If the economy is sagging and consumer confidence slipping, you'd never know it from Pope Benedict XVI's recent U.S. visit. The 45,000 Catholics attending Mass at Washington, D.C.'s, Nationals Park picked the stadium clean of papal merchandise.

Mark Nelson says he could have sold more if he'd had more cash registers.

"The economy has not affected our business at all," says Nelson, of Catholic to the Max, the supplier hired by the Archdiocese of Washington to handle the pope's visit. "In fact, our business has grown steadily for the past 10 years."

All things considered, the U.S. economy is still growing -- barely. Some industries are in crisis. For example, homebuilders are laying off construction crews.

Retailers, on the other hand, are holding their own. With the exception of automobiles -- down almost 3 percent in April -- retail sales rose half a percent, according to Commerce Department data.

The outlook for Catholic-oriented businesses is, well, rosy.

"I have met more people in the past year who are moving into Church-related businesses than I saw in the previous 19 years," says Al Napleton, founder of the Catholic Marketing Network. "I'm very encouraged."

Books and bricks

Former real estate developer Napleton has organized a consortium of more than 500 Catholic book and gift stores for the past 12 years. The trend he sees is not a drop in sales, but a shift in distribution from brick-and-mortar retail stores to the Internet.

Retail data supports his observations. While the number of religious bookstores fell by one-third between 2002 and 2006, the sale of religious books jumped by 57 percent. Religious publishing is a $2.5 billion industry, nearly 7 percent of all book publishing.

One Catholic Marketing Network member, Ian Rutherford of Colorado Springs, Colo., says his sales have grown around 50 percent over the past year -- mostly online.

Local walk-in traffic at Rutherford's retail store, Aquinas and More, accounts for only 10 percent of his sales.

"Whatever is happening in the general economy is skipping us," says Rutherford, a former Sprint Web designer now employing nine people in his Catholic business. "And our merchandise tends to be higher quality because we don't sell anything made in China."

Rutherford's distaste for Chinese manufacturing is strictly moral -- he's outraged at the way the Chinese persecute Christianity and force abortions. He'd rather sell art from Latin America or rosaries from Italy.

While books are still the mainstay of his business, Rutherford is constantly looking for new opportunities. He recently opened a line of Church supplies -- such as clergy shirts -- which now accounts for 20 percent of his sales.

"Our essential business goal is to strengthen people's faith," he says. "I spend a lot of time building relationships with parishes."

Pilgrim church

Tourism took a profound hit after Sept. 11, 2001, but the industry has been recovering ever since. The latest recession talk has not deterred American plans for travel.

In its first-ever forecast of foreign travel, AAA is predicting a nearly 3 percent increase in U.S. travelers heading abroad this summer over last. The United Nations figures international travel has grown 6 percent worldwide in the past year.

That's good news for the Catholic pilgrimage business.

"Business is booming for me," says Jim Adair, a 26-year veteran of pilgrimage travel and owner of Ohio-based The Catholic Tour Company. "Some airlines are going out of business, but discount carriers like Ryanair and Southwest are still profitable."

Adair says the number of major companies in his market has grown from two in the 1970s to nearly 30. Some secular tour companies have even opened Catholic divisions in a bid for customers.

The top Catholic destinations have traditionally been Fátima, Portugal, and Lourdes, France, with Rome a close third. The Holy Land has made a recent comeback after six years of trouble and has always been a favorite for Protestants wanting to walk in biblical footsteps.

The Catholic Tour made travel arrangements for some 1,400 people in the past year.

"Catholics have a spiritual need to go to these places, as well as seeking physical cures," Adair says. "As long as the price is reasonable, I don't think it's going to stop."

Good investment

Despite national concern over an economic downturn -- not to mention $2 billion paid out in damages from the clergy sex-abuse scandal -- the Catholic Church is in pretty good shape economically.

Catholics are buttressing their faith with books, prayer cards and pilgrimage, and continue to drop money in the basket every Sunday.

"The fact that the average Catholic will put about $8 in the parish collection is a highly stable source of revenue," says Patrick O'Meara, a financial consultant who spends a lot of his business hours helping dioceses get out of debt.

O'Meara has been able to package church debt in the form of tax-exempt bonds that can be sold to raise needed money. Bonds are essentially loans made by investors for a fixed rate of return.

Formed in 2000, O'Meara Ferguson Kearns has helped dozens of dioceses refinance debt, lower interest payments, build schools and renovate facilities -- all because the bond market perceives Catholics as financially reliable.

Besides making capital improvements, dioceses and parishes assist individuals who are, in fact, hurting from economic hard times. For example, 10 parishes in the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens have been offering workshops to help people in danger of foreclosure.

Michael Murphy of the International Catholic Stewardship Council claims that charitable contributions at the parish level hold steady or even increase during difficult times. According to the council's last survey, giving in 2006 jumped 12 percent from 2005.

Despite Catholic reliability at the collection basket, observers still ask what will happen if a sharp economic downturn creates more financial hardship and more demand for social services. Will parishes and dioceses be able to meet the need?

O'Meara is optimistic that the world is getting wealthier and more people are lifting themselves out of poverty. But he reminds Catholics that helping those in financial need is as important a duty as turning a business profit.

"Between the rock of government and the hard place of the market, there are people who get crushed," he says. "We need to help them with whatever bounty we have. That's social justice."

Mark Nelson, who is still selling his "Property of Benedict XVI" sports jerseys online, is also optimistic that Catholics can weather any hard times ahead.

"Failure is not an option," he says. "My products are necessary for the building of faith, and I'll do what it takes to stay in business."

Steven Saint writes from Colorado.