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Heaven help us all


Pope Benedict XVI is coming to my town.

I realize many people can say that, like the eight million New Yorkers who learned last month that the pope is visiting the United Nations next spring.

But when I say town, I really mean town.

I live in Heiligenkreuz—or Holy Cross—population 1,331, an Austrian hamlet in the Vienna Woods.

Pope Benedict is stopping here at 4 p.m for about 45 minutes to visit the Abbey at Heiligenkreuz, home of a Cistercian order of monks and a major theological seminary—recently named after the pope—as part of his Austrian tour in early September.

Traditionally, the monastery has been a stop for Catholics making the 120 kilometer pilgrimage on the "Via Sacra," the holy road between Vienna and the Basilica at Mariazell, which are the highlights of the pontiff's tour.

Still, it is a historic moment for Heiligenkreuz; the first time a pope has visited in the 874 years of the abbey's existence.

And with the pope coming here, it got me thinking: How does a group of monks—best known for their Gregorian chants—manage the potential risks of a papal visit?

Predictably, the Vatican spokesman is keeping quiet on anything to do with risk and the pope's travels.

But, fortunately, I was able to turn to a local source, Father Karl Wallner, a monk and the seminary's rector, who is front-and-center in preparations for the pope's arrival.

My wife and I were also married by Father Karl in Heiligenkreuz 10 years ago. So, over a recent anniversary meal of wild boar and dumplings-a local delicacy, I asked him to explain a bit about their risk management strategy.

Turns out, you don't need extra insurance when you've got heavenly assurances.

"It is a very big challenge, of course, but the Holy Father is a person of peace, so indeed none of us are really afraid that something bad could happen," Father Karl told me.

But the monks are not relying on faith alone.

"We have to realize that we live in a time after 9/11 and we live in a time where also mad people want to draw attention to themselves, so of course we have to do everything for the safety of the Holy Father," he continued.

Understandably, an official papal visit to the Republic of Austria means it is not just the monks who are watching the pope's back.

Austria's elite Cobra Special Forces unit will be on hand before dawn that day to secure the abbey grounds.

In advance, the monastery has had to provide the names and photos of anyone—such as the 80 monks in residence there—who will be in close proximity to Pope Benedict. Meanwhile, all of us locals had to register months in advance in order to stand for hours in the church courtyard for a distant peak.

And on visiting day, getting onto the grounds of the Abbey at Heiligenkreuz will be like going through security at Heathrow Airport.

With up to 15,000 visitors expected, everyone from the Red Cross to fire brigades will be on hand to provide logistical support. Additionally, the church has trained a group of 200 young Catholic volunteers to welcome pilgrims and offer assistance, as well as to be on the lookout for crazies. If there is a panic, they have been instructed to open the gates.

As for the pope himself, practically every step he takes is being carefully orchestrated. Nothing is being left to chance.

Truth be told, the most likely risks of this joyful and spiritual event may be reuniting lost children with parents or passing out bottled water to overheated pilgrims. That does not mean Father Karl has not dreamed of far worse.

"I had a bad dream that I went to kneel down in front of the Holy Father and then I turned around and I knocked him over. That is what I dreamt, but I think it will not happen."