Organising the papal Mass: 4,000 communion servers, 1,000 medics

Agencies co-ordinate to facilitate largest outdoor event in Europe this year

While organising the largest outdoor event in Europe this year has been difficult from almost every angle and has required multiple arms of the State, including the Garda, the health services, the transport network, local authorities and the Office of Public Works (OPW), to operate seamlessly, the thing that has been playing on event co-ordinator Fr Damian McNeice's mind most recently is Holy Communion.

Specifically he has been working out how to make sure everyone who wants communion during the papal Mass in the Phoenix Park on August 26th gets it and it has been no easy task.

“We will have half a million people looking for communion at the same time and my aim is to ensure we get it to them within a 15 to 20-minute window,” he says. “I don’t think they managed to reach everyone the last time a pope was in the park but we’re hopeful we will.”


He has recruited 4,000 servers for the Mass, at which Pope Francis will be the chief celebrant. They will be stationed at the main altar under the shadow of the papal cross and at 16 sub-chapels where subsets of servers will have responsibility for several “corrals” each containing just over 1,000 of the faithful.


As master of ceremonies for the event, communion is not the only thing of which he has oversight. He has had a hand in everything from the building of the altar to the 3,000-strong choir to the positioning of giant video screens and the creation of an app for event attendees.

But even Fr McNeice accepts he is a small cog in an enormous machine, one that only really started to crank up in March.

Transport has proved most taxing and getting people – many in their 70s and beyond – to and from the Phoenix Park is a challenge.

"This is the largest event Ireland has organised in nearly 40 years," Garda superintendent Thomas Murphy says. "It simply will not be possible to accommodate all the people who have indicated they want to travel by car. Therefore we are urging people to go by train, bus, coach or Luas."

By any measure, the walking and waiting will be considerable.

The World Meeting of Families says attendees should allow at least eight hours for the event. There will be a 75-minute walk from half a dozen transport hubs around the park to its gates, a further 60 minutes to queue at those gates and another 60 minutes to walk to corrals marked on all attendee tickets.

People should allow 30 minutes for the popemobile to pass, while the Mass is expected to last 105 minutes. The long march back to the transport hubs gate will take more than two hours and further long queues are likely.

It is not, by any measure, for the faint of heart, which is why there will be more than 1,000 doctors, nurses and paramedics stationed at 1.5km intervals on all routes and designated rest zones as well as food and drinks stations, toilets and baby changing facilities are all in place.


And, as some somewhat alarmist headlines have made clear, there will be an on-site mortuary, although its presence is downplayed by the general manager of the World Meeting of Families, Anne Griffin.

“For all large-scale events we plan for the worst,” she says. “So it would be remiss of the State not to plan as they do for every event. In terms of mortuaries, that is something that exists all the time. So there is nothing new or nothing fresh in regards to that.”

She points out it is not only deaths organisers are prepared for. At the final Mass at the last World Meeting of Families event in Philadelphia in 2015 there were "six ladies who were brought from the event to maternity hospitals and they had their babies, so there are good things that can happen too," Ms Griffin said. "At all events we plan to make sure that all people will be safe and if anyone has an emergency of kind they will be looked after."

The OPW and the council have been preparing since the spring. The park gates have been widened temporarily, pathways within the park have been marked out, welfare hubs, way-finding, security and stewarding facilities have been put in place, as have waste-management plans and emergency services access points.

Jennifer Gilna of the NTA says it had been working on plans for six months and has a team made up of all the key stakeholders.

“This is the largest event anyone around the table has worked on and we want to make sure we have really robust public transport system in place so everybody who wants to see the pope can get there, but also we want to make sure that people who have no interest in seeing the pope can go about their business without being inconvenienced,” she says.

Ms Gilna’s team will be arriving in the park from 4am on the Sunday morning to keep things moving and she anticipates everything will run smoothly apart from unavoidable delays.

“It’s basically going to be seven All-Ireland finals at the same time, so there will be some queuing, but we will get people in and out as fast as we possibly can.”

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast