POP MUSIC / Now it's top of the Popes: Move over, chanting monks: the Pope's new single is out. Philip Sweeney reports

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Which ageing but charismatic jet-setter was it whose recent double CD sold 60,000 copies in the first two days of release in Spain and went platinum (100,000 sales) shortly afterwards? Julio Iglesias? Barry Manilow? Mick Jagger? No, the Pope, his holiness John Paul II, whose recording of the Rosary on the Spanish label Divucsa has proved one of the biggest commercial successes of the year in Spain since its release in March, and is now out, or soon to be out, in North and South America and much of Europe.

Following the even huger success of EMI Spain's recorded Gregorian chants from Silos monastery, this confirms Catholic liturgy to be hot, chart-wise, and the more lugubrious the better. Whereas the Silos monks' record was essentially music, the Rosary is largely prayer, dozens of Hail Marys marshalled into cycles known as Mysteries, in Latin on one disc and Spanish on the other, recorded live in the Pauline chapel of the Vatican and discreetly embellished in the studio with Handel's Messiah and Bach's Ave Maria.

Among Catholics, the Rosary is a much loved standard, and Pope John Paul is the ideal artiste to chart with a new version. Created in the 13th century to venerate the Virgin Mary in the face of attacks on her cult by the Albigensians, the Rosary fell into disfavour among progressives around the time of the Second Vatican Council. The present Pope is a great devotee of the Virgin and is said to attribute failure of the St Peter's Square assassination attempt to her intervention. He was instrumental in the resurgence of the Rosary by starting his monthly live radio broadcast of the prayer cycle 15 years ago.

For conservative southern Europeans, the Rosary never went away, and the new CD is merely the latest update in its media diffusion. For decades, Spanish radio broadcast Masses, Rosaries and other rituals - Vatican radio still does - and in the 1980s LPs and cassettes were marketed for the convenience of the countless pious women who prayed along as they did their housework. The biggest selling cassette of the Rosary, produced by the Dominican Order's company, Edibesa, has sold 300,000 copies since 1982, but the new Divucsa CD is of much higher sound quality, and is sold through mainstream outlets and advertised on TV. This was no freak hit - Divucsa's managing director, Gabriel Orcila, planned the exercise three years ago,

having identified the demand by a market survey. Nor is Divucsa religiously inclined - the Barcelona-based company's main fare is pop, flamenco and light classics, and another rogue innovation, their equally massive selling Music for Babies.

Does all this mean the Pontiff will be blowing his share of the royalties on a mitre- shaped swimming pool or a metalflake stretch popemobile? Not according to the Vatican, who have apparently remained aloof from commercial considerations to the extent that Divucsa has got itself a remarkable bargain. In exchange for world CD and cassette rights, Spanish company paid 'little more than the costs of the recording session' to Vatican Radio, which is responsible for all matters relating to the Pope's recorded voice, and who in any event record all the Pope's rosary recitals. Indeed, all the Pope's public utterances full stop: a team of technicians follows the Pope everywhere, apparently, making the potential for follow-up records truly mouth-watering.

I asked James Sharkey, the London agent whose clients include Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Dalton, what he thought of the deal. 'I think the Vatican needs a good agent,' he replied, 'the Pope is well in to the megastar category. World sales could be astronomical . . . they could have asked for millions.'

Father Pasquale Borgomeo, the Jesuit general manager of Vatican Radio, on the phone from Rome, exhibited a truly miraculous disregard for flashing dollar signs. 'We are not regretting the small amount we asked,' he said, 'the Spanish company has had a reward for their courage in making the investment. We were surprised by such sales . . . actually we prefer someone else to make money - we are concerned to spread what is a free message. The issue of making money is problematic for us.'

(Photograph omitted)