Preparing for the pope on campus

'None of us could imagine the magnitude of this visit'

Emily Hatton, Staff WriterEmily Hatton, staff writer

Catholic University of America (CUA) staff found out just eight months ago that Pope Francis was considering a visit to campus.

Since then, administrators have exchanged a flurry of emails, engaged in a frenzy of planning—and teamed up to work with Homeland Security, too.

Before this week, a sitting pope had only visited CUA twice before, and Frank Persico, CUA Chief of Staff and VP for University Relations, saw them both—first as a student when Pope John Paul II came in 1979 and then as an administrator when Pope Benedict XVI came in 2008.

CUA maintains a close relationship with the Vatican as the school confers ecclesiastical degrees—certified and accredited by the Holy See. The institution received its papal charter back in 1887.

But Pope Francis's visit brings unique logistical issues, says Persico, mainly because approximately 27,500 people are expected to attend Wednesday afternoon's outdoor papal Mass.

"None of us could imagine the magnitude of this visit versus 2008," he says. "It is just night and day."

"People who are really knee-deep in [planning] this are putting in probably 14- to 16-hour days."

When Benedict visited, they simply gave out 12,000 tickets and organized standing room along Benedict's parade route. "It was not nearly as specialized as it was now," Persico says.

The Mass itself

By Wednesday afternoon, 15,000 chairs, 320 porta-potty rentals, a riser for 390 journalists, and a choir stage—along with plenty of fencing—will be installed on the 3.6-acre University Mall outside of the basilica. The school expects 25,600 ticketed attendees, plus an additional 900 media members and 900 volunteers, to attend the Mass. 

And while the university has strived to make sure students' lives are disrupted as little as possible by the preparations, weaving through fencing does make getting to class take bit longer, Persico says.

The planning process

CUA only heard about the pope's potential visit in mid-January, and since then countless messages, phone calls, and emails have been exchanged among university employees, contractors, the Archdiocese, and the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. 

The university worked closely with the Archdiocese through the summer to put the event together, Persico says. Cardinal Donald Wuerl broke down responsibilities into seven committees, including logistics on which Persico serves alongside a core group of 11 others.

They bring additional parties on to "fluid committee" as needed, he says. A range of campus departments—such as IT and facilities— have pitched in to ensure the media will have WI-FI access and no trees or light poles block attendees' views at Mass. The Secret Service, of course, handled security.

The set up process was quite mathematical—fire and safety officials provided formulas that determined how many people could be in each zone and how many bathrooms are needed.

"It took a lot more planning than I could ever have imagined," Persico says. "This has really consumed my efforts for the past four months almost full time." 

What began with monthly meetings with Wuerl accelerated into daily meetings with two of the Cardinal's representatives—on top of 8 a.m. meetings with contractors. Persico says he even broke his  "no email outside of work hours" rule—temporarily.

Meanwhile, his typical duties shifted to his assistant VP, with whom he also meets daily. "Everyone in my office is waiting for this to be over so we can return to some normalcy," he says. "It's really been a labor of love."

Paying for the papal visit

When the event was scheduled, President John Garvey laid down two rules, Persico says:

1. Every student who wants a ticket gets a ticket, and
2. Not one tuition dollar will be used for this project.

By sharing the costs with the Archdiocese and the basilica, and engaging the university's development process—those goals have been met, Persico says.

"It's not an insignificant amount ... but we're not blowing the bank either, we've been very frugal," he says. "The No. 1 thing is the safety of the people, and that costs a lot," he says.

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.


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