For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
The 13th annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., witnessed for the first time a sitting Vice President speaking to the gathering of representatives of Catholic life and with it both a pledge from President Donald Trump and a strong focus on religious liberty in the country and the world.
Over its history, the prayer breakfast has attracted some very prominent speakers – President George W. Bush spoke there four times from 2004-2008 and the beloved Cardinal Robert Sarah spoke in 2016 – but as yet, no Vice President had appeared. Vice President Pence did not disappoint.
Pence effectively represented President Trump, much as he did at the March for Life in January, and used the opportunity to make a full, enthusiastic pledge of support and encouragement from the president.
“I bring greetings from my friend,” Pence declared, “a man who appreciates the extraordinary contributions of Catholic Americans, the 45th President of the United States of America, President Donald Trump.” He added: “To all the great American Catholics gathered here,” let me assure you this morning, bright and early at this prayer breakfast, American Catholics have an ally in President Donald Trump.”
He went on to speak to many of the issues that are vital to Catholics and people of good conscience, including religious liberty, the persecution of Christians around the world, abortion and the effort to defund Planned Parenthood.
Pence, of course, knows the Church very well. He grew up Catholic, was baptized in the faith and even confirmed. But just as famously, he left the Church and is now an Evangelical Protestant, although he has at times described himself as a “born-again evangelical Catholic.”
Welcomed by a crowd of active and devout Catholics, Pence could hardly ignore his own background. His relationship with the Church was much discussed last year during the presidential campaign, and at the prayer breakfast he talked directly about his Catholic upbringing.
“This honestly feels like coming home to me,” he said. “I’m the son of two devout American Catholics, and the grandson and the namesake of an Irish immigrant and his wonderful wife. And I just learned from Father Jenkins at Notre Dame, where I had the opportunity to speak…that even though my official biography says I was raised in a large Catholic family, I’m actually from a mid-sized Catholic family – only six children in the family I grew up. The hymns and liturgies of the Catholic Church are the anthems of my youth.”
He then finessed the question of his current religious status by noting, “While my own faith journey has taken me and my family in a different direction, I want you all to know how much I cherish my Catholic upbringing and cherish the Church. In fact, I just attended mass with my mom this weekend when we were in Chicago with family.”
This then provided him the rhetorical means first to hail the contributions of Catholics to the fabrics of American life and the way that Catholicism “gives America a vitality and vibrancy that inspires everyone who sees it – to this very day,” and then to reiterate that Catholics have a friend and ally in Donald Trump.
“President Trump stands for the religious liberty of every American,” Pence said, “and the right of our people of faith to live out your convictions in the public square. President Trump stands with those who are persecuted for their faith around the world – no matter the country they call home or the creed they profess. And President Donald Trump stands with the most vulnerable – the aged, the infirm, and the unborn.”
He mentioned especially the defense of religious liberty, noting that last month, in the presence of the Little Sisters of the Poor, the president signed an executive order “to restore religious liberty in the public square. I couldn’t have been more proud.”
He went on to describe the administration’s efforts on behalf of religious liberty in America and across the globe, making the point that, “Terrorist groups seek to stamp out all religions that are not their own, or not their version of their own, and believers of many backgrounds have suffered grievously at their hands. And we acknowledge all of that loss and suffering. But it seems that the practitioners of terror harbor a special hatred for the followers of Christ, and none more so than the barbarians known as ISIS. That brutal regime shows a savagery unseen in the Middle East since the Middle Ages, and I believe ISIS is guilty of nothing short of genocide.”
On this topic, he stated forcefully, “let me promise all of you: This administration hears you. This President stands with you.”
Likewise, he said, “Since day one of this administration, President Donald Trump has been keeping his promise to stand for life, and life is winning in America again.”
And if life is winning again, it is in large measure to the determination of Catholics to engage in the public square. Pence implored the audience “to continue to stand up, to speak out, to continue to be that voice for the voiceless that the church has been throughout its history, continue to be the hands and feet of our Savior, reaching in with love and compassion, embracing the dignity of all people of every background and every experience.”
It was sincere, but it also echoed the two other somewhat overshadowed speakers at the breakfast: Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Military Archdiocese and Mother Olga of the Sacred Heart, the Iraqi-born founder and mother servant of the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth. Both spoke eloquently about the dignity of the human person, the archbishop from the perspective of the importance of the virtues in building a society truly seeking the common good and Mother Olga from the heartbreaking view of the Christians in Iraq and the rest of the Near East. Talking about stories of hope and faith, Mother Olga reminded her audience, “I came from a region in the world where there was no separation between religion and government. Now in the West, we live in a time and a place where there is not only a total separation of religion and state but even at times a hesitation to speak about God even in the simplest ways, such as saying God bless you when somebody sneezes. We are afraid to wear religious symbols in public offices or to talk publicly about religious values in our daily life.”
The message at the prayer breakfast was a powerful one, and the Vice President ended the day with a plea: “So just pray for America. Pray for this country because America matters. And when you pray, pray with confidence.”