As you depart from the Piazza San Pietro along the
Borgo Santo Spirito (the street departs from the southeast edge of Bernini's ellipse), just outside Vatican territorial
waters is a small shop on the right side selling Catholic memorabilia
and, more importantly, Papal Blessings.
While this may seem like a practice that once brought the
church into severe disrepute (what with the Protestant reformation
and all), the blessings are merely nonbinding expressions of
the pontiff's good will rather than indulgences.
You choose a format for your blessing (there are many to choose from), which
will be calligraphically rendered on parchment. I obtained one
for my mother's parochial school which had a gilded image of St. Peter's on
top with the Pope's visage rendered in color in an oval superimposed over the
church. Two flanking ovals gave additional views of Vatican landmarks. For my
text, I opted for a relatively inexpensive formula blessing in English which
had the names of the school and my mom (the school secretary at the time) handwritten
into spaces on a preprinted sheet. One could write one's own blessing and submit
it for handworked calligraphic treatment at a high premium. I don't know if
anyone checks to see what the blessing says.
I, at least, was told that my blessing was to be taken to the next Papal audience,
where it would be blessed en masse with the blessings from other shops
and the crowd in attendance. In other words, the blessing was in fact in the
presence of the Pope, who did in fact utter benedictory words in relative proximity
A week later I went back to the shop to pick up the now-blessed document, bought
a mailing tube, and sent it by Vatican post to my mom in California.
While this is no popener, I do actually think it is a nice souvenir for either
the ironically-minded or for devout friends or relatives. It ran Lit
30,000 in 1994, and a new one purchased in the summer of
2005 cost Eu 20.
Postscript, Summer 2005.
The old lady who does the calligraphy for these
blessings is a scribe of the old school. Anyone interested in seeing medieval scribal practices
should have a look while she works. Most interesting, perhaps,
is the way she corrects her mistakes. She uses a sharp edge to scrape away the ink from the parchment (she uses a razor blade, whereas a medieval scribe would have used a sharp knife),
and then uses a light abrasive to smooth out the scrape (she uses a hard rubber eraser, whereas
one might have seen a pumice stone used in antiquity).