A Penitential Rite on Capitol Hill

John Boehner’s ‘ashes’ speech seems chillingly relevant as Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords lies comatose.

U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., top left, and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and his wife Diana Cantor leave a private bipartisan prayer service for members of the 112th Congress and their families Jan. 5 at St. Peter's Catholic Church on Capitol Hill.
U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., top left, and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and his wife Diana Cantor leave a private bipartisan prayer service for members of the 112th Congress and their families Jan. 5 at St. Peter's Catholic Church on Capitol Hill. (photo: CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Lent came early this year in Washington, as the 112th Congress opened on bended knee.

“In the Catholic faith, we enter into a season of service by having ashes marked on our foreheads,” Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Catholic, announced in his first speech assuming a role that is constitutionally second in the line of presidential succession, after the vice president.

Boehner continued: “The ashes remind us that life in all its forms is fragile — our time on this earth, fleeting. As the ashes are delivered, we hear those humbling words: ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’”

And the next few days would underscore the appropriateness of Boehner’s comments, as the nation — and the House of Representatives in a hauntingly personal way — found itself praying for the survival of Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, after she was shot in the head during an open meeting with constituents in Arizona.

In his opening speech — which a non-Catholic colleague of mine called his “sackcloth and ashes” speech — Boehner went on to say: “The American people have humbled us. They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is. They have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. That includes this gavel, which I accept cheerfully and gratefully, knowing I am but its caretaker. After all, this is the people’s House. This is their Congress. It’s about them, not us. What they want is a government that is honest, accountable and responsive to their needs. A government that respects individual liberty, honors our heritage and bows before the public it serves.”

The Ohio Republican took the gavel from San Francisco Democrat Nancy Pelosi Jan. 5, in front of a full House in the U.S. Capitol, as newly elected members and veterans brought members of their families to the floor to celebrate swearing-in day.

The crowd included 10 of Boehner’s 11 siblings (No. 7 of 12, Greg, owns two restaurants in Georgia and had to choose between seeing his grandchildren and siblings in Ohio for Christmas or going to the ceremony), as well as his wife and two daughters.

The first official agenda item of the day for Boehner and his leadership colleagues was a prayer service at St. Peter’s Church, just a block away from the closest House office building, two blocks from the Capitol. The bipartisan, ecumenical service was closed to the press, one of the few events of the day not televised by C-SPAN.

Among the program items was the Prayer of St. Francis (“Make me a channel of your peace”). Again, the appropriateness of this would be underscored in the days to come, as all hell did not only seem to break loose in Tucson — where a federal judge, Judge John Roll, a Catholic and daily communicant, was murdered alongside a 9-year-old girl who had been born the day of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on our nation, and others, including members of Giffords’ staff — but in the media and commentariat as well, as finger-pointing and rhetorical excess were in high gear.

Whether intentional or not, Boehner’s Lenten tone served as a subtle repudiation of much that had gone on before. The 111th Congress that had just closed was, in many ways, the model of hubris. Among its notorious examples:

— Insisting on passing a monumental health-care reform bill that had become unpopular in part because of its fiscal unsustainability.

— Refusing to go home after the elections without ramming through controversial, emotional, misleading “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal legislation that not only affects the lives of men and women in combat and puts their chaplains in a precarious situation, but opens a door to a sea change of momentum on a whole host of fundamental issues facing American families.

The 111th Congress was also a model of scandal. It may not be remembered that way in secular histories, but it should be in Catholic ones.

Boehner’s use of religion in the speech marked a change. For more than a year, some leading Catholics in politics — both in Congress and throughout Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration — have most prominently and excessively used their religion to lend credibility to legislation that is an offense to Catholic consciences. Here, Boehner, who had been a consistent voice in highlighting the health-care bill’s lack of a prohibition on abortion funding, seemed to be taking his faith seriously as a moral guide in his new job in pursuit of a destination beyond even the privilege of being Speaker of the House.

The morning after being sworn in, a young member of Congress gathered with his family and friends to celebrate the baptism of their youngest child at one of the two Catholic churches on the Hill. One of the most popular and prominent young congressmen on the Hill could be seen renewing his baptismal promises. Not a bad way to start a session.

Relatedly, the actual first thing John Boehner said after taking gavel in hand was: “It’s still just me.”

It was not only tonally in keeping with his prepared remarks, but it was also consistent with his campaign and election-night message of humility. Having spent months talking about the dangers of presuming a false sense of privilege and entitlement on Capitol Hill, once it became clear that Republicans had taken control of the House of Representatives, he was clear about it, telling those gathered and watching (some, perhaps, catching their first glimpse of the man and then-presumptive speaker): “If you remember one thing from my talk tonight, I hope it’s just one word: humility. The American people are sick and tired of the ‘Washington knows best’ mentality. All the power in this town is on loan from the people. Our constituents sent us here to do something — to stop the expansion of the federal government at the expense of their freedom and their jobs. It’s not about us; it’s about them.”

With that in mind, the House began its session doing something that became unnecessarily controversial in some quarters, as many things in Washington tend to: reading the Constitution. Considered by many commentators an act of appeasement to the tea-party movement, which has been known to rally around the founding document, it was an appropriate framing of a Congress that does take an oath to “support and defend” it.

On the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, with the House chaplain present, the rector of Washington, D.C.’s basilica in honor of the Immaculate Conception not only urged prayer for Rep. Giffords, but encouraged all gathered to pray that we will bring the light of Christ into a world of “chaos.” The only way to do this, he urged, was through prayer.

Pray, members of the 112th Congress. Pray, Americans, for members of the 112th Congress.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist.