Of the forty-thousand people that visit the Vatican City each day, how many of them find the gift shops ironic? We all know religion is a business and most of us justify this fact by saying, well how else will the church make repairs and pay for itself? I don’t know. That’s not my problem but there must be another way aside from prostituting the lords word.
I’d expect this kind of thing from just about every other destination worth seeing - it’s tourism after all, which keeps keep local economies flourishing and people employed - but not from the holiest of holy places. It feels icky.
I’ll need to define ‘holy place’ for my purposes. A holy place for me is any space where one finds peace, solace and the ability to reflect, with the potential for transformation of some sort. It should be available to all people, not advertised in any commercial sense, and free of cost. Period. This is not to say one cannot have a holy moment in a space that does not meet these requirements, but I am simply laying out the framework for a pure, no-strings attached experience.
What would a crystalline spiritual experience even look like? Let us take art for example. In some countries art is not a commodity like it is in America or here in Italy, it’s a way of life and means of expression. Art is a tool used daily - a language utilized as commonly as speaking to one another. In the Western Hemisphere, at least, art is valued monetarily and by the status of the artist as celebrity or cultural phenomenon. But of the two versions of making art which of them seems more distilled? I would argue the one that treats art as a process and not a product. So-called holy spaces should take note. They are holy simply by being. Nothing more is required. It’s organic.
The many souvenir shops within the Vatican City strikes me as bizarre. Here I am at one of the supposed holiest places on the planet with historical ornaments from the origins of Christianity itself and I’m being asked if I want to buy my very own pope-kit to play make-believe at home. What is the point of a learning about how exclusive the position of the pope is historically and about 2,000-year-old holy chalices if I can buy a knock-off at the Sistine Chapel?
When I was a child watching old westerns and shoot-em’ up action films I wanted to imitate the heroes I saw. So I went to my local party store and begged my mom to buy me toy guns, a pair of plastic hand cuffs, a badge and flimsy paper hat. Now I could become my favorite movie stars on a budget. The gift shops here remind me of that. It just doesn’t work for holy objects. If it’s made of cheap tin, made by the thousands and placed on a shelf, it’s probably not holy and definitely not significant. What in the world is the point of producing bootleg pope swagger? Why do people buy this junk?
That being said, my wife bought a rosary with a vile of holy water connected to it (as a gift!) for her grandmother at the gift shop in the Sistine Chapel. “Was this holy water blessed by the pope?” she asked. The store clerk pointed to the more expensive one and responded, “No, but this one was.” How convenient, I thought! My wife began to think for a moment and walk away. About to lose the sale, the store clerk busted out with enthusiasm, “I mean yes! It’s blessed. Sure. Why not? It’s from the Vatican City, it’s all holy!” Very smooth. In sales myself I appreciated the save. Torn on which to buy, my wife asked me what to do. I responded in a similar fashion as the store clerk: just tell your grandmother it was blessed, she’ll never know the difference! Thus, we both nodded, smiled and bought the cheaper rosary.
See, we don’t really care if something is holy; we wouldn’t know the difference either way. So long as we are told an interesting story and we halfway believe it will help us in some way then it’s real. That’s the placebo effect in action. Exiting the gift shop, we realized how silly the whole commercialism of it all was. Tourists rushing and pushing through each other to get their hands on candles, air fresheners and key chains of the pope shooting the Joey Tribiani, “how you doin?” finger expression.
Don’t these people see they are part of the problem? Okay, I guess my wife and I were contributing to the issue, too.
But look, does the pope really support me dressing like him, getting out of my shower with my naked body and slipping into a felt robe made in his likeness to have my morning coffee and blessing my beautifully cut lawn, neighbors (the chill ones) and all the birds and trees and flowers and shit like that? Obviously, the pope realizes his style is being jacked on the daily, that children are aspiring to be him. But they can’t be him. Why? Because they haven’t been chosen! So, why let any of us have the opportunity to pretend? Seems incredibly blasphemous. Why not put a stop to this most incredulous act?! There may be rules for religion but there aren’t any directions for these holy gifts. Can I use my chalice for my morning orange juice or is it for display purposes only? Such a gray area.
After my visit I’ve been trying to be figure out why people want Vatican stuff. Is it because most of us are hoarders and that’s that? Probably. I don’t really feel like delving into the psychology of materialism. I can see how a rosary from the Vatican would make a nice gift. It’s practical, for the most part, it’s functional. Beyond that, what will a drink koozie of pope Francis’ face remind me of my experience? Will it bring back memories of my sacred journey to Italy? Will it serve as a religious artifact for personal prayer or to bless all who drink a cold one while using it?