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Merchandise a method of evangelising

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Fr Sam french merchandise - The Catholic weekly
Fr Sam French with his merchandise. Photo: Supplied.

The idea of a merchandise line wasn’t exactly what social media sensation Fr Sam French had in mind when his dm’s began flooding with requests. But the Holy Spirit has a funny way of working things out.

The “Tik-Tok priest” was last month recovering from a successful cancer surgery when he found himself inspired to take out his laptop and put together a response to the media merchandise culture he had found himself caught up in.

“I basically had the whole thing done from my hospital bed and a few days more at home,” he said.

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But why merch?

“Well, one of the troubles of social media is that fact that it’s completely virtual. It has its shortcomings when you’re trying to promote the Catholic faith which is a deeply sacramental church.”

“What I’d been pondering was this mystery of how to create a sense of communion in these online virtual spaces, how to create the sense of connectivity.

“While not perfect, merch is something physical that comes from something virtual. It’s a tangible representation that shows support and belonging to an online community.”

Fr Sam french merchandise - The Catholic weekly

From messages like “Catholic Priests: The Original Ghostbusters” and “Go to Confession,” Fr Sam’s mission to “interrupt the doomscroll” has since taken on a whole new mission in the form of hoodies, t-shirts, mugs, totes, hats and vinyl stickers.

But after going up online, the line was almost only very short lived.

“After the first couple of days, the idea didn’t sit with me particularly well and I almost deleted the whole store,” Fr Sam told The Catholic Weekly.

“I took it to prayer and realised it felt too much like secular branding, and that’s not what I’m about on social media.

“The whole mission is to make something entertaining enough that people will share, but Catholic enough that it points someone’s mind and heart to Christ and his church, even if it’s for a second.

“I realised that’s precisely what I needed to do with the merch. I needed to take the culture around merchandising and spin it in the direction of evangelisation that you can wear.”

And so fittingly Fr Sam’s latest Eucharistic theme, depicting Jesus and a priest at the consecration, was “designed for maximum catechetical impact” and is the result of his longstanding relationship with his now 162,000 Instagram followers.

“If I was going to be serious about it, then the community actually needed to be involved in the process.”

Together through online discussion and feedback, or “virtual merchandise council in the spirit of synodality” as Fr Sam puts it, the final design is “if you want to speak in Gen Z language, ‘totally fire.’

“When I opened it up to the community, all these brilliant design choices came forward that I had completely missed. It was actually a manifestation of how that collaboration does work.”

In a few short weeks Fr Sam has already broken even on upfront costs, fees and artist commissions and donated the first share of profits to his favourite charity, Aid to the Church in Need, which he will continue to donate to while also supporting the rest of his online ministry.

“I’m just trying to bring the mission to the forefront in a way that’s engaging through my platform. It becomes this online space where people are working out their own theological gripes, but also coming to know more about the Catholic faith—they’re being catechised too.”

Fr Sam french merchandise - The Catholic weekly

Fr Sam has noticed that the idea of Catholic merchandise is steadily finding a growing market, most evident in brands such as Catholic Apparel, Totus Tuus and The Christian Mission, which he says is a testament to the culture today.

“It’s not just reserved for the clericals and habits of religious orders. All lay people are able to in some way give expression to their faith—whether that means having a holy picture at their desk at work, wearing a crucifix or miraculous medal.

“Or, it could be through wearing Catholic merchandising, signalling to the world that I am Catholic, I am proud of my faith, I love the Lord and I am ready to talk to you about it.”

Fr Sam, who once considered himself the “Jonah of social media” wanting nothing to do with the online platforms that elicit so much negativity, believes now it’s very much a way to bring back those seeking a sacramental encounter with God in the Catholic Church.

And he isn’t light on new ideas either.

“In light of the upcoming canonisation of blessed Carlo Acutis, I want to design a piece of merch with the catchphrase, ‘nothing slaps harder than holiness’ or something funky to that effect.”

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