Iconic background for Pope Francis: West Front of U.S. Capitol

The West Front of the U.S. Capitol is seen in a file photo. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

The West Front of the U.S. Capitol is seen in a file photo. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

By Carol Zimmermann Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — When Pope Francis comes to the U.S. Capitol Sept. 24, he could hardly ask for a better backdrop.

His address to a joint meeting of Congress — historic enough since it’s the first time a religious leader who also is a head of state has addressed the body of lawmakers — will be broadcast live on Jumbotron screens on the West Front of the Capitol.

The pope will deliver his remarks to Congress in the House chamber, the site of the president’s annual State of the Union address and other speeches by foreign leaders. An outdoor crowd of those with tickets to watch the event will be comparable to the crowd that gathers for inaugurations in size and location, except people won’t be bundled in winter gear.

And there’s more. House Speaker John Boehner, who invited the pope, announced July 8 the pontiff has “expressed an interest in making a brief appearance on the West Front.”

“We look forward to welcoming Pope Francis and Americans from all walks of life to our Capitol on Sept. 24,” the Ohio Republican said.

A spokeswoman for Boehner’s office told Catholic News Service in a July 14 email that the telecast’s ticket allotment and distribution information will be released from the Speaker’s office by July 30.

The West Front of the Capitol has been used for presidential inaugurations since President Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration in 1981. Previously, most inaugurations took place on the Capitol’s East Front, but a congressional committee decided the other side would make more sense because of the terraces already in place and space to accommodate more people.

One slight snag with the venue for the pope’s visit is that it won’t be picture perfect. Currently, the dome of the U.S. Capitol is covered in scaffolding as it undergoes restoration. A spokesman for the Architect of the Capitol told CNS said this scaffolding will still be in late September. The dome project is expected to be finished in time for the 2017 presidential inauguration.

But the building facade is a minor aspect to a pretty big event.

In a July 12 interview on “Face the Nation,” the Sunday CBS News program, Boehner was told by host John Dickerson: “You are a practicing Catholic, and you’ve gotten the pope — first time ever — to come visit Congress. You’ve been working on that for a long time.”

Boehner said about 20 years ago, he first invited a pope to visit Washington and three different times he “attempted to get the pope to come and address a joint session of Congress.”

Pope Benedict XVI met with President George W. Bush at the White House during his 2008 Washington visit and in 1979 St. John Paul II met President Jimmy Carter at the White House and also celebrated Mass on the National Mall but neither pontiff addressed members of Congress. Pope Francis is scheduled to meet President Barack Obama Sept. 23 at the White House.

The pope’s RSVP to Boehner’s congressional invite was a pleasant surprise for Boehner, and the pontiff’s acceptance also was praised by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a Catholic. Pelosi said in a statement that she joins the “millions of Americans, Catholic and non-Catholic, who are overjoyed to be welcoming” the pope to the United States.

She said the pope has “renewed the faith of Catholics worldwide and inspired a new generation of people, regardless of religious affiliation, to be instruments of God’s peace.”

When the “Face the Nation” discussion moved from the nuclear deal with Iran and presidential candidates to questions about the pope accepting Boehner’s invite, the House Speaker said: “For a kid who grew up going to Mass every morning, it’s a pretty humbling experience.”

When asked about his own faith, he said he has “conversations with the Lord” that start in the morning and continue throughout the day, noting: “You can’t do this job by yourself.”

Boehner invited Pope Francis to address Congress as a visiting head of state last March when there was speculation that the pope might come to the United States to join the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

When Boehner announced that this was indeed happening, he said the visit would make Pope Francis the “first leader of the Holy See to address a joint meeting of Congress.”

This visit wouldn’t have happened years ago since the United States and the Holy See didn’t establish formal relations until 1984.

According to the website of the U.S. House Historian’s Office, http://history.house.gov, heads of state from more than 40 nations have addressed Congress in the past 100 years.

The first person to do so — though in separate addresses to the House and Senate — was the Marquis de Lafayette, the French general and Revolutionary War hero, in 1824. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed a joint meeting of Congress in December 1941 less than three weeks after the U.S. entered World War II — which, according the congressional website, began the trend of leaders addressing joint meetings of Congress, instead of delivering separate addresses.

Not all speeches to such joint meetings have been heralded. In early March, Boehner’s invite to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stirred controversy because the Speaker did not consult the Obama administration on it and in his remarks the prime minister called for a hard line against Iran in U.S. negotiations over that nation’s nuclear capability — talks backed by the president.

Based on his recent addresses, Pope Francis will likely speak to Congress about excesses of capitalism causing high unemployment and a “throwaway culture.” He also may bring up the need for greater environmental protections and better treatment of immigrants, which could prompt some seat-squirming inside the House chamber and cheering outside.

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