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, a 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 statistics 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.
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 crowd estimate in an area of Copacabana beach and adjoining streets that encompassed about 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 2 1/2-mile-long beach.
"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.