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

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 — 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 in the House chamber, the site of the president’s annual State of the Union address. An outdoor crowd may 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."

A spokeswoman for the Ohio Republican?s office told Catholic News Service in a July 14 email that the telecast’s ticket allotment and distribution information will be released 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 the scaffolding will still be there in late September.

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 pope 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 invitation was a pleasant surprise for Boehner, and the 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."

Not all speeches to such joint meetings have been heralded. In early March, Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stirred controversy because the speaker did not consult the Obama administration on it. 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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