PHILADELPHIA – In the videotaped message, Pope Francis issues a personal invitation to pilgrims — "See you in Philadelphia!" — but despite a marketing campaign and a rollback of some travel restrictions, estimates that up to 1.5 million people will be in town for the pope's outdoor Mass later this month may be too high.
"I look forward to greeting the pilgrims and the people of Philadelphia when I come for the World Meeting of Families," the pope said in English. "I will be there because you will be there!"
The personal appeal was part of a monthlong effort by planners to turn around the public perception that security and travel restrictions had made it too much work to come see Francis.
What's more, the Secret Service said Friday that the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the secured site of the pope's two biggest events, would only fit about 250,000 people. Other visitors will have to watch on jumbo TV screens nearby or in other locations around the city, which church planners said was always the plan.
The pope attends the closing festival of the World Meeting of Families next Saturday and celebrates Mass the next day, both on the parkway. Responding to a public outcry, event planners made 10,000 tickets available to the public each day.
Heading into the final week before the pope's U.S. trip, hotels in Philadelphia had more than 1,000 rooms available. Regional transit agency SEPTA had sold only about a third of its papal visit rail passes. Charter bus reservations are also a fraction of what was projected.
But getting to the papal events has been made easier in recent weeks. SEPTA doubled the number of subway stops it will keep open during the visit. Huge parking lots just across the Delaware River in New Jersey were opened up to thousands of cars to reduce how far people will have to walk.
Papal visit organizers said they realized they needed to hit the reset button when a satirical security map appeared, showing the city surrounded by lava and guarded by flying pterodactyls.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell was an early critic of the plan to fence in the parkway and require those wanting to get inside to go through airport-style detectors. He believes the marketing campaign changed the mood a little. "Attendance will be strong, but not what it might have been," he said.