WASHINGTON – The must-have souvenirs in Washington this week aren't the American-flag tchotchkes hawked around the National Mall. The really hot items include "I love the pope" bumper stickers, "Property of Benedict XVI" T-shirts and mugs emblazoned with the pope's heavenward gaze.
As thousands of Roman Catholics began streaming into the capital ahead of Pope Benedict XVI's visit, many made their first stop at a gift shop, where they could snap pictures with a life-size cutout of Benedict before buying their mementos.
Benedict's first U.S. visit as pope includes a Mass at Nationals Park on Thursday and one at Yankee Stadium in New York on Sunday. And thousands of people who couldn't get the hard-to-come-by tickets are expected to travel to both cities anyway, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pope — or at least a souvenir.
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Linda Clancy was buying T-shirts, rosaries and postcards with the pope's photograph on Monday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The 49-year-old from Tulsa, Okla., hoped Benedict would bless rosaries and other religious articles at Thursday's Mass.
"When I get home I'm going to gift all the people that didn't get to come because I feel so grateful to be here," she said.
Merchandise licensed by the archdioceses of Washington and New York will be for sale at Masses and other events and online. A portion of the proceeds will go to help pay for the pope's visit, but archdiocese officials say they are not expecting a huge sum.
The most popular items from Internet sales have been holy cards and polo shirts, which feature Benedict's personal crest from when he was an archbishop, said Mark Nelson, whose company Nelson Woodcraft produced the official merchandise for the Washington Archdiocese. Also popular is the Benedict tour T-shirt, listing all the U.S. sites he is visiting, as if it was a concert tour.
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"We've tried to design everything to be religious in nature, evoking either prayers for the Holy Father or inspiration from the Holy Father," Nelson said.
He conceded that wasn't the case with the "Property of Benedict XVI" shirts, among the 20,000 T-shirts the Steubenville, Ohio-based company produced for the event.
"That's more of a generic line," he said. "It's reaching out to kids, trying to speak their language and evoke pride in our faith."
In New York, Max Merchandising produced the more than 200,000 items made for the pope's visit. The line developed with the archdiocese includes a baseball jersey, a backpack, a travel mug and a teddy bear wearing an official papal visit T-shirt, said owner Randi Grossman.
"One of the things we were very conscious of is the need to be very respectful and very reverent," Grossman said. "And we don't do bobbleheads."
Those who do want Benedict bobbleheads can find them easily enough on eBay. Washington's Metro transit agency used one in an Internet video ad last week encouraging those attending the papal Mass to take the train to the stadium. In the video, the bobblehead is seen riding a train and appears to nod in agreement as a fellow passenger addresses him in Latin.
After the archdiocese complained that the bobblehead was incorrectly dressed — it depicted the pope in a red skullcap, instead of a white one — Metro pulled the ad, though fans have reposted it on YouTube.
The Metro controversy aside, there's nothing inherently irreverent about a pope bobblehead, said the Rev. Mark Morozowich, associate dean for seminary and ministerial students at the Catholic University of America. The pope will visit the university Thursday evening to meet with Catholic educators.
"It's a cultural way of expressing affection," Morozowich said. "Who do we make bobbleheads of? Sports figures. And we hold these sports figures in esteem."
Buying pope souvenirs is a natural expression of people's enthusiasm about the visit, Morozowich said. T-shirts, bumper stickers and key chains can be good things if they are used by Catholics as "tools of evangelization" to spread the word about their faith.
"I think the pope would certainly be happy if someone decided to donate to charity instead of buying some particular tchotchke," he added, "but this is all how people choose to remember the visit."
Jennifer Hendrix, 39, of Waldorf, Md., won tickets to the Mass in a lottery at her parish and was stocking up on merchandise at the basilica this week.
"I am ecstatic. I just got told that my remission from cancer is complete, so getting tickets for this Mass just meant so much more to me," she said. "It just means everything."
Some T-shirt sizes were already sold out, but Hendrix decided on a tote bag and a handful of bumper stickers.
"I'll use this every day," she said of the bag.
Click to view the itinerary of Pope Benedict XVI's U.S. trip