Pope's visit: The appeal of memorabilia

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Media captionMatt Hassall from official merchandise supplier IVS, shows the range of souvenirs that have been produced

Thousands of worshippers are expected to turn out for Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the UK, and some will return home with a keepsake by which to remember their visit.

When the Pope stretches out his arms to the masses gathered in parks in Glasgow, Birmingham and London this weekend, the rock star parallels will be exaggerated by the appearance of the adoring crowds.

Some will be wearing the official papal visit T-shirt (£18) while holding aloft an electronic flashing candle (£3).

Others may sport, against the autumn chill, an official baseball cap (£15) bearing the slogan of the newly beatified Cardinal Newman: "Heart Speaks Unto Heart".

In their pockets they may, in prayer, thumb an official papal visit rosary or jangle an official key-ring picturing a smiling Benedict XVI, with mitre and papal cross, lest they be locked out post-pilgrimage.

As activity around the Pope's UK visit intensifies, so the faithful have been flocking to the altar of consumerism, with its mixture of official and unofficial souvenirs manufactured to mark the event.

At the west London warehouse of IVS, the official merchandise supplier, project manager Matt Hassall is overseeing the 75-80 different lines of memorabilia for the visit.

Image caption Pilgrims can record the Pope's words with a... Benedictaphone

He won't comment on sales figures but says some profits will be diverted to the church to fund the Pope's visit. The Catholic Church is expected to make a contribution of between £9m and £10m for a visit which could also cost the UK taxpayer £10-£12m, excluding policing.

Mr Hassall says there has been a conscious effort to make sure the candles, mugs, clothes, crockery, Lance Armstrong-style yellow rubber bracelets, flags, and prayer cards, designed with the church's input, are "in good taste".

He expects the thousands of boxes of official visit programmes to be his best-seller.

Then there is the unofficial merchandise. Among those selling online, Catholics With Attitude offers T-shirts, hoodies and bags proclaiming "I heart Papa Benny", "God Bless the Pope", "Team Benedict" and "BXVI".

Religious memorabilia is not for everyone - even those with an unshakeable belief in God may see a discrepancy between the absoluteness of spiritual belief and something as inherently trivial as a trinket. Style setters, meanwhile, have in the past seized on such items not for their religious significance but their fashion value.

Stephen Goddard, who co-edits a Christian online magazine, says it's all about having a keepsake.

Novelty value

"We live in a world where people want items to remember things by and they cherish them, that's part of what we are ritualistically, whether religious or not," he says. "I think there's a novelty aspect. People buy them for people they think are notionally Catholic."

Goddard recognises that such memorabilia is not always purchased earnestly.

Image caption A chance to crack open the Benny Beers?...

Every year, his magazine, Ship of Fools, compiles a list of the most kitsch items of religious paraphernalia for its "12 days of Kitschmas" feature. He has done a "papal visit" special for Pope Benedict's tour - among its items a steering wheel rosary for drivers, Benny Beer for drinkers and a Benedictaphone for recording the Pope's speeches.

How does he choose the merchandise to highlight? "The unusual or clever products that are not there to offend or upset the faithful.

"The official stuff is a little dull and a tad predictable," he says. "It's nice, it's colourful but I would like us to think we can be playful without being cynical.

"There's a view you can't have a sense of humour with faith, you have to be pious. But the Bible is rich with irony, Jesus was a master communicator - he can't have held the attention of 12 geezers for three years without a sense of humour."

It's not just the religious faithful who have got in on the memorabilia act. The Pope has many critics and for those opposing his visit, options include the National Secular Society's "Pope Nope" T-shirt.

Wicked shopping?

But if simony is the sin of trafficking sacred things, isn't buying religious memorabilia wicked shopping?

Image caption ...or the right moment for a pocket Popemobile?

Probably not, says Goddard. After all, some of the items are sanctioned by the church.

Yet for some, such as design critic Stephen Bayley, even the official merchandise falls foul on aesthetic grounds.

While art is a powerful promotional tool, he says, "when art loses its life, the corpse that's left behind is kitsch" and the proliferating papal kitsch is astonishing.

"It would be charitable to believe this is touching evidence of the survival of medieval piety in our almost totally desacralised world," he says. "But it's not. It's just evidence of cynical and crass brand extension."

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