Pope preparations consume Capitol

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Pope Francis’s historic address to Congress next month may be a dream come true for the sea of humanity expected to descend on Washington for a glimpse of the pontiff.

But for Capitol Hill entities charged with organizing the event, it’s proving to be a logistical nightmare.

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Just about every organization that handles the Capitol’s infrastructure is involved with the planning, including the Speaker’s office, U.S. Capitol Police, the House and Senate sergeants at arms, the Architect of the Capitol and congressional press galleries.

Multiple organizers described the pope’s visit as “a State of the Union address on steroids.”

Months of preparations for the pope's visit to the Capitol are coming to a head, with decisions being made on viewing screens for the public, media coverage, security and public access to the Capitol’s West Front.

About 50,000 people are expected to come to the Capitol grounds to watch Francis’s Sept. 24 address, the first ever delivered by a pope to Congress. Many more are likely to gather on the National Mall; a Secret Service spokeswoman declined to provide an expected number, citing security protocol.

A series of meetings between congressional entities charged with managing the event have taken place over the August recess, participants said. Walk-throughs for TV networks are already happening, nearly a month out from the speech. 

All this planning — which doesn’t include additional layers of preparation by the Secret Service, National Park Service and local D.C. agencies — underscores the level of detail needed for what will ultimately be a relatively brief visit to the Capitol.

Pope Francis is expected to arrive at the Capitol’s East Front at approximately 9:15 a.m. on Sept. 24 and meet one-on-one with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), a lifelong Catholic who invited him to speak before the legislature.

“Over the last 20 years, I’ve invited three different popes to come and address a joint session of Congress — and finally succeeded,” Boehner said in a video released by his office this week.

The speech itself is slated to begin at 10 a.m. and will be conducted in English, even though it’s not one of the main languages spoken by Argentine-born Francis. The pontiff then plans to make a brief appearance on the Capitol's West Front at approximately 10:50 a.m. and depart the Capitol shortly afterward.

Tickets to the gallery overlooking the House chamber, where Francis will speak, are the hardest to come by, because members of the House and Senate are each only allotted one. 

People interested in attending the event have better odds of securing a spot outdoors. Members of the House each have 50 standing-room tickets on the West Front, while senators can each dole out 200 tickets.

House and Senate members also have one ticket for a seat on the lower West Terrace. And inside the Capitol complex, a live telecast will be played in the Cannon House Office Building Caucus Room.

Many lawmakers are turning to online lotteries for constituents to sign up for tickets. Traveling to Washington, however, will be at the lottery winners’ expense.

Media interest in the pope’s address is also considerably high. The four congressional press galleries — daily, periodical, radio-TV and photographers — are still finalizing head counts, but they compared the number of inquiries to that of a State of the Union address.

Foreign media from countries including Argentina, Ireland and the Philippines have requested credentials, along with Catholic news outlets and the mainstream news organizations that regularly cover Congress. The small pool of reporters who travel with Francis will also follow him to the Capitol.

All 90 seats in the House chamber press gallery are expected to be filled, much like a State of the Union address and, most recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress this year.

Reporters will face more restrictions than for a presidential visit, however.

Press gallery staffers are being told to inform reporters that they will have to stay in one place for the duration of the pope’s two-hour visit. That means a reporter positioned on the West Front won’t be able to go inside the Capitol, while reporters stationed in the House chamber shouldn’t assume they can venture outside when the pope makes a brief appearance before the crowd on the West Front.

The restrictions are expected in part because the pope, a high-profile international figure who requires a massive amount of security, will be moving from the House chamber to the West Front at the conclusion of his speech instead of immediately departing the Capitol complex.

Plans are underway for members of the public viewing the speech on the West Front to be able to watch the pope’s movements through the Capitol via a C-SPAN video pool, according to House Radio-TV Gallery Director Olga Ramirez Kornacki.

Even non-Catholics have been showing interest in Francis since he was elected to the papacy in 2013. A March 2015 Pew Research Center poll found that 70 percent of all Americans view him favorably, up from 57 percent two years ago.

Jim Nicholson, a former ambassador to the Vatican and author of The United States and the Holy See — The Long Road, predicted Francis’s visit would surpass Washington appearances from his predecessors John Paul II in 1979 and Benedict XVI in 2008. Both similarly attracted thousands, but the famously no-frills Francis could cause even more traffic jams.

“People of all religious stripes are very interested in him because of his constant clarion call to help the poor and the vulnerable,” Nicholson said. “He walks the walk. He lives it. 

“I think that’s caught the imagination of people across the world.”