Joe Biden rarely misses Sunday Mass. So it was notable when the President-elect didn't attend church on November 29, the first Sunday of Advent and the beginning of the season when Roman Catholics like Biden prepare for Christmas.
Biden's absence was understandable, since just a day earlier he had broken his foot. But the following weekend, Biden was back at his home parish in Wilmington, Delaware -- St. Joseph on the Brandywine -- for Saturday's vigil Mass. He was there again on Tuesday on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of obligation.
That's a level of devotion to regular religious services not seen from recent presidents, who were professed Christians but intermittently attended church or worshipped privately while in office. Donald Trump has not had a habit of attending church services weekly, though he made several appearances at the Episcopal church in West Palm Beach near his resort as well as at various evangelical churches across the country.
Barack Obama would go to church for the occasional Christmas or Easter service in Washington or on vacation in Hawaii, but rarely during the rest of the year. And George W. Bush, being a high-profile born-again Christian, tended to worship privately as president at Camp David and intermittently attended church services in Washington, DC, and Texas.
But for Biden, who next month will become the second Catholic president in US history, attending weekly Mass is expected to be a fixed part of his schedule. And while it's unclear whether he will adopt a permanent parish in Washington during his term, Biden's churchgoing will not only provide a window into his spiritual side. It will also be core to his political brand -- apparent not just in the pursuit of his policy agenda but even in his schedule as President.
"For Joe, faith is both a private devotion -- he prays regularly, he goes to church. But it's also public. He's open about and proud that he's a Catholic," said Fr. Kevin O'Brien, a friend and spiritual adviser to Biden and his wife Jill.
O'Brien, now the president of Santa Clara University in California, was heading up the campus ministry at Georgetown University when he met the Delaware senator more than a decade ago. Biden regularly went to Mass at Georgetown's chapel or at nearby Holy Trinity parish when in Washington, a practice he continued during his eight years as vice president and which some around him say he'll continue as president.
"Joe's faith isn't just part of who he is," said Sen. Chris Coons, the Democrat from Delaware and a friend of Biden's. "It's foundational to who he is."
Catholicism is a way of life for Biden. He attended Catholic schools and married his first wife, Neilia, in a Catholic church. He peppers his political speech with quotes from Scripture, Catholic hymns and references to the nuns and priests he learned from in school. More so than any time before in his public life, Biden's faith was woven into his political message during the 2020 campaign. He fashioned himself as the candidate standing up for morality and decency, fighting for the soul of America and calling on the country to "embark on the work that God and history have called upon us to do."
But it's much more than a cultural identity for the 78-year-old President-elect. Since childhood, Biden has been a regular at Mass. He frequently worships with family members, often attending with some of his grandchildren in tow.
While touring across the country in his presidential campaign, Biden would quietly slip into a local Catholic church for Mass -- often coming in a few minutes late or leaving a few minutes early, to avoid the rush. He was even spotted attending daily Mass on Election Day at his parish in Wilmington, Delaware.On the day Biden was inaugurated as Vice President in 2009, he asked O'Brien to preside over a private Mass at Georgetown beforehand. Four years later, O'Brien held another Mass before the second inauguration, this time at the Vice President's residence. (O'Brien told CNN he is unaware of any plans yet for another private Mass before Biden's inauguration as President.)
These services, said the priest, reflected how important the Catholic faith and ritual were to Biden, particularly on two of the most joyful days of his life. But his faith in Christ and devotion to the church also bolstered Biden during his lowest moments.
The most well-known of those were the deaths of Neilia and his daughter Naomi in a car crash and, decades later, the death of his son Beau from cancer. The President-elect, who regularly wears his late son's rosary on his wrist, has publicly spoken about the role his faith has played in carrying him through grief.
"I'm not trying to proselytize, I'm not trying to convince you to be, to share my religious views. But for me it's important because it gives me some reason to have hope and purpose," Biden shared earlier this year during a CNN town hall with a grieving pastor who'd lost his wife during the Charleston shooting, explaining that he'd promised his own dying son that he would continue to stay engaged and not retreat into himself.
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