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VATICAN LETTER Apr-22-2005 (910 words) With photos posted April 21 and 22. xxxi

Memorabilia -- tasteful to tacky -- fill souvenir shops near Vatican

By Benedicta Cipolla
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- Memorabilia ranging from fairly tasteful to remarkably tacky fill the dozens of souvenir shops around the Vatican, most of them still brimming with merchandise plastered with Pope John Paul II's face.

With a new pontiff in office, though, shopkeepers were gearing up for Pope Benedict XVI paraphernalia seekers.

Postcards depicting the new pope began trickling in April 22, to the relief of Anne and Eddie Finnigan of Coatbridge, Scotland, who were searching for souvenirs before they left Rome the following day.

"We just bought whatever we could find to go home with for friends. We haven't seen much of the new pope in the shops," said Anne Finnigan, who said she mistakenly left her bag of postcards and bookmarks in the sacristy of St. Peter's Basilica, where she and her husband had requested a Mass.

Just after Pope Benedict's April 19 election, stores got their hands on photographs from the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, and two days later only a few pictures were left. Prices ranged from about $1.30 to $5.20, depending on the size.

Long lines at newsstands formed the morning after the election for the paper's special "Habemus papam" (We have a pope) edition, complete with a large, glossy photo of the pope dressed in his new pontifical cassock and capelet -- for an extra $1.40. The daily, which usually appears in the afternoon, went to press just after the announcement of Pope Benedict's election.

While sales figures were not available, the crowds buying multiple copies to save for posterity suggested L'Osservatore Romano had significantly expanded its normally Vatican-oriented readership, if only for one day.

More elaborate postcards and miniposters with Pope Benedict's visage alongside the dome of St. Peter's Basilica and other Rome monuments were due to arrive in time for the April 24 installation Mass.

Expected from manufacturers in the coming weeks were medals, key chains and other trinkets, including the "popener," a bottle opener graced with a bas relief or picture of the pope. Tourists snapped them up during Pope John Paul's pontificate.

Two shops got a head start on the competition April 21 by offering $2.60 rosaries nestled in plastic boxes featuring Pope Benedict; one shop sold 72 in the 30 minutes after their arrival.

At La Cupola, where the new rosaries beckoned to customers from boxes placed outside the entrance, the owner wondered whether the new pope's choice of name might spur souvenir sales.

"It will be interesting to see if people get more interested in the connection to St. Benedict. I'd like to see brochures explaining about him. They'd be easier to read than books," she said, emphasizing her preference for high-end wares.

"To tell the truth, there's a lot of junk out there," she said.

Germany outstripped Italy in the race to produce papal merchandise. By April 21, Pope Benedict's home town, Marktl am Inn, had come up with papal beer, Vatican bread, candles featuring photographs taken the night of his election and a cake called "slice of Ratzinger." Bakeries offered free papal pastries shaped like miters.

The many books penned by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sold briskly. One bookstore along the street leading to St. Peter's Square had just two copies left in Italian, and other languages had sold out completely.

Based on sophisticated theology, the books the future pope wrote while head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may not appeal to the average visitor. In one shop, the sales "boom" translated only to about 50 copies, but owners were ordering up to 3,000 more in anticipation of increased demand.

Entire tables remained dedicated to Pope John Paul and were piled high with biographies, books he wrote, DVDs and calendars. Bookstore windows still prominently featured the late pope's writings, though most made an effort to display Pope Benedict's as well.

Jenny, a 29-year-old Italian woman in Rome visiting friends from the Veneto region up north, perused the Cardinal Ratzinger section at the Libreria San Paolo bookstore. She finally selected "In Cammino Verso Gesu Cristo," or "On the Way to Jesus," due to be published in English in the United States this summer by Ignatius Press.

"I liked the theme. We need to learn about the new pope," she said.

It remained to be seen if Pope Benedict would eventually outsell his predecessor. Some stores marked down merchandise related to Pope John Paul in order to make way for the new items slated to arrive. But most thought the late pope, given his popularity among the faithful during his more than 26-year papacy, would have the souvenir market cornered for some time.

"Right now people only want (Pope) John Paul crucifixes, not the ones with the Madonna or anything else. By now he's a saint -- or at least people already think he is," said one employee at Souvenirs Traspontina.

Sandi Delack of North Kingstown, R.I., purchased a simple rosary to take back for her mother. Asked if she was interested in any memento featuring Pope Benedict, she said: "I don't know. All I know of him is what I've seen on CNN."

For those not in Rome, eBay offered a panoply of hastily concocted Pope Benedict goods. Among the items up for auction: "Papa Ratzi" T-shirts; cell phone attachments, little papal charms that light up when the phone receives a text message; and a string of glow-in-the-dark lantern string lights featuring photos of the pope.


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