- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2014

House Speaker John A. Boehner sent an open-ended invitation Thursday asking Pope Francis to address a joint meeting of Congress, in what would appear to be a first for a leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

“It is my honor as speaker, and on behalf of the bipartisan leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, to extend to you as head of state of the Holy See an open invitation to appear before and address a joint meeting of the two houses of Congress assembled in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives,” Mr. Boehner wrote in his brief invitation letter.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said it didn’t know anything about the invitation. The Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See, which is the Vatican’s diplomatic mission to the U.S. government, said nobody was available to comment.

Francis has just celebrated his first year at the head of the billion-plus member church, which claims tens of millions of followers in the U.S. He has expressed an interest in visiting the U.S. next year, CNN reported in January — most likely for a major church meeting scheduled to take place in Philadelphia in September 2015.

Mr. Boehner led a move in the 1990s to have Pope John Paul II address Congress but that petered out. According to news reports, the only day the pope could have spoken during a 1995 visit to the U.S was a federal holiday — and members of Congress didn’t want to have to remain in town.

Both Mr. Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are Catholic, as are more than 150 other members of the House and Senate.

Francis’ approach to the papacy, and his teachings on social and economic issues, have become ammunition for debates on Capitol Hill, with Democrats in particular pointing to his remarks as a call to action on their campaign priorities such as raising the minimum wage or extending unemployment benefits.

“Whether inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, who cared for all of God’s creation, or by St. Joseph, protector of the church, Pope Francis has lived his values and upheld his promise to be a moral force, to protect the poor and the needy, to serve as a champion of the less fortunate, and to promote love and understanding among faiths and nations,” Mrs. Pelosi said.

But Mr. Boehner said the pope’s teachings also highlight the importance of individual charity, rather than “a welfare mentality based on business calculations.”

“The Holy Father’s pastoral message challenges people of all faiths, ideologies and political parties. His address as a visiting head of state before a joint meeting of the House and Senate would honor our nation in keeping with the best traditions of our democratic institutions. It would also offer an excellent opportunity for the American people as well as the nations of the world to hear his message in full,” Mr. Boehner said.

The first pope to visit the U.S. was Paul VI, whose 1965 trip included a stop at the U.N. Most recently, Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2008, including a stop in Washington, where he met with the president at the White House and celebrated mass at Nationals Park.

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