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 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

August 15, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 92




Pat Morrison Trademarking holiness

By Pat Morrison, NCR managing editor

I guess I can understand the decision of the Missionaries of Charity to obtain a registered trademark to protect the name of their foundress, Mother Teresa of Calcutta (see story in Aug. 1 NCR). Even in life, the good woman was subjected to some pretty bizarre indignities, including worldwide media coverage of a cinnamon bun that reportedly bore her resemblance.

Given the penchant for tacky commercialization, the sisters probably made the right move. Somehow the Mother Teresa Tattoo Parlor or Teresa of Calcutta's Army Surplus just don't seem to do justice to the memory of this missionary to the world's poorest , or in any way promote her ideals.

I was in Chicago in 1979 when Pope John Paul II made his first U.S. visit, which included a trip to the Windy City. "Pope Wojtyla" was a new face at the time, having just been elected the previous October, and enthusiasm was at fever pitch. Papal flags and portraits were everywhere - and good ol' American entrepreneurial spirit was in full swing as well. The media seemed as mesmerized with the kitsch that presented itself as "papal memorabilia" as they did with the new pontiff. Chicago can take credit(?) for the debut of

  • the "Pope-on-a-Rope" soap ( "Keep Our Beloved Pontiff with You Always, Even in the Shower!" read the accompanying brochure);
  • the John Paul II lawn sprinkler (a local bestseller) which sent sprays of water from the pope's upraised, blessing hands, and also from the top of his miter;
  • and the ever-popular Pope John Paul II bobblehead.

(Seeing an 18-inch "collectible" porcelain "doll" of the pope, complete with gold lamé vestments and crozier, caused one bishop to worry aloud, "It does make me wonder to what we have reduced the Petrine ministry!")

But worry or not, papal kitsch is here to stay, as are gaudy saint statues, glow-in-the-dark rosaries, and Lourdes water containers fashioned into a Mary statue whose head becomes the bottle top. It's all part of the Catholic imagination, even when it's also merchandising turned nightmare.

But I found myself wondering if that isn't part of the mystery (and even fun) of holiness. Saints, like babies, are God's way of saying that the world, for all its ugliness, is a pretty good place to be and ought to continue. And the saints, I suspect, worry so little about their reputations -- especially from their heavenly vantage point -- that they probably get a good chuckle out of the myriad ways human beings use (and abuse) them.

I have a favorite Holy Land photo, taken just a few feet from what is said to be the site of St. Joseph's workshop in Nazareth. No, I didn't shoot the workshop location. Instead, my photo depicts "St. Joseph Film and Camera," complete with a bright yellow Kodak logo. Somehow I think the Patron of Workers wouldn't have a problem lending his name to the enterprise, especially considering the plight of the economy in Israel and Palestine.

If the church decided it held the copyright or patent to anything connected with even just the members of the Holy Family, some of the most creative "faith-based" marketing efforts would be deep-sixed instantly. And if the Franciscan Order ever trademarked their patron saint and insisted on holding domain rights to everything about Francis, the world would quickly be deprived, at the very least, of garden statuary and birdbaths (including the one my Jewish neighbor keeps in her garden).

Holiness, even when portrayed in eminently tacky, tasteless, plastic or polyester "style," has a universal drawing power. Despite the bad art, questionable theology and just plain ugly in Christian iconography, the saints and the holiness they model have a mysterious attraction that transcends faith traditions. As the Hindu taxi driver in Manhattan with the holy card of Padre Pio clipped to his visor explained to me, smiling broadly, "He holy man! He bring good luck!" (Guaranteeing good driving skills was another matter, as my white-knuckle ride demonstrated.)

Upon the death of President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton pronounced gravely, "Now he belongs to the ages." So, within the Catholic constellation, do Francis of Assisi, Therese of Lisieux, Anthony of Padua, Christopher, Mother Teresa, and thousands more. Thanks to holiness, real or perceived, they belong to the ages. And also the marketplace.

Maybe that's not such a bad thing after all.
Well, maybe minus the John Paul II lawn sprinkler…

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is

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