Planning papal visit tough but rewarding job

NEW YORK – Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to New York, with all of its special events, needs to run as efficiently as the helicopter that carries him from John F. Kennedy International Airport into Manhattan.

One man is responsible for seeing that it does.

Mark G. Ackermann is the executive director of the archdiocesan Office of the Papal Visit. His job is to oversee almost every detail of planning and managing the visit of the pope and those who will be traveling with him.

That includes such tasks as working on security; arranging for lodging and hospitality for visiting dignitaries, including U.S. cardinals and bishops; distributing tickets for papal events; booking popular entertainment for a papal youth rally; making sure that reporters and other media people have lodging and any technical assistance they need; and seeing to it that the papal schedule is followed to the minute.

It’s a job that requires the skills of a corporate leader, a major general and an impresario, not to mention unflappability and the patience of Job.

Ackermann, who spent 25 years at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan and was most recently its chief administrative officer, seems both exceptionally qualified for the job and delighted to be doing it.

“It is truly a privilege and an honor,” he told Catholic New York, the archdiocesan newspaper. He also praised the many people working with him to make the visit a success.

The pope will be in Washington April 15-17 and in New York April 18-20.

Ackermann leads a task force of more than 50 people, mostly bishops, priests, religious and lay employees of the archdiocese. In addition, hundreds of volunteers from various parishes will assist at papal events.

Ackermann noted that he is working with “a wide range of city, state and federal agencies.”

“I can’t tell you how cooperative and helpful they have been,” he said. They include the New York City Police Department and the U.S. Secret Service, which will coordinate the papal motorcades here.

He also is working with the U.S. State Department and the White House. He noted that President George W. Bush has asked the White House physician to work with the pope’s physicians to ensure that Pope Benedict remains healthy and safe during his visit.

The logistics associated with the events are formidable. For example, about 800 buses are to arrive at Yankee Stadium for the Mass, the largest number of buses ever to arrive at a single site in New York City.

At the Mass itself there will be 800 concelebrants – cardinals, bishops and priests – on the altar; an additional 550 priests will be in the stands to distribute Communion.

Although planning a papal visit is a complex undertaking, Ackermann noted that he and his staff had a blueprint: the visit of Pope John Paul II to New York in 1995. The plans for Pope Benedict’s visit are following “the same basic structure,” Ackermann said.

But one thing has changed significantly.

“This is a post-9/11 era,” Ackermann noted, referring to the 2001 terrorist attacks. “Security is much tighter.”

He recalled the moment when Pope John Paul, having led the recitation of the rosary in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, walked outside, bypassed his waiting car and took an unscripted walk on Fifth Avenue and down East 50th Street, shaking outstretched hands and blessing the crowds behind police barricades.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think you’ll see something as extemporaneous as that,” Ackermann said. The pope and those who come to see him will be under more rigorous restriction.

More than 90,000 people are expected to attend New York papal events. Each person’s name, address and birth date are being entered in a database, by order of the Secret Service. Tickets to papal events are not transferable. Personnel whose positions will be closest to the pope are undergoing more extensive background checks.

Security requirements prohibit anyone from carrying an umbrella to a papal event. But that doesn’t mean that if the skies open, there will be throngs of soggy spectators. Ackermann is ready for rain – with 100,000 ponchos.

For dignitaries and for several thousand members of the media, Ackermann has to find rooms.

But the papal visit is, first and finally, a spiritual event, and Ackermann noted that Cardinal Egan wants the visit to be spiritually enriching for as many people as possible, and not just Catholics.

The cardinal’s constant focus on the spiritual side of the visit, he said, “really has been inspiring to everybody involved.”

Monsignor William J. Belford, chancellor, has been appointed to the papal task force in charge of spiritual preparation.

While the job has its stresses and challenges, it also brings great spiritual benefits, he said.

He praised the many dedicated people he is working with, including cardinals and bishops, the staffs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the New York State Catholic Conference, the employees of the New York Archdiocese and the hundreds of volunteers in the parishes.

Ackermann noted that archdiocesan staffers and volunteers, while doing their regular day jobs, are putting in “many, many hours” to ensure that the pope’s visit is a great success “from a temporal perspective and a spiritual perspective.”

He added, “The dedication of the people on the task force and who work in this building and in parishes all around this archdiocese is inspiring to me and has nurtured my faith.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.