On Tuesday September 22, 2015 his eminence Pope Francis arrives in Washington D.C. after some time in Cuba. That's when TONS of people are going to freak. The hell. Out.
Some people already are. Especially in Philly, where Pope Francis will be spending the final two days of his whirlwind tour of the U.S., which will include rides through Central Park, face time with President and Michelle Obama, a speech at the UN, and a nap or two.
Evidence of #Popemania is everywhere in the City of Poperly...I mean...Brotherly Love. There are Pope tee-shirts, papal bobbleheads, & Francis themed beer events all over Philadelphia. For those with an eye for sighting significant moments in religion & culture (as are all of us here at the site) the question is: what's going on here?
The answer: for those purchasing all this papal kitsch, these items are visible and tangible representations of their innermost commitments, whatever those commitments may be, Catholic or not, Christian or otherwise. It doesn't take faith to take a piece of Francis home with you.
All this Pope Francis bric-a-brac stands in a long line of "Jesus Junk" and other examples of material Christianity. Peruse through any Christian bookstore, or a lot of Hot Topics, and you'll soon find jewelry, art, lunch boxes, shirts, hats, and all types of Christian kitsch featuring Jesus + some clever co-option of pop culture from Testamints to breaking-chains magic tricks (for reals...I've got photographic proof -->).
While critics from within the faithful decry such products as trivial and an exchange of profit for piety, the Bible Bars and Jesus toys remain surprisingly popular. For the everyday evangelical, these items permit them to bridge the private and the public, church life and everyday life, living life between, and among, sacred sodalities and profane populations. For them, Jesus Junk isn't junk at all -- it's a means to live their Christian faith "out loud" and to reflect the interweaving of their faith with politics, pop culture, and economics.
Although these items may be less than refined and in many ways profane that which is sacred, most Christians don't critically think about these things. Indeed, for them, identifying themselves as Christian and doing Christianity in word and deed, shirt and Holy Spirit Snuggie™ is the real deal. These religious objects offer many an immediacy of contact that is personal, physical, and easily perceivable. For the "Christian kitsch" faithful, it simply means more than creeds; it says more than confessions.
But what about Pope Francis? Here, the matter seems a bit different. There are Catholics and non-Catholics, Christians and agnostics, cueing up to get hold of Pope Francis gear. If this marketable material Christian kitsch is meant for the faithful to wear, touch, and see their innermost convictions, what does it mean when an agnostic into Zen Buddhism is sporting a, "The Pope is my Homeboy" bro tank?
While he has his detractors from conservative and liberal circles alike, overall Francis is "the feel good Pope." His rhetoric and actions on the environment, international relations, justice movements, and compassion to the poor appeal to a broad audience. Not to mention his sheer Weberian-charisma factor. Basically, Francis is cool. He's hip. He appeals to people regardless of their faith tradition because he speaks to values that people of multiple faiths, and no faith, hold in common.
Thus, the papal souvenirs do allow people -- Catholic or agnostic, Protestant or Muslim -- a way to identify themselves with the “Francis Effect,” without all those pesky religious trappings or conundrums of being Catholic, and yet still give visible, physical, representation of their convictions about compassion and justice, the environment and international relations.
Yet, as Archbishop Gomez of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said at the recent Religion Newswriters Association conference, "to understand Pope Francis you must wrestle with his theology, not just political and social tangents." Perhaps, along with all this pop-culture hubbub surrounding the Pope's visit, people who might associate themselves with the Pope with a beer and a slice of pizza (see slideshow below) will finally get to wrestle with more than the feeling of Pope Francis and more with the philosophy of the man who leads the largest religious institution in the world. Perhaps then he will be less a homeboy and more of a holistic spiritual and physical leader. In the meantime...on to the Papal Toast!