Friday 20 September 2019

Pope's summer visit will never draw 1979 crowds

Ireland is sure to give Pope Francis a warm welcome in August, just not as big as the first visit, writes Alan O'Keeffe who was there

Unforgettable occasion: Pope John Paul II waves to cheering crowds from his Popemobile in September 1979 (Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)
Unforgettable occasion: Pope John Paul II waves to cheering crowds from his Popemobile in September 1979 (Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

Alan O'Keeffe

As Dublin prepares to greet Pope Francis, the organisers know the sheer scale of the last papal visit 39 years ago is a hard act to follow.

Confirmation in recent days that Pope Francis (inset, below) will attend a Festival of Families concert in Croke Park on August 25, followed by a Papal Mass the next day in Phoenix Park, has sent Irish planners into overdrive. The weekend's events are expected to cost €20m.

The biggest challenge will be organising the Phoenix Park event and, while Mass attendance has seriously declined, church officials expect up to 500,000 people could still show up.

Bishop Michael Smith (77) told the Sunday Independent he was a 39-year-old priest when he played a central role in the huge logistical task of organising the 1979 Papal Mass in Phoenix Park.

"It was the biggest movement of people ever in Ireland... There were more than a million people in the Phoenix Park that day where two babies were born and one person died," said the Bishop of Meath.

As the executive secretary of the Irish Bishop's Conference in 1979, he was responsible for helping to co-ordinate the whirlwind three-day visit of the pope to Dublin, Drogheda, Clonmacnoise, Galway, Knock, Maynooth, and Limerick.

The bishop is looking forward to being in Croke Park and Phoenix Park in August. He will have no active part in organising the event. The role of chief organiser is filled by Fr Tim Bartlett who is the secretary general of the six-day World Meeting of Families event in Dublin which will conclude with the Phoenix Park Mass.

"A task force has been busy and a great deal of the preparation work has been done," said the bishop.

Bishop Smith said the 1979 Phoenix Park Mass might have had difficulty meeting modern health and safety standards. He expects the forthcoming event will be an all-ticket affair so that organisers can ensure modern safety standards are met.

Security will be a big consideration for the visit of Pope Francis. Bishop Smith recalled that the single biggest possible security threat in 1979 was considered to be the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang based in West Germany, a violent far-left group involved in assassinations and kidnappings in Europe.

It was thought the Irish papal events might be considered "a soft target", he said.

Then, the double IRA atrocities involving the murder of Lord Mountbatten in Sligo, and the killing of 19 British paratroopers in Warrenpoint, happened just weeks before Pope John Paul's visit. It caused a planned papal visit to Armagh to be switched to Drogheda.

Some 7,000 gardai were on duty at the Phoenix Park Mass in 1979, around 70pc of the national force. Vatican-based American Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, who travelled with Pope John Paul II, was ferociously protective of the pope's personal security and he was concerned that gardai might be too devout and too enthusiastic about watching the pontiff, instead of watching the crowd for possible assassins.

"So much so, Marcinkus thought a few atheists in the Irish guards would be helpful," said Bishop Smith.

Irish security chiefs are already planning a massive operation to protect the pontiff and the public next August.

The present-day organisers have been examining the plans put into action for Phoenix Park almost 40 years ago. It was, indeed, a mammoth task, with Dublin Corporation, hundreds of soldiers, contractors, public servants and volunteers involved in laying out a grid network of corrals to accommodate the 1.25 million people who would attend.

Around 120 jobless people from Ballyfermot were unexpectedly recruited from dole queues to help the huge preparation work at the site.

The 125ft-tall steel cross, built in Inchicore, was erected at the altar site where it still stands. A two-acre carpet made in Co Antrim was laid at the huge new altar site.

The movements of around half the country's population to the Mass venues had to be organised closely, with many routes completely closed to traffic. Around 600,000 people would travel by bus over that weekend.

All older buses in the CIE fleet would also have to be ready for service.

Joe Jennings, a public servant liaising on transport matters, was on the committee and he made the comment that a lot of older buses in the fleet would have to be brought back into service. He joked: "They would have to send 200 buses to Knock for the cure," he said.

The CIE bus fleet and trains, along with private operators, engaged in the biggest public transport of people in Europe getting people to Phoenix Park.

On the day itself, 700 CIE buses began a shuttle service at 5am. Everything was done on a colossal scale. There were huge numbers of volunteers, including 1,200 first-aid workers. The choirs had 6,000 singers.

Bishop Smith expects Pope Francis to make a deep impression on the faithful in Ireland when he comes. "I have met Pope Francis several times. He is very relaxed and mentally sharp. He is very personable and gentle. As a pastor, he fits the bill to the highest degree," he said.

He added that a pope's role was "to confirm the people in the faith. Going back to scripture, that's the role of the pope to encourage people in their faith and to acknowledge the challenges that are there".

Fr Tim Bartlett, speaking before the visit of Francis was confirmed, said his team had "absolutely no concern" as to whether the crowds in August would come close to matching the million-strong throng of 1979. Today's Ireland is "radically different" to how things were four decades ago, said the priest.

"Even at the level of participating in a large event, we would expect that a lot of people may actually just watch things online rather than necessarily go to something. I think there will be bigger support and participation than people think."

He added: "There is tremendous goodwill going around the country. People are genuinely very supportive, very excited. People who don't feel particularly close to the Church at the moment, for a variety of reasons, have quietly said to me, 'we're delighted this is happening'."

On changing attitudes to the Church, Fr Bartlett says: "Anyone that is angry at the Church, I think there is a bigger openness to Pope Francis, they respect his integrity, he speaks this common language that everyone understands."

Sunday Independent

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