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In religious retail, Benedict can’t hold a votive candle to John Paul II

A pilgrim holds a portrait of late Pope John Paul II.


At the Brunelli religious-articles shop in Rome, the best-selling objects, after the perennially popular rosaries, are the little items that feature images of the beloved Polish pope, John Paul II.

They include photos mounted on simple wooden frames, magnets, medallions and bas reliefs in nickel and silver. Customers can also buy similar items featuring John Paul's successor, Pope Benedict XVI, the former cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, but he was never a hit with customers.

"Ratzinger is requested only a little bit," said Gabriele Compagnucci, 53, who has worked at Brunelli for 31 years. "John Paul is the pope who changed the world. He brought down the Berlin Wall. He was also charismatic."

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Brunelli is not like the religious-items shops near the Vatican, which go after the tourists and pilgrims looking for souvenirs. Some of the shops sell quality items; many sell junk made in China.

Brunelli caters largely to the clerical crowd – priests, nuns, the odd bishop and cardinal and a few tourists. John Paul I – the pope who reigned for a mere 33 days in 1978 and was succeed by John Paul II – was a customer when he was the Italian cardinal Albino Luciani. He bought rosaries by the bucket to hand out to his admirers.

The brightly lit shop looks more like a warehouse than a retail outlet and is jammed floor to ceiling with every religious and church item you can imagine: phosphate-free Sicilian wine used for holy communion; rosaries galore – some scented – generally €1 a pop; altar candles; endless medallions; photos of saints and popes; cheesy 3D plastic images of Jesus and Mary; rings and key chains; statues; priestly wardrobes, including underwear; and comfortable, unsexy shoes for nuns and priests who walk a lot.

Brunelli is an institution in Rome but is hard to find. It is tucked away in a small street in Trastevere, the delightful knot of medieval and renaissance streets just south of the Vatican. The store is right around the corner from the famous Ponte Sisto, the 15th-century pedestrian-only bridge over the Tiber River.

The shop was opened almost 70 years ago by Antonio and Elena Brunelli, who had been selling religious items to the Sanctuary of Divine Love on the outskirts of Rome and decided to get into broader retail business. Their son, Armando, and Armando's daughter, Elena, now run the business, making it a three-generation affair.

Mr. Compagnucci says the first items featuring the new pope, whoever he is, would arrive from Italian suppliers a day or two after his identity is revealed. They would be easy-to-produce items that feature the new pope's image. The more sophisticated stuff, like medallions, will take weeks or months.

He would not say whom he wants as pope. But he knows the region he wants him to come from – Latin America.

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Why there? Because he thinks it would be good for business. "I want a pope from Latin America because the Latin Americans are very religious and might come here a lot," he said.

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About the Author
European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More


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