Tense religion writers all across this land are sitting at their desks, waiting for the dreaded moment when an editor walks over and says the words no one wants to hear just before a papal visit: "A friend of mine heard that people are buying those pope-soap-on-a-rope things somewhere in town. Why don't you look into that and see that other kinds of pope junk are out there?" Oh, the humanity!
Jacqueline L. Salmon drew the short straw over at The Washington Post and focused the heart of her story on official gear that is being sold by official Catholic groups. Think PopeVisit2008.com and Catholic to the Max!
Catholic organizations, including the Archdiocese of Washington and the basilica, the site in Northeast D.C. where the pope will speak on April 16, are selling merchandise, many with a logo licensed from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The logo features a photo of the pope with the slogan "Christ Our Hope." The archdiocese has also created its own logo: the pope holding a crucifix, with a red rectangle with a cross and crossed keys.
The archdiocese and the basilica's products were designed and are being manufactured by Catholic to the Max, a division of Nelson Woodcraft, a family-owned manufacturer of Catholic memorabilia in Steubenville, Ohio. The company will share proceeds of the sales -- no one will say how much -- with the archdiocese and the basilica.
Owner Mark Nelson said he wants the souvenirs to combine the religious and the secular.
"We've geared products to be such that they're not just souveniry but spiritual in nature," he said.
It's a fun little story, but I have a problem with it.
The report opens with a catchy riff about some of the stranger products that are already on sale. If you're a journalist and you've covered a papal visit, you know the drill.
If your teddy bear needs a shirt, you can get one with the pope's picture on it for $15.95.
If Pope Benedict XVI is your man, you can feel close to him with Pope on a Rope soap for $9.99 or the Pope's Cologne for $25.95.
And if you want pure pope entertainment, there is a bobblehead Pope Benedict for $12.95.
This is all fair game, of course. The problem is that the Post really doesn't tell us who is selling those rather, well, non-spiritual items.
In fact, the story veers quickly straight into information about a Catholic customer buying much more conventional items at a rather establishment spot -- the bookstore of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Are they really selling Big Ben bobbleheads at the basilica? I was there just a few days ago and didn't see any items of that ilk.
Now, the soap, the bobbleheads and the other funny stuff may be there now. If so, that's amazing. Normally, that's the kind of thing you see on street corners and in less official (to put it mildly) locations.
The strength of this story is its emphasis on the official gifts linked to the visit. But that strength turns into a problem when it fails to establish precisely who is selling what kind of papal-visit stuff.
One other funny detail and a possible hook for a follow-up story. It 's clear that bear items are going to be hot during the visit. But there is more to that than the fact that Pope Benedict XVI -- the former Cardinal Ratzinger -- is German.
If you look closely at the pope's official shield, you will see an interesting and quite personal image -- a bear wearing a backpack. What is that all about? As one site on the pope's life explains:
The bear is tied to an old Bavarian legend about St. Corbinian, the first bishop and patron saint of the Diocese of Freising. According to the legend, when the saint was on his way to Rome, a bear attacked and killed his horse. St. Corbinian punished the bear by making him carry the saint's belongings the rest of the way to Rome.
The bear symbolizes the beast "tamed by the grace of God," and the pack he is carrying symbolizes "the weight of the episcopate," said Cardinal Ratzinger in his autobiography.
"The bear with the pack, which replaced the horse or, more probably, St. Corbinian's mule, becoming, against his will, his pack animal, was that not, and is it not an image of what I should be and of what I am?" continues the cardinal in his book.
There is content in those symbols, even when they are light-hearted and fun. But whose pack is being carried by this very urbane and learned pope?
UPDATE: Yes, I saw the new Washington Post bobblehead-controversy follow story -- the one about the ad with a bobblehead Benedict XVI riding the Metro to the Nationals Park Mass. No real comment. You gotta love this part, though:
In the video, the bobblehead rides the train next to a man reading "Car and Pontiff" magazine. The mock-up of the magazine, also done by Metro media relations, has photos of the popemobile. The man turns to the bobblehead and asks in Latin, "Car in shop?" Then he flips to the last page, which shows an ad about taking Metro to the Mass. "Thank Heaven for Metro," the man intones.