For the Pope, a Spiritual Gift
That was the challenge the White House faced when it came to finding the perfect gift for Pope Benedict XVI, whom President Obama is scheduled to meet today.
These global gift exchanges are a sensitive matter because the president's previous gifts to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (a set of DVDs) and Queen Elizabeth II (an iPod filled with show tunes) drew howls from critics who found them tacky and impersonal. Like "a pair of socks from an unfamiliar aunt," sniffed the Daily Mail. Or as Wanda Sykes snarked at the White House Correspondents' dinner, "What are you gonna get the pope, a Bluetooth?"
So the administration turned to Louis DiCocco, owner of a religious gift shop in Philadelphia, for advice. DiCocco told our colleague William Wan his shop designed and built a chair used by the pontiff during his D.C. visit last year -- and "someone there remembered us."
For five days DiCocco and the State Department brainstormed, seeking the right balance of history and sentiment. An elegant 1920s gold-plated chalice was considered and rejected. Then DiCocco heard from friends in the Redemptorists, an order of Catholic priests and brothers. They had just the thing: a sacred relic from Saint John Neumann, the first U.S. bishop to be canonized.
Neumann was known for strengthening the Catholic school and parish system in the United States. After he died in 1860, his body was enshrined at a Philadelphia church -- where for 18 years a cream-colored stole with red and gold trim was draped on his remains. The stole was removed from the casket in 2007, when church officials re-dressed the body -- so it was available. The Redemptorists were happy to give it: "It's an honor," Al Bradley, an official with the order, told Wan.
The White House would not confirm the gift before today's meeting. But DiCocco told Wan the idea "was just kind of a no-brainer" when he suggested it. "I mean, here was this saint, an immigrant who came to America and did so much beautiful work."
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