The inauguration of the Jubilee of Mercy, the opening of the Holy Door, by this most popular of pontiffs was expected to draw masses of believers to Rome in unprecedented numbers. But the first tally has been disappointing: St Peter’s Square was far from overflowing, the airport was almost deserted, there were no traffic problems at all, and the most favorable estimates put attendance at just 50,000.
The reasons immediately invoked by the mainstream Italian press, which is hardly Catholic in inspiration but is by and large devoted to the Pope from Argentina, were several: the recent terrorist scare, the cold weather, the dire economic straits throughout Europe, and Pope Francis’ call for sobriety. All this notwithstanding, and mindful that larger crowds are still in the pipeline (with peak attendance expected for Easter), the dwindling numbers mirror a rapid decline in attendance that few in 2013 would have ever thought possible.
The official numbers for the beginning of the Jubilee showed a 30% decrease in attendance with respect to the year before: 324,000 people, down from 461,000 in December 2014 when there was no Jubilee.
The decline was even more marked over the twelve month span of 2015, which counted 3,210,860 faithful in attendance at the meetings with the Pope (general audiences, special audiences, Vatican liturgical celebrations, the Angelus and Regina Coeli prayers), amounting to 45% fewer than the 5,916,800 of 2014 and less than half the 6,623,900 of Francis first nine months as pontiff in 2013. The biggest disparity was at the Angelus and Regina Coeli prayers, with 1.6 million in attendance in 2015, compared to over 3 million the previous year.
Without the Jubilee the numbers would have been even smaller. The Pope’s December agenda was thick with 23 appointments, spanning 19 days, 15 of which came after the opening of the Holy Door. The month’s ceremonies drew 108,000 people, as opposed to 21,000 the year before. The Sunday of the Jubilee of the Family drew another 50,000; the Wednesday general audiences increased their attendance from 32,000 to 44,000, while the special audiences grew from 18,500 to 22,000. However, participation in the Angelus plummeted from 390,000 to 150,000.
Why the change? “I would say there are two main reasons for the decline in numbers: terrorism and the economy,” says Antonio Gaspari, general editor of ZENIT, a major Catholic news agency edited in seven languages with a daily online readership of 3 to 5 million. “Rising prices have had a dampening influence on participation from abroad, and even from other parts of Italy, while the terrorist attack on Paris prompted people to cancel trips to Europe in which Rome was often the second stop.”
“Most of all,” adds Gaspari, “the fear of a terrorist attack on St Peter’s has kept the Romans themselves away. What with fully armed soldiers patrolling the surroundings and the city’s newspapers constantly hammering the message that it is wise to stay away from the Vatican, reporters can find hardly a citizen of Rome to interview among the crowds. ”
The decline has been particularly stark in the general audiences, admission to which requires a ticket. On August 26th, for Pope Francis’s hundredth general audience, the Prefecture for the Papal Household, which is in charge of recording and issuing the tickets (all free), released the official attendance data up to then, which showed that these meetings had drawn a total of 3,147,600 people. Divided by year the numbers give steeply decreasing averages, with each year’s general audiences having halved the attendance of the year before: in 2013 the papal audiences were attended on average by 51,617 people; in 2014 the average had been 27,883 people and in 2015 it had come to just 14,818.
Since drawing crowds, of course, does not necessarily coincide with leading people to Christ, it is interesting to see whether the statistics suggest that people are going back to church. The official government statistics (ISTAT) for Italy say that, at least for this country, it is not happening. The last available data refer to the end of 2014 and, based on a sample of 24,000 families, for a total of about 54,000 individuals, spread out over 850 towns, they show that the percentage of people over the age of six who go to a place of worship at least once a week has not only not gone up with Pope Francis but has actually decreasesd to the minimum rate of 28.8%. In other words, only little more than one person out of four now enters a Catholic church at least once a week.
Under the previous Pope, Benedict XVI, the rate of churchgoers averaged 32-33%, and never fell below the 30% mark. An overview of the papacy of Pope Benedict shows that his eight years as Supreme Pontiff drew some 20 million people to Rome. If one considers some of the negative stories and often harsh press that accompanied the papacy of Josef Ratzinger, it is significant that the number of faithful who flocked to see and listen to Benedict XVI were always well over 2 million, yearly, including in 2012, his final year, when the crowds numbered 2,351,200.
However, from the point of view of the Pope from South America, all this may be beside the point. For, as Antonio Gaspari points out, the Pope’s intention was never to attract people to Rome in the first place.
Pope Francis’s view of the Jubilee is different from that of every other pope before him,” says the editor of Zenit. “This is a Jubilee with a specific intention, but with no particular programme, no scheduled meetings with groups of pilgrims.”
People are by now used to the fact that, while previous popes would take the time to greet and name every group that was officially present, and do so in many different languages, only a two or three groups will be singled out by Pope Francis for a public papal greeting.
This is for a purpose”, explains Gaspari, “Pope Francis really does mean to make Rome less central to the Catholic world, as attested by the multiplication of the Holy Doors in every diocese, in lieu of what used to be the four privileged Cathedrals (St Peter’s, St John Lateran, St Paul’s, Santa Maria Maggiore) in Rome. This Pope is keen to bring ‘the outskirts of existence’ to the fore, and if this requires fading out everything that has been at center stage thus far, he is ready to do so. On the other hand, this would appear to be the way he has interpreted the mandate of the cardinals who elected him: to clean up the center of power he is bent on bringing everything to a spiritual level, making a ‘servant of the servants of God’ out of the Papacy and everything that pertains to it: the Curia, the Vatican Bank, the works.”