WASHINGTON - 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.