Should You Hug the Pope? Congress Needs to Know

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Pope Francis smiles during a visit to the people of Banado Norte at the Chapel of Juan Bautista in Asuncion on July 12, 2015.

VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. lawmakers are used to a slew of rules about how to conduct themselves, and now they’re anxiously awaiting edicts of another type: how to behave around the pope.

Pope Francis will visit the nation’s Capitol Sept. 24 as part of his three-day stop in Washington, becoming the first pontiff to address the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Questions abound. Is it out of line to hug the pope when he enters the House chamber, or shake his hand, or touch him at all? Is applause allowed when he speaks, or perhaps an “amen?”

“I’m told that directives are going to go out about that,” said Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest who as U.S. House chaplain coordinates the appearances of guest pastors who give the chamber’s opening prayers.

The worry is understandable. Joint meetings of Congress in the House chamber -- including the annual State of the Union address by the president -- can be full of ceremony, yet also indecorous.

Perhaps the most notorious moment in recent years was when Representative Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, shouted “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s September 2009 speech to Congress after the president said his health-care plan wouldn’t cover undocumented immigrants.

No one is expecting that kind of outburst directed to the pope. But he won’t exactly be preaching to the choir, either. The Pew Research Center estimates that about one-third of members of the 114th Congress identify as Catholics.

Boehner’s Invitation

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican and himself a Catholic, extended the invitation to Pope Francis to speak at the Capitol. The pontiff also will appear at a White House welcoming ceremony, and he will celebrate mass at the Catholic basilica in Washington.

Given the need for protocol tips, Conroy met last week with Boehner’s chief of staff, Michael Sommers, and said he was assured that guidance for lawmakers will be sent out soon.

“For a lot of members -- they’re Americans, you know, and appropriate courtesy is not necessarily their cup of tea,” said Representative Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat. He noted that some lawmakers arrive in the House chamber hours before presidential speeches to grab aisle seats so they can be spotted for a few seconds with the commander in chief.

So then what is proper behavior for a lawmaker? Based on the advice of Catholic church experts and past State Department protocol guidance, here is some advice to lawmakers about the pope’s visit.

-- Appropriate dress. The rules are basic: Wear dark colors. For women, sleeves should cover the shoulders and elbows, and hems should fall below the knees.

Reaching Out

-- Touching the pope. Is it allowed? No one is supposed to approach him without an invitational gesture. But experts say it’s unlikely he’ll enter the center aisle without reaching out to some lawmakers.

-- What to do if the pope approaches you? Previous State Department advice suggests that when greeted by the pope, one should either shake his hand, or if you are Catholic and want to do so, kiss the pope’s ring -- worn on his right hand.

-- What to call the pope. This is pretty clear: He should be addressed as “Your Holiness,” or “Holy Father.” President George W. Bush was criticized during a visit to the Vatican in 2007 for calling Pope Benedict XVI “sir” several times.

-- Standing ovations. These are a staple of State of the Union addresses. Still, for the pope’s speech, standing and clapping would be viewed as tacky.

‘Sit Respectfully’

“If I were asked, my advice would be to please sit respectfully, as if you were in church -- and as if you were in Catholic church. We in the Catholic tradition don’t go ‘Amen brother!’ We don’t do that,” Conroy said.

-- Expressing displeasure with the speech. Not a good idea. Booing, shouting or waving a banner is discouraged. Lawmakers should sit still and keep quiet during the speech.

While lawmakers await word on how to act around the pope, the House adopted a rule Tuesday limiting who can be on the floor during the speech. Former House members, typically permitted floor access for other activities, won’t automatically receive credentials this time.

Those who can attend include current members of Congress; Obama and Vice President Joe Biden; Supreme Court justices and heads of departments; other House and Senate officials and administrators; the architect of the Capitol and librarian of Congress, and “other persons designated by the speaker.”

‘Inherently Cantankerous’

Representative David Schweikert, an Arizona Republican and a Catholic, said he is optimistic that the pope’s visit to Congress will be incident-free.

“The House may be an inherently cantankerous institution,” said Schweikert, yet he added that “when it’s time to step up and follow protocol, for the most part, we do a pretty good job.”

Anticipation for the visit is building. Demands for tickets are pouring into legislative offices. Lawmakers, though, were told earlier this month that they would have just one ticket to distribute to a guest for a gallery seat during the speech and two tickets each to hand out for an additional appearance by the pope on the West Front outside the Capitol.

Florida Archbishop

Hastings said he’s already promised his House gallery ticket to the archbishop of south Florida.

On the House floor itself, extra seats are likely to go to members of the Supreme Court and Cabinet officials, although Boehner’s office didn’t confirm who will attend.

Previous speeches by world leaders in the House chamber -- as well as State of the Union addresses -- have produced a range of memorable moments.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in March was marked by partisan cheers mostly from Republicans as Netanyahu slammed the nuclear deal Obama was negotiating with Iran. The day’s drama included Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi throwing her hands up in exasperation.

Other cringe-producing episodes include former Republican Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota grabbing Bush’s shoulder, planting a big kiss on his cheek, and then hanging on as he sought to make his way out of the House chamber following his 2007 State of the Union speech.

A Vatican official, who didn’t want to be identified so that he could speak candidly, said U.S. bishops are probably helping Boehner’s office develop guidelines for U.S. lawmakers. The rules are more strict when someone comes to the Vatican, he said.

The Vatican official said he expects the pope’s visit will be pretty well-choreographed, and a major aim -- in part for security reasons -- will be to keep things moving.

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