Speaker John Boehner has tried to get pope to Capitol for 20 years

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (Courtesy Reuters, Yuri Gripas)
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (Courtesy Reuters, Yuri Gripas)

Deirdre Shesgreen

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As a second-term congressman, John Boehner organized a petition urging then-House speaker Tom Foley to invite the pope to address a joint session of Congress, writing in 1994 that as a “world leader, ambassador of peace, and an important catalyst in the fall of the Iron Curtain … the pope is an important figure in world politics.”

Foley made the request, but that pope, and the next one, declined the Ohio Republican’s appeal. More than 20 years later, now speaker of the House himself, Boehner is delighting in a dream come true as he prepares for the arrival of Pope Francis to the U.S. Capitol for the first papal address to Congress.

“For a little Catholic boy like me, this is big stuff,” Boehner said in an interview Monday (Sept. 21). In his childhood home in Reading, Boehner recalled, “there was a picture of the pope and a picture of President Kennedy. … And most every day we prayed for the pope as well as the archbishop.”

Lawmakers of all faiths are jazzed about having a front-row seat for the pope’s historic address Thursday (Sept. 24). But no one is more excited than Boehner, who first extended the invitation to Pope Francis in March 2014, about a year after the pontiff was chosen to succeed Pope Benedict XVI.

Months went by, with Boehner holding out little hope that this entreaty would get a different response than his previous ones. But then he received a call from Rome. On the line was the Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who told Boehner the pope was excited about the invitation.

“It wasn’t firm at that point, but it was a pretty exciting moment and a great phone call,” Boehner said.

Since then, Boehner’s staff has spent nearly seven months preparing for the papal visit — opening the Capitol’s West Lawn so faithful fans can watch the pope’s address live on Jumbotrons and deploying about 100 congressional staffers to deal with everything from logistics to etiquette. A crowd of about 40,000 people is expected to gather on the West Lawn for the address.

“Everyone has been bugging me for tickets,” Boehner cracked. He said he has invited scores of Ohioans to watch the address from the West Front, but he declined to say who — other than his wife, Debbie — would snag his coveted tickets to sit inside the House chamber.

With only a few days until the address, road closures have been mapped out, security has been beefed up, and Washington is buzzing with speculation about what hot political issues this very vocal pope will touch on.

“I could imagine him being very provocative and challenging people in the room, but I also can imagine him being very diplomatic,” said John C. Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron. “You just never know with this pope. … He takes a certain delight in surprising people.”

He could talk about abortion, making Democrats squirm as they defend federal funding for Planned Parenthood. He could talk about the dangers of climate change, putting Republicans on the spot as they fight President Obama’s push to curb carbon emissions. And he could talk about the excesses of capitalism and income inequality, fueling divisions in the 2016 presidential race.

“Of course the pope is going to talk about these things,” said Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and church observer for The National Catholic Reporter. “Political issues are often moral issues,” he said, and as a prophet, it’s the pope’s role to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

How lawmakers react, he said, will make for “political theater at its best.”

For Boehner, it will not be political theater. The unflappable GOP leader, who has been tested time and again by firebrand conservatives in his caucus, said he won’t be even a smidge uncomfortable if the pope highlights issues that put his deep Catholic faith in conflict with his strong Republican politics.

“No matter what the pope has to say, I’m looking forward to hearing it,” Boehner said. “I’ll digest just like anyone else will.”

Boehner said he has worked to make this moment happen because he believes it will “help awaken the Congress and awaken the American people … to our higher callings.”

Plus, he has dreamed of meeting the pope since he was an altar boy in Reading, where he was one of 12 children and where he went to Mass nearly every morning before heading off to school.

“You looked at the pope as almost God living on Earth, or at least God’s representative,” said Jerry Vanden Eynden, a friend of Boehner’s since childhood. “So for Boehner to meet him and pull this off, this is a big, big deal to him.”

Before the pope’s speech to Congress, Boehner will get to meet the pontiff one-on-one in his stately Capitol office. The Ohio Republican said he is not nervous -- and he’s not preparing for what he will say.

“It’ll be like meeting any other world leader, except he’s the head of the Catholic Church and he’s a descendent of St. Peter,” Boehner said. “I’m sure that God will give me all the right words.”

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