- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2008

If you want an approved memento of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the District, there is no shortage of choices: Mugs, key chains, T-shirts, magnets, statues, bumper stickers, holy cards, rosary beads and crosses are available.

What you won’t find? There isn’t a snow globe or foam finger to be found in the gift shop of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

That’s because the Archdiocese of Washington and the company manufacturing the thousands of official souvenirs commemorating the papal visit want to stay on point: The pope is coming to America to bring a message of peace and faith; this isn’t the Super Bowl, people.

“It really is just an offshoot of our beliefs,” says Mark Nelson, chief executive of Nelson Woodcraft’s Catholic to the Max, the Steubenville, Ohio, company contracted to produce the official papal souvenirs. “We wanted to make something that could be used in prayer or reflects Catholicism. As Catholics, we look at the pope as the vicar of Christ on Earth. This is important for us. We’re not interested in goofy.”

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    Mr. Nelson, 36, started Nelson Woodcraft as a teenager. The company began by making crosses before branching out into other religious supplies and religious-themed clothing. Catholic to the Max, a more recent incarnation, was born in the hope of igniting youthful enthusiasm in the faith, Mr. Nelson says. Among the items in the line are athletic-inspired “Property of Pope Benedict XVI” T-shirts and dog tags with the pontiff’s visage.

    “Show your loyalty to your faith and to our Holy Father with this very trendy ‘Property of’ pope T-shirt,” reads the selection on Catholic to the Max’s site (www.popevisit2008.com).

    “These items are really geared toward the youth,” Mr. Nelson says. “I am interested in seeing youth excited about Catholicism and carrying it on.”

    Mr. Nelson, a father of seven, says he went to see Pope John Paul II twice — in Iowa in 1979 and again at World Youth Day in Denver in 1993. Whether young Americans will be inspired by Pope Benedict XVI the way they were by his charismatic predecessor remains to be seen. However, Mr. Nelson says he hopes youths will be inspired because Benedict XVI is their pope.

    Strong feelings for the pope hopefully will result in brisk sales of the dozens of official items for sale. The gift shop at the basilica in Northeast is stocked with the memorabilia, which ranges from small medals for 65 cents to a $675 Lladro figurine of the pontiff. And although there’s little chance of getting close to the pope himself, you can have your picture snapped with a life-size cutout at the gift shop.

    “We’ve always sold some of the items as regular religious items,” says basilica gift shop manager Dennis Zeigler, referring to items such as holy cards and rosaries. “We’re just giving people items with a little more flavor of the pope.”

    The basilica gift shop will sell the papal souvenirs during and after the pope’s visit. Shops also will be open at Nationals Park, where the pope will conduct Mass on Thursday, and at RFK Stadium, where Mass attendees will park. There also will be souvenir stands set up outside the basilica during the pope’s visit, because the shrine will be closed to visitors when the pope meets with bishops there. Shoppers also can order items directly from the Catholic to the Max Web site.

    A portion of the proceeds from the memorabilia will go to the Christ Our Hope Foundation and will be used, in part, to cover some of the costs of the papal visit, according to the Archdiocese of Washington. (Both the Archdiocese and Mr. Nelson declined to disclose specific terms of the contract.)

    Meanwhile, Mr. Nelson and his staff have been making T-shirts, mugs, postcards and other items as fast as they can. They only received the contract from the archdiocese in mid-March, which means working practically around the clock to fulfill the order, he says. He has enlisted his wife, children and other family members to help.

    This week, they have decamped to Washington for the papal visit.

    “We’re hoping we can see the Holy Father,” Mr. Nelson says. “We’re very honored to be a part of this.”

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