Mark Shields: Has anybody thanked Boehner?

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

Has anybody bothered to thank House Speaker John Boehner for Pope Francis’ even coming to the United States? Let history note that it was Boehner, as a lowly second-term member of the House minority, who in 1994 organized a petition to then-House Speaker Tom Foley requesting that Pope John Paul II be invited to address Congress. Boehner persisted for 21 years, until Francis accepted. This past week, an openly emotional and deservedly proud Boehner got to sit behind the pope. And maybe someone will explain why a teary male Democrat can somehow be both manly and sensitive but when Speaker Boehner reaches for his handkerchief it turns into mocking, a knee-slapper.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. But for your efforts, so many of us Americans might never personally have witnessed the comfort-the-afflicted and afflict-the-comfortable charge of this inspiring pastor from Argentina.

Ironically, practicing what the pope preaches — constructive engagement with your political adversaries, in particular Boehner’s friendship and cooperation with Sen. Ted Kennedy, which effectively secured passage of President George W. Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind Act — undoubtedly contributed to Boehner’s surprise resignation from Congress by proving to Republican fire-eaters that he was never one of them.

When, after the pope’s speech to Congress, the pope declined the traditional invitation to be lionized by the powerful of Washington at an elegantly exclusive lunch in his honor on Capitol Hill, the rest of us were audience to the simple eloquence of his message.

The pope went to the center of the city to break bread, under a tent, with 300 fellow human beings who were homeless, mentally or emotionally handicapped, dependent on alcohol or other drugs, or formerly incarcerated. Many of those who lunched with the pope are clients of Catholic Charities, which provides room, board and hope to our brothers and sisters who brave it out in the shadows of the nation’s capital.

Speaking to his powerless companions, the pope said they reminded him of St. Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was born, according to the Gospel of St. Luke, “in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.” This meant, Francis explained, that the man the church teaches is “the Son of God came into this world as a homeless person.” He added: “Like St. Joseph, you may ask, ‘Why are we homeless, without a place to live?'” This is the question he poses to those of us who are lucky today (because we had ancestors who, lacking necessary documents, dared to cross the ocean or the continent and get here) to live in the richest country in the history of the world.

History, as we know, is written by the winners. It is also written about the winners — the victorious generals, princes, prime ministers and presidents. Success — material, political, military — gets recorded and commands our attention. But Francis is totally different in the judgment of John Carr, director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life: “He looks at the world from the bottom up, from the outside in.”

That’s not the established order in self-important Washington, where — with unlimited, multimillion-dollar campaign contributions sanctioned by both the gullibility of the Supreme Court and the craven cowardliness of Congress — “the golden rule” means that the very few who have the gold in fact rule while the very many who don’t are ruled. Francis makes us confront these shoddy public values.

With the exception of presidential inaugurals, major public events in Washington are about protests seeking the redress of grievances. Pope Francis showed us a different side of public Washington. In the joy and compassion he inspired, he brought out the best of us in a better Washington. And he did it from the back seat of a tiny Fiat that gets 35 miles a gallon and retails for about $22,000. Thank you again, Speaker Boehner.


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