The number of pilgrims and tourists coming to see Benedict XVI is declining steadily, raising alarms about the pontiff’s diminished appeal. According to this CNS story, figures released by the Vatican show that just over 2.21 million people saw Benedict XVI in person in 2008–at the Vatican or the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo, attending his weekly general audience, at a special audience with him, a liturgy he celebrated or his Sunday Angelus address.
That is down from the 2.8 million figure in 2007 and from the more than 3.2 million pilgrims and visitors in 2006, his first full calendar year as pope. In 2004, Pope John Paul II’s last full calendar year as pope, the Vatican said the number of people who attended a papal event was 2.23 million.
Pope-philes were upset at some of the coverage of this trend, in particular this London Times article with the unfortunate hedder, “Crowds shrink for ‘bland’ Benedict, the Pope who only ever says no.” At Catholic World News, Phil Lawler says the newspaper “sneers” at Benedict (well, they’re English, so they sneer at everyone) and that they fail to take into account economic factors and chalk the trend up solely to “the dour pontiff [who] pays the price for his lack of charisma and visibility compared with John Paul II, his showman predecessor.”
As Phil and other defenders note, Benedict doesn’t care about numbers.
The problem is that when Benedict XVI was drawing big crowds early on in his pontificate, many of these same fans were kvelling over the numbers and citing them as proof of Benedict’s appeal and as a finger in the eye to Ratzinger’s critics. Back then they didn’t want to hear about things like the strong economy helping, the proximity to Rome of so many energized German pilgrims, the fact that Benedict could actually speak and hold public audiences, which John Paul had been virtually unable to do for the last couple years of his pontificate. Oh, and the fact that half the people who came to those early papal events of Benedict’s said they were coming as much to visit John Paul’s tomb as to see Benedict.
But Benedict’s fans wouldn’t hear of it then. So complaints now are a bit rich. Live by the sword, as they say…
Of course it’s true, numbers shouldn’t dictate “success” in papal terms, but big crowds–like inflated real estate prices–mesmerized the Vatican, esp during the JP2 years, when the going was good. Benedict was never likely to match such figures, nor should he try. But it’s not something he seems worried about, even if others are.