- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2015

Presented with the difficult decision of whom to offer his only guest ticket for Pope Francis‘ historic address to a joint session of Congress, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez said he was moved by “the spirit.”

It was Valentine’s Day. Mr. Guitierrez was attending a community orientation meeting on President Obama’s executive action for deportation amnesty when he met for the first time Father Marco Mercado, a Catholic priest at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, Illinois.

Without hesitation, Mr. Guitierrez offered his guest ticket to Father Mercado, who readily accepted.

“That’s the best thing; there was no calculation,” said Mr. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who is Catholic. “I just did it because the spirit moved me.”

All 535 members of Congress faced the same question: Who would get their guest ticket for a seat in the House chamber when Francis delivers his address to U.S. lawmakers — the first time a pope has done so and likely a once-in-a-lifetime event.

The lawmakers have just one guest ticket apiece for a seat in the chamber. Many will bring family or spouses, some chose to reward loyal staff members and others reached out to religious leaders from their home states and districts.

SEE ALSO: What the pope should tell America

Making his first journey to the U.S., Pope Francis arrives Tuesday in Washington, where he will meet with President Obama in the White House before his speech to a joint gathering of the House and Senate. In Cuba’s capital Sunday, Francis celebrated Mass before thousands of worshippers in Havana’s main square and met with the communist-run island’s former leader, Fidel Castro.

Rep. Louise McIntosh Slaughter, New York Democrat, is Episcopalian, but she knew a leader of the Catholic community in her district who would deeply appreciate the ticket. She invited recently retired Bishop Matthew H. Clark of the Diocese of Rochester, New York.

Ms. Slaughter described him as a “very lovable man who has been part of our lives in Rochester for a very long time.”

After tapping a Catholic leader to join her in the chamber, Ms. Slaughter wanted to share the pope’s visit with people of all faiths and distributed her tickets to see Francis outside the Capitol accordingly.

“We made sure that we invited a rabbi and an imam and some other priests and people who just are interested, some of our evangelical churches. We were very ecumenical,” she said. “I think this pope is pretty remarkable, and I know that everyone wants to hear him.”

House members have 50 tickets and senators have 200 tickets to see the pope make a brief public appearance on the West Front of the Capitol, where his address to Congress will be broadcast on large screens.

Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican, surprised his chief of staff, Sean Murphy, by handing him the guest ticket for a seat in the chamber.

Mr. Murphy, who is Catholic, suggested that the congressman carefully look over his options for whom to give the ticket, advising him that it was “a really big deal.”

“I said, ‘Well, Sean, don’t you want to go?’ and he said, ‘Yeah,’” recalled Mr. Cole. “So I said, ‘You get to go.’

“That’s what I decided to do,” he said. “This is a very meaningful thing to him, and I wanted him to have the opportunity to do that. He does a great job for me.”

Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, said he didn’t think twice before inviting his wife, Gayle, to accompany him in the chamber.

“That was a very easy one. When you’ve been married 48 years, that’s not even a thought process. It’s automatic,” said Mr. Manchin, who is Catholic.

He distributed his 200 tickets for outside the Capitol on a first-come, first-served basis on his Senate website. The tickets were distributed in less than two hours.

“They were all gobbled up,” Mr. Manchin said.

Mr. Manchin plans to be on hand for most of the pope’s events in Washington.

He said he had invited Monsignor Edward Sadie, rector of the Basilica of the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Charleston, West Virginia, to accompany him and his wife at a reception for Francis at the White House. Mrs. Manchin also will accompany him at a Mass celebrated by Francis at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

The senator hoped the pope’s visit would have a lasting impact on lawmakers. “Maybe it will have a calming effect, calm us all down, bring us together as brothers and sisters in America with everyone working together,” he said.

Sen. Christopher A. Coons, Delaware Democrat, invited his wife, Annie.

“My special guest is my wife, who is very excited to get to hear his holiness and very much looking forward to the opportunity,” he said.

Still, he warned that the intersection of religion and politics likely will test Pope Francis‘ audience.

He said a famous theologian once said that “the challenge of being a faith leader is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Mr. Coons told his wife to keep that in mind. “I am fully confident that at some point [the pope] will make everybody uncomfortable,” he said. “I think that’s a very constructive role for a spiritual leader.”

The maxim was proving itself even before the pope’s arrival.

Barring a last-minute change of heart, Rep. Paul A. Gosar isn’t bringing anyone because the he isn’t going.

The Arizona Republican said he is boycotting Francis’ speech because he thinks the pontiff will focus on climate change instead of religious tolerance and pro-life issues.

Mr. Gosar, a Catholic, said he also hadn’t doled out his 50 lawn tickets. As of Friday, none of his colleagues had tried to snap up those extras.

“I haven’t had any requests,” Mr. Gosar said. “People now are finding out where I stand, so we’ll see.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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