To this day, I regret something I didn't do in 1987. No, not some job choice or stock purchase. It was when I covered the U.S. tour of Pope John Paul II, and didn't buy one of those souvenir T-shirts with three faces: George, John Paul and Ringo.
Fortunately, for me and a new generation of pope-biliaphiles, a new crop awaits in the northeast U.S., where Pope Francis plans to visit in September. The Washington Post surveys the market in a sweeping, good-natured feature.
As the Post notes, the T-shirts, bobbleheads, keychains and more bizarre items have become a standard feature of papal tours; in 1987, I even saw ads for a John Paul lawn sprinkler, with water spraying from his hands. Such things are writ large again for the upcoming visit of Francis.
The newspaper surveys the dizzying array of items being churned out -- from jerseys to holy water bottles to "Papal Pleasure" beer to a toaster that burns Francis' face into bread.
I know from experience that it takes a light touch to make such stories work. You want to convey the silliness and excess, yet keep a respect for the devotion of the people who buy the stuff -- and some of those who make it. And the Post pulls it off, right from the lede:
Warren Royal dreamed of a classier bobblehead pope.
The owner of Royal Bobbles is one of the many manufacturers, vendors and artists producing a heavenly host of commemorative baubles — and bobbles — that will surround Pope Francis on his visit to Washington, New York and Philadelphia next month. The multitudes will include papal mugs, magnets, buttons and T-shirts along with popes rendered in plush, plastic and (at one Philadelphia deli) mozzarella.
"Scatter gold coins," I once heard from a writing instructor, meaning to drop bright facts throughout your story. Steve Hendrix of the Post does an excellent job of that, distributing the funny stuff among more perceptive items.
Like a good reporter, Hendrix offers some background on The Making Of the items. He says a pizza maker will sculpt Francis' face either with or without a mitre. He even says that Warren Royal, the bobblehead maven, did a little research on how to render Francis:
But Royal aimed beyond bobblehead popes of questionable taste. One version on Etsy features the Holy Father’s visage bobbing between a pair of Rocky-esque boxing gloves, with a cheesesteak in one fist and a soft pretzel in the other.
So Royal and his designers reduced the plastic pontiff’s head by 30 percent (“It’s not so cartoonish, but it still moves well”), vetted his vestments for style and color with Catholic scholars, and ordered him cast in the most substantial resin Guangzhou factories could provide.
“It’s not a just a tchotchke to stick on the dash,” Royal said proudly by phone from Atlanta. “People seem to form a personal connection with this figure.”
Stories like this gain an extra boost from a writer who can turn a phrase, and Hendrix is one of those writers. You’ve already seen his "baubles and bobbles." He gets alliterative also with "pop-up pope shop." He mentions the "Papal Industrial Complex" and calls a section of the memorabilia market a "holy-owned subsidiary." And he tells of porcelain Francis statuettes whose heads "maintain a stately stillness."
The writer shows excellent enterprise in multisourcing: a visitor, two retailers, the deli owner, even a property rights lawyer (who says that as a public person, Francis would find it hard to "police his image"). And in a special coup, Hendrix quotes Rocco Palmo, writer of the Catholic-oriented "Whispers in the Loggia" blog.
Palmo explains the distinct Catholic approach to spirituality, a valuable insight on why they want saintly souvenirs. “Catholics believe in sacramentality, the faith embraces things that are tangible, statues, incense,” he tells the Post. “T-shirts and bobbleheads can be an extension of that.”
A shopper buying Francis T-shirts and medallions gives a succinct quote: “This is such a good man, such a holy man. Just to see his face, it makes me feel close to him.”
To say all of this with humor but without snark is a double compliment -- to the writer himself and to the newspaper who ran his work. Some of the more appreciative Catholics who read the Post story just may be lighting votive candles for Hendrix right now.
For myself, it looks like there's another chance to snag a papal T-shirt. But after reading this article, my target has shifted. Now I want one of those shirts marked "I [Bishop's hat] Pope Francis."
Thumbnail photo: Screenshot from Etsy.com, showing a Pope Francis statuette with a cheesesteak in one hand and a soft pretzel in the other.