Some looked down at their phones. Some tweeted pictures (Reps. Tim Huelskamp, Tom Graves and Karen Bass). At least one member whooped (Rep. Nydia Velazquez). There was partisan applause and unnecessary clapping (we heard that, Philadelphians).
But overall, despite a rock-bottom standard, lawmakers behaved reasonably well when Pope Francis spoke to Congress in an unusual joint meeting on Thursday.
Perhaps most visibly affected by the remarks was Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), whose face remained in a perpetual grimace as he tried to stop his tears. The speaker finally cracked on the West Front, as the pontiff prayed for the crowd.
Speaking in Spanish, Francis greeted listeners (“Buenos dias”) and prayed for God to bless the children present and their families. As the pope asked the crowd to pray for him and send him good wishes, Boehner lost it. He stood between Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), blowing his nose and wiping his face with a white handkerchief.
For Boehner, the pope’s visit was a dream realized after 20 years of trying. “When you grow up Catholic, you learn about the Pope as a distant figure, closer to God than any of us. To have him here, at our Capitol, among our people, is a once-in-a-lifetime moment. A glimpse of grace,” the speaker wrote on Medium last night.
The visit was also an historic moment for Congress. No pope had ever visited Capitol Hill, let alone addressed a joint meeting of the chambers. As a result, leaders prepared their members with specific instructions: No touching the pope. No flash photography. No selfies. No cheering.
Compared with a typical joint session, lawmakers hewed fairly close to this guidance. The normal hollering you’d expect during a State of the Union address was all but absent. Lawmakers sat like chastised children for the first 10 minutes of the speech. Apparently there were a handful of cellphones that rung, but the noise was not picked up by TV cameras.
Imagine how much worse it could have been. As a precaution, leaders installed a thick layer of polite and decorum-conscious lawmakers around the center aisle. This prevented publicity-hungry members — or those simply caught up in the moment — from trying to touch, hug or kiss the pope.
No such moments took place, to leaders’ great relief.
One Vatican preference was ignored, however, and that was the desire for silence on the House floor during the course of Francis’s speech. After a period of stillness at the beginning, lawmakers took to regular interruptions of applause and standing ovations, clearly catching Francis by surprise.
The practice is normal and expected during State of the Union addresses, but Vatican officials had asked lawmakers to remain seated and quiet in order to keep the speech running on time. The request was also meant to protect Francis from losing his concentration as he spoke in English, which he does not use often.
Despite the interruptions, Francis remained composed — though the speech ran 15 minutes long, preventing him from delivering longer remarks on the West Front.
The applause also drew attention to the differences of opinion within the chamber on what Francis said. Much of the clapping was initiated by Democrats, along with the standing ovations, which the Vatican forbade except for during the pope’s entrance.
Francis opened the speech with a reference to the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” which brought everyone to their feet, including the normally reticent members of the Supreme Court. Members stood after Francis called America the “land of dreams,” after he invoked the golden rule, and after he praised the virtues of family life.
But many of the other ovations were partisan, or at least started that way. The first and most noticeable came during Francis’s remarks on climate change, an area in which most Republican disagree with him. Francis also called for protecting human life and stopping the death penalty, leaving partisans confused about when and if they agreed and should stand.
Still, it was not a bad performance for lawmakers, who can now go back to fighting about whether or not to shut down the government. As for silence during a papal speech, oh well — there’s always next time.
Read the full transcript of Francis’s remarks here.