Thousands of tickets for open-air masses during Pope Benedict's visit to Britain this week are yet to be taken up just four days before he is due to arrive.
Organisers have blamed poor communication between dioceses and the parishes distributing tickets as well as early application deadlines for the low take up. Some Catholics, especially the elderly, have also been put off by the pre-dawn starts and long journeys demanded for many events. Because of tight security arrangements, attendees must attach themselves to a local parish group and travel with them from designated departure points.
Although just 400,000 tickets had been allocated for the open-air masses which will be presided over by Pope Benedict in Glasgow, London and Birmingham, organisers are now racing to ensure the parks will be full.
The forecast is not a patch on 1982, whens hundreds of thousands of people congregated at six venues across the country to see John Paul II during his six-day visit.
Parish priests have been urged to distribute thousands of tickets to schools, while the Archbishop of Westminster, Rev Vincent Nichols, wrote to Catholic school heads in London last week asking them to organise parties of schoolchildren to attend the evening prayer vigil in Hyde Park on Saturday.
While it may also be the case that numerous paedophilia scandals have tarnished the church's image, cost may have contributed towards the low turn-out. The visit is expected to cost the Catholic Church around £10m, and applicants were told they had to make a financial contribution to attend the masses. Attendance at the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham on Sunday, the final day of the Pope's visit, costs £25. The afternoon mass in Glasgow's Bellahouston Park on Thursday was priced at £20, while the evening prayer vigil in Hyde Park cost £5. Organisers have denied that the charges are an entrance fee but would go towards transport and security provisions.
Jack Valero, a spokesman for Opus Dei, said that there was "huge excitement" and "no lack of enthusiasm from Catholics" about the upcoming papal visit but admitted there had been administration problems which meant that there was a "redistribution of tickets going on now".
He added that he believed the Hyde Park event would be at full capacity at 80,000, but was less confident that Cofton Park in Birmingham would receive the full number of 60,000 visitors. He attributed this to health and safety and security arrangements which would necessitate visitors arriving at the park between 3am and 7am for the 10am mass, and said that "those who can't face getting up at 2am" would be deterred.
Peter Jennings, press secretary to the Archdiocese of Birmingham, said the process of allocating spaces for the mass was a "huge and complicated task". He added that visitors were "not paying to go to mass, which is free – the £25 contribution is for the cost of travel and the travel arrangements."
Austen Ivereigh, the co-ordinator of the media group Catholic Voices, admitted that there had been some "problems with communicating the availability of spaces" and that the cost of going to the masses could have deterred some visitors.
"But what's more likely is the distance – because of the logistics and security, where the police need to know about every single coach coming and that everyone on the coach can be vouched for, the organisers have had to ask people to travel very early," he said. "There is a finite number of spaces for security reasons, and there is the problem that more people want to go than there are tickets available.
"With the general election campaign, a new government, and the venues for events changed at the last minute, all of this has been quite complex and the church has had very little time for the allocation process. But I am confident the events will be full."
A source close to the papal visit said that the long journeys faced by some Scottish parishioners to attend the Pope's Glasgow mass on Thursday afternoon meant that tickets were now being transferred to closer parishes, and that it would be "a race against time" to ensure an attendance of 100,000.
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