Post 86

Dream on, Distributist: Reflections on the Distribution
of Religious (and “Religious”) Objects

If I had my way, there would be no such thing as a Christian book and gift store.

Those places are horrendous, when it comes right down to it, and the haphazard way religious objects and “religious” objects are dealt with, worldwide, is actually scandalous.

The whole thing needs to be cleaned up.

I wonder whether I should start by telling you how awful things are, or whether I should just tell you how I wish things were.


(And I am not finished with the issue of dealing with pro-life, but I have become what you would call Temporarily Side-tracked.)

Alright, let me do a very brief overview of how badly messed up things currently are. Right now, anybody can buy any Catholic article on eBay and do with it what he pleases. You can buy something of top quality that was actually used for hundreds of years in a European cathedral, or a parody of the real thing to serve your whims at a Hallowe’en party. You can, additionally, obtain very pathetic versions of some very holy objects almost anywhere.

The rosary is a prime example.

In the entrance area of my local Catholic parish, there is a cheesy cardboard stand which is filled with little clear plastic pouches. Inside these pouches, you will find something which looks worse than anything sold at the local dollar store. It is made of pink plastic – cheapest, ugliest kind – beads on some white string. Attached to this, you will see a pink crucifix and there’s my Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ. He is pink too. (Same plastic.) It’s supposed to be a rosary.

You can pick up, for free, the same thing, in blue. (Jesus is blue.)

What’s the word for this? Sacrilege?

Sacrilege: The misuse, theft, desecration or profanation of anything consecrated to a deity or regarded as sacred.

Profane: Showing contempt or irreverence toward God or sacred things; blasphemous.

This situation almost qualifies, or, at the very least, has in it the ingredients for such a recipe. When you start with a Jesus in pink, well, it’s difficult for anyone to show reverence. Just really difficult. I would go so far as to say that such objects make a mockery of the Catholic faith.

When my Lord is made to look like this, well, it’s not okay.

Not okay at all.

Who allowed these cardboard porta-free-rosary-stands into these parishes in the first place?

I protest (said the blogger to herself)!

When you stop and think of how shabbily these “rosaries” are made, and how they are left anywhere and everywhere as if worthless, then you would understand that this does not encourage reverence in the least.

I have seen how the cafeterias in some European nations guard their paper napkins – those things are treated better than the way Catholics treat the rosary. Don’t give me excuses. Don’t say that having all of these things everywhere makes people just want to reverently pick them up and say the rosary everywhere all the time. I won’t believe you. That’s just not the way the human heart operates. Maybe it should, but it doesn’t. We associate preciousness with scarcity and security. We just do. Even Disney has a “vault.” Think: why would they do that?

Or do you not realize that part of the reasons the guards stand outside the jewelry stores in Paris is to advertise? There’s a reason for all this drama. It’s so you don’t forget that Inside This Very Store, this Very Store, there are Precious Objects. If you Look Rich Enough, we’ll let you Look at Them, and if you’re Extra Worthy, we’ll let you Purchase Them. Maybe. Just Dream On, is the message.

Meanwhile, the rosaries sit there, neglected and ugly. Hmm. Wonder why. Aren’t you interested in one of these beauties? No? Oh dear, I wonder why not? Can’t for the life of me figure out why you wouldn’t want something so – so – pink and so – um, fake-looking and um, cheesy.

I say to Him, “Lord, who has done this to you?”

I say to Our Blessed Mother, “Who has done this to you?”

It’s not right. Shouldn’t be like this. If this is how we Catholics act towards what is supposed to be a precious devotional item, then how can we expect anyone else to treat our religious objects and places with respect?

Here’s how I figure it should be.

The most sacred items: these things, such as the vessels used during Mass, should be shipped directly from Rome. There would be some kind of special mark identifying that the items have been approved for use at Mass by a special ecclesial body in Rome. (Plastic water bottles won’t make the cut.) There would be a nice selection, and there would be no retail mark-up that you find in the local religious gift crap store filled with aisles of what is um, ‘religious,’ where chalices are sold too near the section marked New Age. (I wish I were joking, but I kid you not.)

Think of the problems that would be solved! It would put an end to eBay making their cut of profit on Catholic objects, which were never meant to be sold in that fashion. Currently, we’re in a situation where even the most sacred of objects are treated like the lanterns hawked by the villain in the Aladdin story of the genie. Sacred vessels for sale! Sacred vessels for sale! Now on special! On special for you!

I had to listen to a story told by someone who wanted to obtain liturgical things. At first, the store ladies were firm – using the garments for acting wasn’t okay. He says he laid on the charm and delivered some lines. Soon he was in possession of the collar he wanted.

(Look on the website and you’ll see the productions they ran. Can’t you see? It’s “humour.” “Comedy” they say. It’s a man, dressed as a sister, and he’s got a cigar, under his whiskers.

For shame.

For shame.

The brides of Christ you disgrace thus.

Little do you know what you do, actor.)

Having a centralized distribution centre for articles that are of this level of importance would also put an end to these weird chalices that are made of pottery or second-class materials. It would put an end to ‘themed’ objects, such as aboriginal variations which can be distractingly weird and veering towards a different religion.

Clothing and Altar Cloths: Vestments for priests could come from one centralized location per country, plus Rome. There would hopefully be a broad selection of items, but no longer would priests be able to find and wear vestments which look, ahem, “original.” The things that I have seen! Strange colours, strange symbols, thin fabrics, garments that looked half-hearted when they were brand new. All of this should stop. The priest represents Christ and Mass is not a time for him to showcase some kind of totally unique ‘style.’ (Please keep on your socks.)

Emphasis would be on beauty and quality, with exquisite embroidery and proper images. Due to fluctuations in economy and variations in the availability of textiles, I would say that each country should have its own location for purchasing these garments. Each country’s conference of bishops should regulate this store, ensuring that the garments are dignified, liturgically sensible, beautiful, fairly priced, and available only to priests or deacons. Yes, it would be less “convenient” to do things this way, but that would be a big part of the point, as it should be. Buying oneself priestly garments should be a very big deal.

(I am not sure about the altar-servers albs, but I am inclined to think that they should also be sold at the same office, instead of being sold for retail prices by anyone who wishes to sell them.)

Prayer Cards and Devotional Images: Currently, you can purchase any image anywhere. Most of the time, you can’t even figure out the name of the artist who has made the image. Oh well, what does it matter who the artist is, seems to be the attitude. On the other hand, this image over here, well, that’s a Rembrandt! And this, ah, this is done by Monet!

And when I consider art more modern than this, it seems that the uglier the art, the more important the name of the artist, while meanwhile, some of the most tenderly-painted and inspiring religious images which circulate so widely are treated as so commonplace and unworthy of our attention that it occurs to nobody to label them with the date, artist’s name and title of the piece.

This is all upside down. The carelessness with which we treat devotional images (I’ve seen stacks of the image of Divine Mercy left here there and everywhere) does not, in fact, increase these devotions, for the most part. You’ve heard the expression, “a dime a dozen”? That is what is happening, sadly.

Prayer cards and devotional images should be available, not everywhere, but from those institutions bearing a very strong association with that saint or devotion. That would be the ideal situation. This would mean, that at the parish of St. Therese of Lisieux, you could purchase items associated with St. Therese of Liseux but not items associated with St. Teresa of Avila, and definitely not every Catholic-ish item under the sun. This would mean that at St. Thomas More Parish, you could purchase, for a reasonable price, items associated with St. Thomas More, such as a prayer card with his image or a booklet of prayers that he composed. Worthy biographies of that saint would be available too. You see where this is going?

Humbler, smaller, sweeter.

Not an emporium of all things Catholic everywhere.

Not an emporium of pseudo-devotional-Friends-Are-Forever plaques and knick-knacks.

Enough of all that garbage.

Stop, Mr.-I’m-from-Jerusalem-and-I-unpack-one-million-and-one-souvenirs-for-you. Stop, Sister I’m-from-Toronto-and-I-unpack-one-million-and-one-books-for-you.

Enough of these book sales and gift stalls in the backs of the church. This isn’t the way, the time nor the place. It wasn’t okay then (in Jesus’ time) and it’s not okay now. Quit it!

This idea, where prayer cards or religious medals, say, are sold at the orders associated with them, would mean that there would be a decent source of income reserved for each order. As things stand now, you’ve got some groups of religious sisters or some orders which are ‘slicker’ than others – I wish I didn’t have to use that word, but it’s true – and more retail-savvy which are hogging the already-tiny market for religious objects by selling everything under the sun. But it’s not really fair, I say, for a gift shop inside St. Clare Parish to sell the image of the Divine Mercy along with everything Catholic that they can import from China, while meanwhile, the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, which in fact is St. Faustina’s own order, sell very few articles other than the already-abundant Divine Mercy items.

If everyone colours “inside the lines” then there’s enough for everyone, and it would be really exciting. The parishioners at one parish would learn more about their ‘own’ saint and would think carefully about what types of objects would truly suit that saint. St. Teresa of Avila said that it was very difficult to begin praying without reading, so bookmarks might be a suitable item. But everything would need to be done with a spirit of cooperation and consideration for the nearby parish, which also has its own rather small assortment of items. A parish dedicated to St. Francis might offer a wooden replica of the unique crucifix that he prayed before.

It would also mean that there would be an end to all these books being sold about nothing at every “Christian” book store. Currently, new releases flood the religious market and the sellers of these books feel no responsibility towards what is being sold. You could have a fellow like Prof Robert/Robby George saying who-knows-what and being sold everywhere, but if, instead, you had just a tiny selection of books written by (or perhaps, about) St. Teresa of Avila carefully checked by the pastor of St. Teresa of Avila parish, for example, then the quality of literature we view as “Catholic” would go up.

If you want any old book, then you’d go on Ebay or Amazon. If you wanted to be sure you were getting a good quality book about St. Peregrine, then you’d stop at St. Peregrine Church, which would sell such books at a reasonable price, or you could search online for a parish or convent dedicated to him. They would have a good-quality biography about him. They would already have weeded the good from the bad, and would be highly interested in any new biographies written about him. They would be, as a matter of fact, the first to read and review such a book, because they would care. They would wonder, is this a book which is good enough to offer for sale through our parish office? Is this book a fair representation of our saint? Let parishes, congregations and religious houses ‘own’ their saint; let them be eager to embrace their saint in order to share him and promote devotion to him (or her.)

You see? Divide up the pie, then everyone cares about their piece 900% more. It would be an example of Distributism. Centralization for some items, but for others, distributism, like the Catholic Church itself.

Oh Chesterton, look at how I dream!

Distributism is where I find myself now, I see – and indeed, your footprints are here!

Of course!

I dream just like you.

I dream of pies, and cutting them up.

The alliteration desserts have always been my faves: cherry cheesecake, pumpkin pie, banana bread.

I once read that there are 3 types of dessert people and if I knew who said it, I’d give the credit. I read there are 1. those who like chocolate-based desserts, 2. those who like cream-based desserts such as creme brulee and ice-cream, and 3. those who like fruit-based desserts. I’m in category 3, just so you know. Yes, I know, I know, time to stop writing. I’m almost done.)

Mr. G.K. Chesterton, I so wish you were here.

As you know.

Okay, so to wrap things up, I wonder how the book store fits in to all this.

I feel that book stores can be good, but not in the form that they currently exist. Right now, books appear at book stores because the New York Times says they’re good. But the books are so trashy, encouraging an already weak population to chase after air. I don’t think I have the energy to think through this one just yet.

I leave it aside. Continue to patronize them, for now, I guess. Cheaper and better than subsidized live theatre and subsidized symphony, yes. I see there’s coffee for sale. Sip there for now, though I must say – the downtown cathedral has free seating too – can I interest you in a seat near the tabernacle? (You’ll say no because you’re still mad about what I said about coffee and its drinkers.)

Oh well.

When you forgive me, come over here. Come to the cathedral. I’ll meet you at the tabernacle.

Give those “rosaries” a pass.

And speaking of them, what shall we do? Well, the rosary should be available, but let’s say give it to the order whose saint was inspired. That would mean that the rosary should be available from the Dominicans or churches and such named after St. Dominic. (Don’t worry, they’ll be able to keep up with demand – those fellows are clever.) St. Clement’s in Rome is currently being operated by the Dominicans, so you should be able to obtain it from there too. It should also be available from orders associated with St. Faustina, because the Divine Mercy Chaplet uses the beads of the rosary. And of course, all the churches devoted to Our Lady (there are many, as it should be) should be a source for this rosary given to St. Dominic for the world.

My point is, the classic rosary came to the world through St. Dominic. Let’s respect that history, that “provenance” as they say in the art world. It didn’t fall from the sky, and it didn’t come imported from China. Let’s remember and honour the history of each of these things by being rather careful, a little strategic.

It will work. Devotions won’t dwindle, they’ll increase by the minute.

Catholicism is big; so incredibly wide; there’s enough here for all.

Nothing should stop people from stringing their own home-made rosaries, and I can imagine it would be a sweet teaching tool for children to string their own.

And on that topic, let me digress and tell you about the conversation I had today with the owner of the primary local “religious” items store. I was wanting to purchase, in bulk, the crucifix with the medal of St. Benedict embedded within it.

I have a relationship with this store going back many years.

It ended today.

Asking for the name of the supplier of one product is where things went sour. Little did I know, such information is a secret which cannot be divulged to customers.

I was stunned.

But, but – it’s me! You know me. You’ve known me for a long time! What is the reason for the refusal?

By way of explanation, he said that it’s Holy Week. It’s been busy, and “maybe that’s why I’m being hard on you.” (Was last week better?)

Hmm. Afraid of losing the profit you’d make? Off me? Charge me individually? Each crucifix marked up 50% more? This way it must be?

So busy selling crucifixes and pastel-coloured nothings that a relationship is torched over the name of a supplier? You would do that?

He’s sorry. He cannot reveal it. I ask too much.

What’s going on?

Been a businessman too long? Hmm.

And Holy Week’s your excuse?

A bad week, a full week, a holy week trading in religious things is getting you down?


Be done!

You have two kinds of things in your store: the wheat and the chaff. Let the orders and churches reclaim, rightfully, the wheat that is theirs. Don’t you compete. Let them be the ones who kindly sell the wheat that is useful and good. They’ll set prices that are fair; they’ll choose products which are worthy.

And let what is chaff fall by the wayside. Nobody needs it, after all.

Stop importing this chaff by the truckload from the Rosaries-R-Us-Superstores. Enough of that nonsense. It’s called ‘clutter’ and nobody needs an ounce more. Goodbye to such “business.” And really, the Catholic church does not need such “business-men” for its devotional treasures.

Smaller, humbler, sweeter.

We turn our gaze a different way.

In other words, dream big!

(We dream on, hey Chesterton?)