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A test of papal popularity

Shopkeepers hope Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope in church history, will be as bankable as his predecessors.
Last modified: 16 Mar 2013 13:15
Pope Francis merchandise hits the stalls around St Peter's Square [Al Jazeera/Barbara Serra]

It took less than 36 hours from his appearance on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica before the first examples of Pope Francis memorabilia hit the souvenir stalls around the Vatican.

At the time of writing this post, I saw only postcards and rosary beads boxes, but the statuettes, fridge magnets, pins, calendars and replica oil paintings cannot be far behind. Catholics love their religious iconography. And the dozens of shopkeepers around the Vatican, who make it their trade, have long complained that when it came to sales, Benedict XVI could never compete with John Paul II, who still outsells his successor many times over even eight years after his death.

It may seem profane to reduce one of the world's biggest religions to models in a sales competition of often tacky souvenirs. But even the most ardent Catholics will concede that there was a warmth unique to John Paul II that drew you in, and drew the crowds to church. That kind of personal appeal should not be underestimated.

So the souvenir shopkeepers are hoping that this new Latin American Pope, with his simple ways and winning smile, will be as bankable. And if to them it means a few extra euros, to the church itself it could mean a lot more.

Catholic congregations may be growing in Africa and Asia, but they are decreasing at an alarming rate in Europe, right on the Vatican's doorstep. They're even decreasing in Pope Francis' native Latin America, where 40 percent of the world's Catholics live. And whereas in an increasingly secular Europe the deserting followers are simply staying home instead of going to Sunday Mass, in Latin America they are jumping ship, and joining other more appealing Christian groups that they feel relate to their everyday lives.

A lot of that has to do with doctrine. Catholicism is unwavering in the face of changing social mores, on issues such as divorce, contraception, abortion and gay marriage. Most of these may be legal in most Catholic countries (Argentina has recently legalised gay marriage, as has Spain) but they are sins in the eyes of the church. The change in moral attitudes in modern society can make the church seem out of step.

The sort of reform Pope Francis has been suggesting is unlikely to touch those issues.

But reconnecting on a personal level with disenchanted followers around the world is a priority. And the first people who will get a real sense of just how popular the new Pope is with his flock, may well be the hopeful souvenir shopkeepers around St Peter's Square.

Follow Al Jazeera's Barbara Serra on Twitter: @BarbaraGSerra