NEW YORK – It was a typical weekday afternoon at the Long Island Catholic Supply store in Roosevelt Field Mall in Garden City, N.Y. A few teenagers stopped in to get bracelets reading "WWJD?" – or "What Would Jesus Do?" – and adults hoping to sell their houses purchased miniature statues of St. Joseph, the patron saint of real estate.
What the customers weren’t buying stood out. No one stopped for a Pope Benedict XVI plaque or a Pope Benedict book, or by the cash register for a Pope Benedict commemorative coin.
"Nobody’s used to him yet," said store manager Kristine Leonard, 41, whose father runs the shop.
"He’s fresh meat out of the conclave," offered customer Hao Bui, 25, a member of the Knights of Columbus.
"You get to know them, how they imitate the Lord and you fall in love," added Maria Gonzalez, 47, who picked up the latest issue of the Catholic magazine Magnificat.
Then came a revealing answer from another store manager, Colin McQuade. "Pope John Paul II was an attractive man physically, and he was a smiling pope," said McQuade, 37, who has worked at Catholic Supply for 21 years. "Everyone sees Benedict and thinks he’s a sourpuss. But he’s not."
After John Paul II became pope in 1978, his youthful appearance and dynamic speaking style quickly won over Catholics, who gobbled up items with his likeness throughout his 26 years as pontiff. The same cannot be said for Benedict, whom many Catholics view as frail and out of touch since he was elected pope in April 2005.
Based the limited information available on religious merchandise, the poor sales of Benedict merchandise appear to be widespread.
Leonard and McQuade say Long Island Catholic Supply has sold only a few of the Benedict plaques, which cost $12.99. At the Catholic Company, the largest Catholic retail Web site, Benedict’s first encyclical – his letter explaining theological issues to bishops – does not sell nearly as well as those written by John Paul II.
Director Lester Young of the Popes Museum in New Brunswick, Canada, the only institution of its kind in the world, does not stock Benedict items in the gift shop because he’s "sure we won’t sell them."
"I’m a very small museum, so I cannot afford to just have stuff lying around," Young said. Do customers visiting the museum often inquire about Benedict merchandise? "Nobody ever mentioned anything. This tells me he’s not attaining people like John Paul did."
The comparison to John Paul is one being drawn by more and more customers. Every aspect of a pope’s personality has become fair game, from his age and physical features to his speaking style and smiling frequency. That Benedict lags behind John Paul in many Catholics’ comparisons isn’t surprising to Matthew Bunson, an author whose detailed papal portrait "We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI" remains neglected at Long Island Catholic Supply.
"He doesn’t have the kind of media presence that John Paul II did, and that doesn’t translate well into merchandise sales," Bunson said. "It’s important to remember that he is the successor to probably the most beloved pope of the last century, a pontiff who over the course of time will probably be declared a saint."
Among the clergy, Benedict’s poor merchandise sales also raise a deep theological question. Should a pope be measured by how well he markets himself, or how well he connects Catholics to the church? The Rev. Robert Imbelli, a theology professor at Boston College, said Benedict’s low-key style allows the religion’s true superstar to shine.
"This pope really wants to keep the focus not upon himself or even his office, but upon what the church should be about: the relationship to Jesus Christ," Imbelli said. "Quite honestly, I’ve never been a fan of papal T-shirts or mugs. That he’s not doing well in that category is not a minus, but a plus."
As dreary as the outlook is right now, many predict sales of Benedict merchandise will pick up in coming years as people become more familiar with him. In the months ahead, more Catholics may begin to appreciate Benedict the way Gonzalez does.
Some of this story does not jive with what I have read before. For example from earlier this year.
Deus Caritas Est, the first encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI (bio – news), has sold millions of copies since it appeared on January 25, 2006.
The German- and Spanish-language editions of the encyclical have each been reprinted three times; the Italian version has sold almost 1.5 million copies.
For the first time in modern history, the Latin version of a papal document had to go back to press, after the first print run was sold out. Originally 1,000 copies had been printed in Latin.
Also not mentioned is that the attendance of the Pope’s Wednesday and Angeles prayers which have been on the upswing. Though how his popularity translates to merchandise sales is not really important (except for of course store operators). Another item not mentioned is that Ignatius Press had some difficulty in meeting the demand of books written by the Pope prior to his election. Several of his books were on the best sellers list of Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The Pope’s first book to be released fairly soon by Doubleday will certainly also be a best seller. Surely the number of his written works sold is much more important than papal merch.