For Papal Pilgrims, a Ritual Turns to Retail

Merchants around St. Peter's stocked up on souvenirs of the new pope for pilgrims. Mustafa Hameed / Religio.

Merchants around St. Peter’s stocked up on souvenirs of the new pope for pilgrims. Mustafa Hameed / Religio.

Although shipments of Pope Francis merchandise have been trickling into gift stores in Rome since the morning after Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to be the 266th pope, Tuesday was the first day that shelves were fully stocked with Francis-themed items – and just in time for his installation at St. Peter’s Square.

There were refrigerator magnets, baseball caps, rosary beads and postcards – all bearing the image of Pope Francis.

At Ancora Libreria, the nearest souvenir store to St. Peter’s Square, pilgrims and tourists combed through baskets of trinkets. Sales assistants handed out small cardboard boxes, which shoppers quickly filled with their selections of memorabilia.

Patrizia Ferrarini, who caught the 6:20 a.m. flight from Turin to see the pope’s inauguration ceremony, bought five postcards of Francis to take home as souvenirs for her family.

“I’m still looking – there are so many things!” said Wally Tengg, who flew in from Austria with her mother and hadn’t yet decided which souvenirs to purchase. “It’s a big business,” she said, referring to the tourist boom that Vatican shops have seen due to the announcement of a new pope.

But despite the influx of ornaments, some shop keepers said the new merchandise wasn’t selling too well.

“Everyone wants to buy 20-cent postcards,” said Paula Cicerchia, a salesperson at Tabacchi souvenir shop. “The other things – not so much,” she said, pointing to metal boxes containing rosary beads and wooden icons, which sold from $7 to $13. Other stores were also selling $13 baseball caps, $15 mugs, stamp books for $25 and crucifix pendants for $26.

Luz Herrera, from Monterrey, Mexico, wandered around Savelli Gift clutching a small $7.50 bottle of holy water, branded with Francis’ face, which she intended to buy. But she was also searching for a wallet-sized picture of Pope John Paul II.

She didn’t have to search far, as most shops still had a wider selection of John Paul II merchandise for sale than Francis souvenirs. One postcard rack had five different postcards of John Paul II, compared to two of Francis and one of Benedict.

Tourists and pilgrims stock up on Pope Francis memorabilia. David Palacio / Religio.

Tourists and pilgrims stock up on Pope Francis memorabilia. David Palacio / Religio.

“John Paul has always been popular,” said Luca Rosse, a salesperson at Ancora Libreria. “Benedict XVI? Not so much – it’s always been John Paul.”

One sales assistant at Savelli Gift said that she still sells a lot of John Paul merchandise – even though he hasn’t been pope for eight years – and that Benedict was never a good seller.

But vendors are hopeful that under Pope Francis, who is already regarded by many as a warmer and more charismatic pope than Benedict, sales will return to their former John Paul levels.

If this turns out not to be the case, shops will have to rely on consumers like Sophia Franken, who was in Rome on a school trip from Cologne, Germany, and was buying postcards of John Paul, Benedict and Francis.

“I want to have one of everyone,” she said.

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One Response to “For Papal Pilgrims, a Ritual Turns to Retail”

  1. Kimberly Winston
    March 20, 2013 at 8:43 pm #

    Fabulous – “Benedict XVI? Not so much – it’s always been John Paul.” I would have liked to see the reporter ask if perhaps the cheap souvenirs are going because people are taking the extra $ and giving it to the poor, as Francis suggests? Might have gone somewhere interesting.

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