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Preparation, Speculation Mounts for Pope Visit

The chamber is expected to be packed for Pope Francis' address. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

With Pope Francis set to give an historic address to Congress in two weeks, preparations and speculations about his visit are mounting, with some cautioning that, while he is addressing politicians, his visit is not political.  

“I think the people who try and politicize the visit are going to be disappointed," John Carr, director of Georgetown University's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, said at a briefing Thursday. "Its power is that it is not political, it is pastoral. And that he will challenge us in, not bringing a legislative agenda, but bringing a moral framework. And frankly we need that in this polarized society, in this polarized town.” Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to descend upon the District of Columbia to witness the first leg of Pope Francis' U.S. visit, with much attention focused on the Capitol, where the pontiff will be the first leader of the Catholic Church to address a joint meeting of Congress.  

Francis is expected to arrive at the Capitol at 9:20 a.m. on Sept. 24 and have a private meeting with Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, a devout Catholic who has been issuing invitations for the pontiff to address Congress for two decades.  

“As for the speaker, this is an extraordinarily personal experience for him," said Sarah Swinehart, director of media affairs for the speaker's office.  

Swinehart said Boehner's private meeting is the only meeting the pontiff has scheduled with a member of Congress. She did say that there will likely be a bipartisan, bicameral escort committee who will greet the pope and walk down the House chamber aisle with him, though she said she did not have the names of that committee, and they will be announced closer to the address.  

The chamber is expected to be packed for the pontiff's speech, so much so that lawmakers restricted chamber access , including revoking former members' automatic floor privileges.  

Though the president was listed among the allowed chamber guests, Melissa Rogers, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said President Barack Obama will not be attending the address, though Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be.  

President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will personally welcome Pope Francis at Andrews Air Force Base on Sept. 22. On Sept. 23, the White House will hold a welcome ceremony and the president and pontiff will meet privately.  

In addition to dignitaries and lawmakers attending the pope's congressional address, members of Congress were also each given one House chamber ticket to bring a guest.  

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., opted to allow constituents to enter a lottery for his chamber ticket. Schumer announced Wednesday that a Bronx resident won the lottery.  

Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., decided to create an essay competition to choose the constituent most worthy to sit in the chamber. Clark spokesperson Justin Unga explained that the 500-word essay competition was the congresswoman's idea. "She wants to bring a person whose story, life, or life’s work embodies the message of social justice offered by Pope Francis," Unga said.  

Other lawmakers are opting to handpick their chamber guests, which include clergy members and spouses. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., whose district includes a large number of Hispanics and Catholics, said he is going to bring his wife to the event.  

"It’s going to be one of the most special moments that we experience in the chamber and I figured I’d bring the most special person to me," Curbelo told CQ Roll Call.  

Curbelo also had to decide what to do with the tickets each lawmaker was allotted for the West Lawn on Sept. 24. Due to the immense interest in the address, Boehner decided to broadcast the pope's speech on the West Front , where tens of thousands are expected to gather.  

Each House member was allotted 50 standing room only tickets for the West Lawn, one seated ticket for the Lower West Terrace, and one ticket to watch a broadcast in the Cannon Caucus room. Senators were allotted 200 standing room only tickets for the West Lawn, one seat on the Lower West Terrace and two tickets to watch the address in one of the Senate office buildings.  

Curbelo said his office distributed tickets among the archdiocese of Miami and other large parishes in his district so the pastors could decide who should attend.  

More than two dozen House members encouraged constituents to sign up through their congressional websites and be randomly selected to receive a West Lawn ticket.  

Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., said her office's lottery received roughly 1,200 requests for tickets, and they were sorting through contacting those who were randomly selected to see if they can make the trip to D.C.  

“This is a first in history for the pope to address a joint session of Congress. I’m Catholic myself. We have a lot of Catholics in our congressional district," Bustos said. "And we just thought the best way to do this was to open it up widely to people who had interest in it."  

On the Senate side, less than 10 percent of senators advertised that they had tickets to the West Lawn on their websites. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., told CQ Roll Call that his office had received a surprisingly few number of requests, estimating there had been about 10. So his office put out a statement Tuesday notifying residents that he has tickets, since many were opting to contact their House member instead.  

Those lucky constituents who received tickets for the West Lawn broadcast could also catch a glimpse of Pope Francis. Swinehart explained Tuesday that "if we have time" the pope will head to the speaker's balcony to appear before the crowd. "Everyone’s fingers are crossed," she said. "We are nailing this down to the minute."  

Members of the public who will not be on the West Lawn could try and see the pope at his parade on Sept. 23, which was announced Thursday. Jane Belford of the Archdiocese of Washington said the pontiff is expected to participate in a brief parade around 10:30 or 11 a.m. after his White House meeting that will go around the Ellipse and down Constitution Ave.  

Fr. Evelio Menjivar, pastor of Our Lady Queen of the Americas in D.C., said "rivers" of Hispanic Catholics will head to the parade route Wednesday morning, after celebrating Mass. Menjivar said the Hispanic community is eagerly anticipating the pope's arrival, given Francis' roots in Argentina and his support for welcoming immigrants.  

Another sector anticipating the pontiff's visit are workers. Richard Trumka, president of AFL-CIO said at an event at Georgetown University Wednesday evening that workers are hoping the pope will speak to economic inequality and "that the economy and the financial system must serve human beings."  

Workers in the U.S. Capitol, who have been striking for higher wages, requested that the pope meet with them during his visit. Asked about the likelihood their request would be granted, Helen Osman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said, "I’m not going to even make a hazard to guess at that. Who knows.”  

Pope Francis has been known to make last-minute changes to the schedule, as veteran Vatican reporter John L. Allen Jr., pointed out. And his narrative throughout the trip is just as predictable.  

"I often jokingly say that Pope Francis ought to come with a warning label like a pack of cigarettes that reads, ‘Caution: predictions are hazardous to your health,’" the Boston Globe reporter told his fellow journalists Thursday. "So the only takeaway from that is stay on your toes, because every day is going to be an adventure.”  

Correction 6:57 p.m. A previous version of this article misstated the timing of the Pope's journey to D.C. during his trip to the U.S. He will be in D.C. during the first leg of his U.S. visit.  

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