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For visit by pope, souvenirs aplenty

Warren Royal dreamed of a classier bobblehead pope.

The owner of Royal Bobbleheads is one of the many manufacturers, vendors and artists producing a heavenly host of commemorative baubles — and bobbles — that will surround Pope Francis on his visit to Washington, New York and Philadelphia next month. The multitudes will include papal mugs, magnets, buttons and T-shirts along with popes rendered in plush, plastic and (at one Philadelphia deli) mozzarella.

Whatever this pope's view of global capitalism, there's not much he can do about the Papal Industrial Complex busily slapping his name and face on souvenirs ranging from Pope Francis Cologne to "YOPO" ("You Only Pope Once") beer. The mercantile blizzard has become a standard feature of the pontifical visit, and Francis, in particular, seems to have inspired secular as well as religious suppliers to get in the game.

"He's one of the most popular men in the world," said Royal, who had never made a papal likeness at his Georgia-based figurine company.

But Royal aimed beyond bobblehead popes of questionable taste. One version on the Etsy website features the Holy Father's visage bobbing between a pair of Rocky-esque boxing gloves, with a cheesesteak in one fist and a soft pretzel in the other.

So Royal and his designers reduced the plastic pontiff's head by 30 percent ("It's not so cartoonish, but it still moves well"), vetted his vestments for style and color with Catholic scholars, and ordered him cast in the most substantial resin that Chinese factories could provide.

"It's not a just a tchotchke to stick on the dash," Royal said proudly by phone from Atlanta. "People seem to form a personal connection with this figure."

He has sold almost 10,000 of them, at $25 retail, in the weeks leading up to the "Pope-apalooza" and is rushing a new shipment from China. One of the stores on the back-order list is the Catholic Information Center in downtown Washington, where manager Kevin Jones expects the papal visit to double or triple his sales for the month.

"We couldn't be more excited by the timing," Jones said. He hopes the papal pilgrims drawn in by the life-size Francis in the front window will remember the store for their holiday shopping.

Jones had no compunction about ordering bobblehead popes and plush popes to share shelf space with his more reverent lines of books, rosaries and prayer cards.

"We want people to know that our religion is one of joy," he said. "And the current Holy Father is one who is really filled with joy."

It's an article of faith among sellers that Francis, who has achieved pop star status with his populist touch, would approve of the folksy nature of T-shirts that portray him in a Philadelphia Eagles jersey. They say the pope, who has inveighed against global greed, is unlikely to apply that critique to the vendors selling merchandise tied to him.

As a public figure — arguably one of the most public on Earth — the pope has limited ability to keep his face off the soaps and ball caps and cardboard masks that will soon be for sale. Trademark experts say popes, like presidents, have gotten used to it.