For the Pope, a Spiritual Gift

By Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts
Friday, July 10, 2009; 12:00 AM

What do you get the man who has, well, if not everything, at least . . . spiritual leadership over one-sixth of the world's population and the highest earthly authority in the Catholic Church?

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 (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."


Two months ago Raymone Bain sued Michael Jackson for $44 million, fully expecting a drawn-out legal battle over unpaid earnings. She had no contact with Jackson after filing the lawsuit-- and wasn't sure how his family would react if she attended his memorial service. "I had concerns, because you never know," she told us yesterday. "Michael's passing was just so shocking to all of us."

She had nothing to worry about. The D.C.-based PR exec represented the pop legend for years and had always maintained good relations with his parents and siblings. So Michael's younger brother, Randy, invited her to come to L.A., and Bain sat with the family during the service. "It was extremely emotional," she said. "It hit home that he's passed. I think I didn't believe it."

When news broke that Jackson had been rushed to the hospital, Bain first dismissed it as rumor. Since his death, she said, she's wanted to "throw a brick at the television" amid all the "insiders" emerging with allegations of drug use and attempted interventions (untrue, she claims).

Bain declined to discuss the future of her court case, which remains open. Any regrets? "I regret having to file the lawsuit, period. It was a business decision. But it had nothing to do with my love and respect for him. You can't erase seven years."

The Butt(S) Of The Joke

Question: What do Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy (pictured yesterday at the G-8) have in common?

Answer: They're men.

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