knock Airport to the shrine. What is known is that Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam will greet the Pope off his Aer Lingus flight at Knock Airport but Fr Richard will welcome Pope Francis to the shrine. That is protocol.

Training and vetting

Another major behind-the-scenes operation under way is the assembling of large choirs to sing at the papal ceremonies. Some 5,500 choir members are needed for the Phoenix Park alone while smaller-scale choirs are needed for the RDS and Knock. Hundreds of ministers of the eucharist are also needed for the Phoenix Park as are thousands of volunteer stewards. These are in addition to the 5,500 volunteers who have already signed up to carry out duties at the WMOF congress at the RDS and the Festival of Families which Pope Francis will attend in Croke Park on the evening of August 25. Training and vetting has been ongoing for every single one of these for months.

RTÉ will oversee the broadcast of everything "from wheels down to wheels up" and is working with the European Broadcasting Union to feed this coverage around the world. According to Brenda Drumm: "There were tens of millions of viewers of the Festival of Families and the closing papal Mass at the last World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. You can expect tens of millions of people to be looking in at the events in Knock, Croke Park and the Phoenix Park."

Meanwhile, over 3,000 journalists need to be accredited and a media centre has to be set up in Dublin Castle with sub centres in the RDS, Croke Park and the Phoenix Park. "There is great co-operation between everybody to make this as good and safe and enjoyable and prayerful a visit as we possibly can," Fr Gibbons says.

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