Vatican flag on the White House grounds for Pope Benedict XVI's visit in 2008 (John Sonderman/Flickr Creative Commons)

White House Welcoming Ceremony for Pope Francis — Five Points to Keep in Mind

Pope Francis is due to be welcomed at the White House by President Obama on Wednesday morning, at 9:15 am.

America‘s Ashley McKinless is on the scene — following her live updates from the event, tweeted via the @americamag handle.

The star-spangled, outdoor event this morning will look older than it actually is. The ceremony on the south lawn of the executive residence was designed and inaugurated only in the spring of 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Up until that point, visiting heads of state were met by the U.S. Secretary of State at the pier or on the tarmac where they disembarked. President Kennedy, however, believed that the America that had emerged in the post-war era as one of only two global superpowers deserved a ceremonial upgrade. So he designed the program we still use today (with a Catholic liturgical imagination perhaps?) to include a precise mixture of pomp and circumstance, that would befit a president and his people but not  a king and his subjects. The first head of state arrival ceremony for a visiting pope took place in 1979 when John Paul II became the first successor of Peter to darken the White House door.

Here are 5 points about to keep in mind as Pope Francis pulls up past the Rose Garden:

Vatican and US flags on the Old Executive Office Building in preparation for welcoming Pope Francis (@USinHolySee twitter account)

Vatican and US flags on the Old Executive Office Building in preparation for welcoming Pope Francis (@USinHolySee twitter account)

5 Points on Francis and the White House:

  1. John Adams would not be happy. Most of our founding fathers, faithful sons of reformed Protestantism that they were, didn’t care for Roman Catholics. John Adams, the first president to live in the White House, was no different. He had a particular dislike of Jesuits, once telling his friend Thomas Jefferson: “If ever there was a body of men who merited eternal damnation on earth and in hell it is this Society of Loyola’s.” So what would he think, not only of a pope visiting the White House, but of a pope who also happens to be a Jesuit? Hard to know, of course, but we can say this at least: It says something great about the country that Mr. Adams helped to found that, over two centuries, we have enlarged our understanding of its founding traditions and have overcome his particular sectarian prejudice. Finding unity in diversity, e pluribus unum, is the story of this country.
  2. POTUS and VPOTUS going to Andrews sends a signal. Apropos of the above, the fact that BOTH the president and vice president, along with their families, travelled to Joint Base Andrews to personally greet Pope Francis says something about the importance of the relationship between the United States and the Holy See. Remember: diplomatic relations between Washington and the Vatican were established only in the 1980s. But the Cold War struggle of that time, a conflict in which Ronald Reagan and John Paul II forged a powerful alliance, began a new chapter in U.S./Holy See relations, one that continues to this day. Certainly there are disagreements, but the areas of agreement—human rights, economic opportunity, equality before the law—are shared values and form the the core of this alliance. After Britain, the relationship with the Holy See may be the second most “special” relationship in U.S. diplomacy.
  3. Lead with the positive. The White House welcome, in which both the visitor and the president make an address, is the moment when the visitor extols the good in a country’s history and traditions. Look carefully in Pope Francis’ speech for clues to the themes of his visit. Will he extol the virtues of democracy, freedom and fair-minded capitalism? Probably, since those things are as American as apple pie. Look also for a papal nod to the sacrifices that Americans have made in the global struggle against tyranny. The welcome ceremony is when the visitor praises. It is not a time to air differences or concerns.
  4. The pope is political but he’s not a politician. A lot of Americans, including some presidential candidates, say that the pope should stay our of politics. The arrival ceremony is a time for us to remember that the pope, as a head of state and as the leader of 1.5 billion Catholics, is a political figure. He has an important voice, one that is heard in a unique way in the public square. This is as it should be: The Gospel makes truth claims that are per se public claims. Yet those claims are also political claims, for they make radical demands on every aspect of human living, not just on private matters, but on the res publica that is the subject of our public debate. One the other hand, while the pope is political, he is not a politician. He has no time for, interest in, or inclination toward partisan or ideological gamesmanship. His “agenda” is the Gospel, not a party platform or manifesto or any human construct.
  5. Popes and presidents always disagree. Commentators will talk about the areas of disagreement between this pope and President Obama. Yes, the pope is not pro-choice. Yes, the pope has an expansive notion of religious freedom and he has a traditional understanding of marriage. But the pope and the president also agree on issues like climate change, economic justice, and human rights. Differences between popes and presidents, moreover, are not a new thing. Whether it’s abortion, religious freedom, war and peace, the death penalty or economic policy, there have been and will always be differences of opinion between popes and presidents. That’s precisely because Catholic social teaching and, more importantly, the Gospel it speaks for, is a radical way of human living that transcends our binary categories of Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative.