Behind the barricades along Fifth Avenue, excitement rippled through the crowd as Pope Francis made his way Thursday evening through New York City. All around him, people enthusiastically waved flags featuring the pope's face or the Vatican's emblem.

"It's just the pope frenzy," said Eloisa Vistan, who was visiting from the Phillipines. "You want to be part of it, and the flags are the best way to be festive."

Vistan, 55, had purchased a $1 flag for herself, in addition to a few buttons plastered with photos of the pontiff. She didn't have to stop there with "popemania" -- necklaces, original paintings, T-shirts and magnets were just some of the other papal goods peddled up and down Fifth Avenue as people awaited Francis' arrival.

To promote the pope's first visit to the U.S., vendors have been pushing memorabilia for weeks, creating holy beers, pope dolls and other souvenirs. But while the pope's image bankrolls the goods lining the streets of Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City, his views on consumption are lost in the souvenir bonanza, creating a chasm between the pontiff's anticapitalist message and the paraphernalia celebrating him. 

The pope has often decried capitalism as a “a new tyranny,” lamenting that he wishes people’s lives would be rooted in religion instead of material gain. “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs to buy, own and consume,” he tweeted in June. He also dedicated a chapter in his 1998 book to the moral flaws capitalism breeds.

FullSizeRender-7 Among the items sold during Pope Francis' visit to New York City Thursday were buttons, flags and commemorative coins. Photo: Jackie Salo

But some say the merchandise being sold throughout the papal visit host cities this week are all part of celebrating Pope Francis’ arrival.

"I like that the buttons say New York and have a message about love," said Paul Kaba, 55, who had made the trip from Poughkeepsie, New York, to see Francis Thursday night. "I'm probably going to give a few of the ones I bought out to people as I walk around later."

Vendors said many of their customers were particularly enthusiastic about souvenirs with quotes from Pope Francis. Near St. Patrick's Cathedral, where the pope vendor Jose Cadme said one of his most popular items was a shirt quoting Pope Francis that read: "The world tells us to seek success, power and money; God tells us to seek humility, service and love." 

FullSizeRender-6 Jose Cadme, 34, said some of his most popular items Thursday evening were shirts with Pope Francis quotes. Photo: Jackie Salo

Cadme had decided earlier that morning to sell the merchandise, and a friend put him in touch with someone who had papal gear, but many of the other vendors were trying to make the most out of the pope's tour. New York was not the first stop for John Thompson, who exclusively sold $1 small flags. Thompson, 45, had come from Washington by way of his Tampa, Florida, residence, and planned to make his way to Philadelphia for the pope's visit there this weekend. The business was worth the travel, he said.

"I already went down this entire block of people and most of them bought flags, and now even more are buying them," Thompson said at his stop on Fifth Avenue between 48th and 49th streets in New York City. 

When it comes to the pope’s image on souvenirs, it’s not clear where the Catholic Church draws the line at sacrilegious. Some of the merchandise sold has been endorsed by the church, including $20 papal plush dolls and $15 coffee mugs. For some of the authorized merchandise, a portion of the sales go to funding the pontiff’s visit.

Shoppers at the St. Patrick's Cathedral gift shop can take selfies with a cardboard cutout of Pope Francis for sale, or buy a pope figurine. During his visit to New York, even Pope Francis seemed to be bemused when presented Thursday evening with a doll version of himself. 



Most souvenirs do not have authorization from the Catholic Church and run the risk of legal implications. In the United States, the pope is protected as a public figure under the right of publicity. The Vatican issued a copyright in 2009 on the pope but has no legal means to enforce control of his image across the globe.

“I doubt the pope generally wants to get embroiled in intellectual property disputes,” said Irina Manta, director of the Center for Intellectual Property Law at Hofstra University in New York. “That said, the risk of his initiating an action is likely higher if vendors claim false connections between him and products and services, especially ones of which he disapproves.”

For those buying souvenirs, the tokens represent a piece of the pope to commemorate his tour of the United States, even if they were not able to catch a glimpse of him while he was in town. Sales have also taken off online on e-commerce sites such as Etsy and Amazon, where there are pages of souvenirs.

Philadelphia graphic designer Kate Otte launched her Etsy store three weeks ago in anticipation of the papal visit. Friends who admire her drawings had suggested to Otte, 26, that she design and sell postcards for his U.S. tour. She sketched out different images that include Pope Francis cheering on the Philadelphia Eagles and standing in front of the Liberty Bell. She sold nearly 200 cards through her online store, many of them to people who want to give them as gifts to friends and family.

“I had them print it and [figured I'd] see what happens,” Otte said. “I’ve been a little surprised. It has been doing pretty well.”

Pope-All-with-watermark Kate Otte sells her postcards of her original artwork on her Etsy site. Photo: Courtesy of Kate Otte


One group of friends launched their first foray into apparel sales with the site “Pope Francis Comes To Philly." Brenna Shepard, an assistant for the site, said they ordered in July thousands of T-shirts, including a shirt that plays off the Philadelphia-filmed movie “Rocky” and another of the pope with a Philly cheesesteak.


“Some people are saying, ‘Oh, that’s so disrespectful,' and we say, ‘When he’s in Philly, do you think he’s not going to have a cheesesteak?’” Shepard said.