Brazil researchers say numbers don’t add up for papal Mass crowd count, cut by experts

Rio de Janeiro - If measured in spirit, there is hardly a soul who would question the success of Pope Francis’ Mass on giant Copacabana beach last weekend. The count when it comes to the flesh-and-blood numbers of faithful who actually attended is an entirely different matter.

The Vatican said an historic 3.7 million people were at the Sunday event, an eye-popping number that would have made it the second largest papal Mass ever. But number crunchers were splashing cold water on those jubilant estimates Friday, saying the real figure was not even half as big.

The problem was, the count released by Vatican and Brazilian officials was a guesstimate that statisticians say grossly inflated the crowd figures. The research director of Datafolha, one of Brazil’s top polling and statistic firms, said that based on the size of the crowd area and reasonable density estimates, he would put Sunday’s turnout at between 1.2 million and 1.5 million people.

Vatican officials and organizers of World Youth Day, an event held every three years that draws young Catholics from across the globe, weren’t bashful about telling the press how many people turned out to see Francis.

“It’s an old, old story that organizations, whether political radicals or the Vatican, always over-guesstimate the size of turnout, they want their event to look as good as possible,” said Clark McPhail, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Illinois who has studied crowd counts for four decades.

McPhail first chuckled when he heard the Vatican’s claim that the pope drew 3.7 million people to an area of Copacabana beach and adjoining streets that encompassed about 497,000 square meters (594,400 square yards).

By the Vatican’s count, the crowd density throughout the entire area would have been 7.4 people per square meter, which wouldn’t allow for movement of any kind, let alone the jumping, arm waving, singing and dancing seen at the papal events. Video and photos of the crowd also showed that while it was packed close to the gigantic altar built on Copacabana beach, the faithful thinned out along the 4-kilometer long beach.

A big crowd estimate would surely be a boon to the pontiff’s supporters, who would argue that the multitudes gave him a popular mandate to battle entrenched Vatican officials who don’t look kindly upon Francis’ drive to reform the church’s opaque and scandal-ridden bureaucracy.

The bloated crowd figure also provided cover for city officials in Rio, where logistical problems seen during the papal visit brought into question the city’s ability to host 2014 World Cup group stage and championship matches, not to mention the 2016 Olympics.

Those attending the papal events complained about the city’s woeful public transport system, a lack of affordable hotel rooms, the need for public toilets and a local services industry not able to meet demands for things as simple as lunch. A miraculously high crowd count would make all that more understandable and give local officials breathing room.

Perhaps not by coincidence, Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes was the first to float last weekend that 3 million faithful attended a Saturday night prayer vigil with Pope Francis, and that even more were expected for the Sunday Mass.

“We got that number from the organizers of the event and the mayor repeated it. How they arrived at that number, you’ll have to ask them,” said Nara Franco, a spokeswoman for the mayor.

The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said in an email on Friday that the Vatican also received the 3.7 million figure from local church organizers of the World Youth Day.

When asked, those organizers acknowledged that the figure of 3.7 million who attended the pope’s Mass wasn’t built upon anything resembling a scientific crowd count.

“We came up with the number based on previous events held at Copacabana beach, like New Years, Carnival and concerts,” said Carol Castro, a Youth Day spokeswoman. “We then looked at the videos of the pope’s Mass and estimated the size based on estimates of those previous events.”

The international press ran with the official estimates.

But Brazilian experts say crowd counts in the country, like in many nations, are wildly inaccurate.

“Nobody will be able to tell you how they came up with there being 3.7 million people attending the Mass because it’s impossible,” said Alessandro Janoni, research director for Datafolha. “The crowd wasn’t even using the entire beach. It’s simply impossible.”

Datafolha did not make an official estimate for the Sunday Mass.

But based on Datafolha’s crowd count earlier in the papal visit, which examined the size of Copacabana beach and the surrounding streets a crowd could spill into, Janoni said there were between 1.2 million and 1.5 million people at the Mass, no more. The firm estimated a crowd density of three people per square meter in the 497,000 square meters where people gathered on Copacabana beach, a high-end estimate given what McPhail and other researchers say is a good rule of thumb of two people per square meter in a packed event.

Datafolha officially estimated one of the pontiff’s crowds, a Thursday meeting with young Catholics on Copacabana beach, at 865,000. The Vatican’s estimate was 1.2 million for that event.

A 2007 concert by the rock group the Rolling Stones drew what authorities at that time estimated to be 1.5 million people to the same beach, but the crowd visually covered only about a third of the beach’s length, bringing that number into doubt. Sunday’s Mass stretched down almost the entire length of Copacabana.

If the church’s estimate for Sunday’s Mass had held, it would have only been bested by a 1995 Mass given only by Pope John Paul II in Manila, Philippines, for a World Youth Day event there. But the Datafolha estimate knocks Rio’s event below the 2 million who turned out in Rome in 2000 for a Youth Day Mass and also a 1979 Mass in Krakow, John Paul’s Polish hometown, during his first visit as pope.

Janoni and his team at Datafolha have deflated crowd estimates at other big events in Brazil, to the chagrin of organizers.

Those in charge of Sao Paulo’s Gay Pride parade in recent years claimed it drew upward of 4 million people, making it the world’s largest. Datafolha put the count during the event this June at 220,000.

An annual “March for Jesus” in Sao Paulo held by Pentecostal evangelical churches has billed itself as the “largest Christian event in the world” for many years, claiming well over 1 million people turn out for the event. Datafolha focused its attention on the June event this year and put the crowd at 200,000.