By Frank Cerabino

MIAMI BEACH-Here in the catacombs of the landmark Fontainebleau-Hilton Hotel, Claudio and Aldo, the two dark suits representing the Vatican, are outlining how the pope is throwing his miter into the phone card business.

"In two years, we expand to other countries like Canada, Latin America," Aldo says, translating Claudio's Italian. "We'll go all over the world." The Vatican Card, a prepaid phonecard picturing Pope John Paul II, is the latest media venture of a pontiff who has already broken commercial ground with a bestselling book and a CD recording of him praying and humming along with a choir.

The cards, which show the pope's autograph and personal seal, a short pro-family message, and an action photo, are designed not only as phone cards but also as collectibles, which will become a set of 96 different cards over the course of two years.

Are you getting the picture here?

Hello? Wake up and smell the frankincense.

This isn't just a phone card.

We're talking about something much bigger here. Something more savvy.

We're talking about . . . Popeymon cards.

"We want to create a card that has a uniqueness for every month of the year," explained Dave Estep, the marketing guy for Siesta Telecom, the Sarasota-based phone-card company that landed the pope deal and stands to profit from it.

The media event staged by Siesta and the Vatican here is the kickoff of what will be an intensive two-year effort to market the Holy See with a little Holy Say.

Siesta plans to produce 30 million pope phone cards in the next two years. The Vatican gets $1 for each card, which will sell for $15 to consumers, who then get 75 minutes of free domestic long-distance calling on the card.

This works out to 20 cents a minute, which is no bargain in the highly competitive prepaidphone card business. But the success of the pope card won't solely rely on how well it does against cheaper competitors, or in convenience stores, where it will be muscling for counter space with lottery tickets and Slim Jims.

The Vatican authorized the company to use four photos of the pope for the first year, and four different photos for the second year. The cards will be changed from month-to-month by altering other elements on them.

The four photos for the first batch of cards show the pope baptizing a baby, standing before an outdoor throng, standing with a cross and gazing at the Roman Coliseum.

"It's not just a religious item," said May, the company president.

He's right. It's Popeymon.

Originally published in The Palm Beach Post.

See below for link to previous Adventures in Kitsch.

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