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Going to Saturday evening Mass with the US president

America Letter: Catholicism is important to Biden but abortion stance riles conservatives

It is funny who you bump into in church these days.

Attending Saturday evening Mass is not a regular event. However a 9am (Washington time) start to the Galway/Kilkenny hurling game and a newly acquired GAA streaming service led to an alteration to the regular weekend schedule.

The first signs that something was out of the ordinary at the local church were the camera crews and the black cars at the corner.

However, gaggles of journalists and camera crews are not unusual by any means in Washington. Neither are black SUVs.

The street outside Irish Ambassador Dan Mulhall's official residence was lined with them on one evening last week as he hosted a party for many of the great and the good in Washington political, media and diplomatic circles as part of the celebrations leading up to the White House correspondents' annual ball last weekend.

On the street outside the church last Saturday evening, a woman in a black suit ushered those attending to a side entrance where two men in suits directed people to go around a corner.

There a queue had formed behind another man in a suit. “Take metal from your pockets and spread out your hands,” he said. A sniffer dog was on hand to check out bulky items. Search over, the side door to the church was held open.

Devout Catholic

Inside, the regular Saturday evening Mass had just commenced. Along the back of the church stood some more men in suits. The church was relatively full but not to capacity. However, to one side was a cordoned off-section of empty pews.

And there in the middle was President Joe Biden.

Dressed in blue trousers and open-neck blue shirt with a navy jacket and black mask, he sat on his own.

Some of the young (and to be honest, some of the not so young) in the congregation cast furtive glances towards the man in the cordoned-off section. At the sign of peace, parishioners generally no longer shake hands due to Covid concerns and usually just nod politely.

People turned towards the president, some waved slightly and he raised his arm in return.

The president is a devout Catholic and attends church each weekend.

Frequently he is out of Washington on Saturday and Sunday. On many occasions he goes back to his home town of Wilmington in Delaware, which is a couple of hours from Washington. But going to church is part of the routine.

And everywhere the president goes outside of the private area of the White House, the accompanying media pool of reporters, TV crews and radio personnel follow.

Liberal on abortion

Going to Mass is no different. The media pool wait outside the church, logging the time of his arrival and waiting to see if he will make any comment on the issues of the day.

The president is private about his faith but has cited it as helping him to deal with some of the major traumas in his life, including the deaths of his young wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash, and his son in 2015.

“I never miss Mass,” he said in 2020. “It is part of who I am. It’s what gets me through the very difficult times in my life, and I believe it very strongly.”

However, Biden has come under fire from conservatives within the Catholic Church in the US who argue that politicians, including him, who support abortion rights should be denied access to Communion.

The president is a liberal on the issue of abortion but does not mention it very often – too seldom for some of his critics . But this week in the light of the leaked supreme court draft ruling indicating its plans to overturn the 50-year-old Roe v Wade ruling, he made his position clear.

He said a woman’s right to choose was “fundamental”. He urged the American public to elect more pro-choice politicians to Congress in Washington and to pass a Bill to legislate for abortion rights, which he would sign as president.

At Communion last Saturday evening, the Mass-goers were ushered pew by pew to walk to the altar. The president waited his turn to receive. There were no special privileges. And then he was gone.

His security detail opened a door and escorted him to his car.

By the time most in the church had left, the presidential limousine and the secret service agents had departed, leaving Mass-goers and some onlookers standing in the street telling people on their phones who they had just seen.