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Papal visit unleashes torrent of pope-related merchandise

A sign advertises Pope Francis merchandise in downtown

A sign advertises Pope Francis merchandise in downtown Philadelphia where Pope Francis is scheduled to visit, on Sep. 22, 2015. Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

PHILADELPHIA -- At the giant Aramark tower on Philadelphia's Market Street, a pop-up store busily marketed the upcoming arrival of Pope Francis, its cash register spitting out a stream of sales receipts.

Tourists squeezed into the tiny retail space over the weekend to examine official T-shirts, rosaries and other offerings, or to shoot selfies while standing next to the life-size cutout photo of the pope that greets visitors at the door.

"I just feel it's a wonderful thing to remember this historically as an event," said Maria Caristina Perez, 21, a student at nearby Rosemont College, who spent $75 on a pope sweatshirt and a pope vacuum bottle. "And I'm all for buying things that are for a good cause."

The first-ever visit of Pope Francis to the United States -- with Sunday's outdoor Mass on Benjamin Franklin Parkway as the capstone -- has released a torrent of pontiff-related merchandise. Some items carry the Catholic Church's endorsement, while others are being sold by freelancers in a frenzy of free-market exuberance.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese plans to sprinkle 19 pop-up pope stores across downtown in coming days during the World Meeting of Families, which began Tuesday. Independent retailers have been hawking pope-themed items from streetside stands and market stalls for weeks.

"There is a general excitement and anticipation of a monumental event," said Zoe Brown, a saleswoman at Amy's Place, a gift shop tucked in the rear of the Reading Terminal Market.

Daily sales of the solar-powered images of a waving Francis that look out from the shop's windows approach $400, she said. Across a market aisle, papal flags, Francis coffee mugs and blue-glass pope vases can be had for a few dollars apiece.

"It's been brisk, and it will be even more when he gets here," she said of the waving pope figurines. "We're already selling 15 or 20 of them a day."

Official NYC items

The Archdiocese of New York, which is hosting the pope beginning with an evening vespers service Thursday at St. Patrick's Cathedral, offers just a few small items ranging from $20 to $160 -- all modestly displayed on the archdiocese's website.

They include $20 "Official PAPAL NYC 2015 Logo Baseball Hats," a $75 commemorative medallion depicting Francis standing before St. Patrick's, and assorted rosaries that cost from $45 to $160. The cathedral's gift shop offers a few more items, including prayer cards for $3.50.

Independent sellers, meanwhile, are going whole hog.

Amazon is offering 20 pages of pope-related goodies on its website, including dozens of books, pendants, stickers, statuettes and cellphone cases.

Among its offerings are $29.99 rose-scented rosaries, said to have been blessed by the pope himself at a Vatican ceremony. There is a commemorative Pope Toaster, from which bread slices emerge with the image of a waving Francis browned onto the surface. There is even an "I k Pope Francis" T-shirt for dogs, at $19.99 plus shipping.

One Philly-themed commemorative T-shirt depicts a smiling Francis holding Philadelphia's signature sandwich, emblazoned with the words "I'm just here for the cheesesteaks."

Joan Doyle, a marketing adviser for both the Philadelphia and New York archdioceses, declined to specify how much revenue is expected to flow from merchandising sold by Aramark, a Philadelphia-based food and facilities management company that is handling pope-related merchandising done by the church. She said the sharing arrangement is "generous," and the revenue is intended to help each of the archdioceses defray costs associated with the papal visit.

Meeting demand

The church is not opposed to the independent sellers who have latched onto the excitement, she said, saying there is no way church-authorized sales alone could meet the demand.

"We've already exceeded our sales projections," Doyle told Newsday late last week.

For those who subscribe to Francis' admonitions against materialism, the marketing might appear a contradiction.

"It kind of doesn't represent anything the Catholic Church represents. It doesn't represent charity or anything," said Seth Reid, a Rosemont College sophomore who accompanied Perez. "You're paying $55 for a T-shirt for a religious figure to come in and talk to you."

But some church scholars say the merchandising can help laypeople remember a spiritual moment. Many liken it to the celebration of gifts and food during the Christmas season as a way to engage casual participants in the spirituality of the season.

"If it can get people enthusiastic about the pope's visit and open them up to his message, that's all to the good," said the Rev. James Martin, editor of America Magazine, a Jesuit publication. "Even tacky stuff -- pope bobbleheads -- can get people excited in a playful way. There is no harm in having fun -- and frankly, the pope is a lighthearted fellow.""We tend to associate Christianity with seriousness, but that's only part of the story," said Martin, whose book "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life" suggests that a lightness of spirit is essential to an appreciation of God. "The ultimate message of the Gospel is joy."

Phil Brach, an assistant dean at Catholic University's School of Business, said he still has a souvenir papal flag, rosary and a "John Paul II, He Loves You" button from the late pope's 1979 visit to Washington, D.C., when Brach was in elementary school.

Treasured keepsakes

"I've kept those things in a keepsake box for 40 years, so there is a degree they can reinforce a moment and a memory of our Holy Father's message," Brach said. "It can serve to promote and not be a challenge to his message of anti-materialism, but to help people remember."

"There is obviously a tastefulness question. I don't know about the T-shirts in Philadelphia where he says 'I'm only here for the cheesesteaks.' "

And the marketing extravaganza is almost certain to leave many on the outside looking in.

One of them is Tatiana Crepeau, 51, a Brooklyn native raising two children in North Philadelphia. She came to the Reading Market on Sunday to look for work, after a hoped-for temporary job had fallen through.

Unemployed and mostly homeless except for the kindness of relatives, she said she would have liked a keepsake of the pope's visit. But even the $5 prayer cards were beyond her budget.

"What am I going to feed the kids?" she said during a cellphone conversation moments before a reporter asked her to elaborate. "My stomach is grumbling, and I don't have any money."

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