BELFAST – Mary Lavery works behind the counter in the only religious goods shop in Belfast. Though it’s obviously a Catholic operation, she says her clients come from “all walks of life,” including both Catholics and Protestants, despite the fact that not 20 years ago both sides were killing each other in a bloody civil war that left at least 3,500 people dead.
Lavery has been working at “The Holy Shop” for the past 19 years, and perhaps few others are better positioned to understand the popular piety of the people of Belfast, in Northern Ireland.
Here’s one such counter-intuitive insight: Despite stereotypes about the Irish, popular religiosity has little to do with the famed St. Patrick.
“Candles, rosary beads, prayer cards and anything depicting the Sacred Heart are the most sold items,” Lavery told Crux on Thursday. This year in particular, she said, everything related to the World Meeting of Families, set for next week in Dublin and featuring a visit by Pope Francis, is also selling well.
The shop’s vast array of votive candles include St. Padre Pio, the Sacred Heart, Jesus of the Divine Mercy, Pope Francis, the Jubilee of Mercy and even one with “Mary Untier of Knots” with Pope Francis’s face on it, as he’s known to be a strong devotee of that particular Marian devotion.
There’s a strong piety for Padre Pio in particular, Lavery said, perhaps because two lay people in Belfast actually have the mitts the famed Capuchin stigmatic wore to soak up the blood on his hands. Through a sort of informal word of mouth, sick and suffering people in town can call and ask them to bring the mitts by in an effort to seek healing.
In terms of the last three popes, Lavery said there’s a clear winner in terms of selling power: St. Pope John Paul II, who visited Ireland in 1979. To this day, she said, they can’t keep pictures of the Polish pope in stock, and virtually anything with his image flies off the shelves.
During Crux’s visit, there was only one John Paul item left in stock: a small statue of the late pope with the inscription written in Portuguese. Lavery said somebody from the store has to make a pilgrimage to Fatima, Portugal, every year to order these figurines and other goods related to John Paul, because catalogues they use carry very little.
Lavery also said that, even though there’s a high interest in Pope Francis, that’s not really so for Pope emeritus Benedict XVI: “I don’t know why, but I can tell you he wasn’t very popular …” (Ruefully, she added that if someone actually wanted to buy the portrait of Benedict she’s got on display, “it would need a good cleaning.”)
Lavery was 13 when John Paul II visited Dublin and Knock in 1979, and to this day she remembers how much of a celebration it was for the local community. Her family, “like every other Catholic family,” produced a banner and went out to the streets to welcome the pontiff, who was 100 miles away.
“My brother, who was a brilliant artist, designed the flag, and we were all involved in sewing it and making buttons marking the visit,” she said, without hiding her excitement.
Lavery will not be going to Dublin next weekend to see the pope, but not because she didn’t want to: organizers ran out of tickets for all three major papal events in days.
For Francis’s Aug. 25-26 visit, Lavery said she can sense excitement in her customers, several of whom have proudly acknowledged to having tickets.
“There was this young woman once, who had her children with her, and they’d received their tickets. One of the kid’s birthdays is on the day of the papal event they’re attending, and both the mother and child agreed that his birthday didn’t matter this year, because ‘the pope will be here!’” Lavery said.
She said that although “there’s disappointment” in Belfast that once again a pontiff will be in the British Isles but not Northern Ireland, there’s no anger or resentment among the local Catholics, because “faith in Northern Ireland is unbelievable.”
“It would be good if he came, because of everything we’ve gone through, and because there’s an awful lot of people who’d want to go but who can’t, especially the elderly,” she said.
Almost tearing up, she said: “Being able to take my mother to meet the pope – she’s 81 and not in good health – would be very special.”