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–by William diGiacomantonio

When Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress this week, he will add his name to a roster of approximately 250 foreign visitors who have enjoyed the same distinction, under the widest conceivable variety of circumstances. Some have come in peace time, while others have come to strengthen bonds of wartime alliance. Some have come to buttress failing regimes, while others seek to validate a change in regimes.

In the 19th century, most visits involved the invited speaker addressing each chamber separately. Since then, invited dignitaries have almost always addressed joint meetings of Congress. Joint sessions are much more rare, and to date have included the French ambassador’s visit in 1934 to warn of the rise of Nazi Germany, Winston Churchill’s famous visit less than three weeks after Pearl Harbor, and the less famous visit of Cuba’s ambassador in 1948. The frequency of European dignitaries has also changed, declining in favor of a rising proportion of invitees from Asia or South and Central America.

Most people know that the Marquis de Lafayette was the first foreign dignitary to address Congress, in 1824. His portrait, paired with Washington’s on the other side of the Speaker’s rostrum, is a memento of that trip—which was itself a memento of his participation in the American Revolution fifty years earlier. The next visitor was also a private citizen: when Louis Kossuth addressed the House and Senate (meeting separately) in January 1852, the exiled leader of Hungary’s ill-fated Revolution of 1848 was looking to raise political clout (and money) for a comeback back home. All but a handful of the rest of the foreign dignitaries invited to address Congress were government officials: either heads of state (emperors, kings, or presidents), or heads of government (chancellors or prime ministers) or their personal representatives (envoys or ambassadors. The few foreign legislators to address Congress were all members of Japan’s Diet, or Parliament, serving as personal envoys of their prime minister in the years after WWII). The visit by Madame Chiang Kai-Shek was the first by an individual who had never held any political office; her dramatic appeal on behalf of her husband, the Generalissimo, sought to stir fresh sympathy and aid in to China’s lonely fight against the Japanese in the darkest days of 1943.

The symbolic value of these visits can hardly be overstated—even in the sober calm of historical retrospection. When political leadership combines with moral leadership, the effect can be electrifying. Lech Walesa, head of Poland’s Solidarity labor union, addressed Congress in November 1989. When Vaclev Havel, President of Czechoslovakia, took the podium just two months later, their “one-two punch” in support of the “Velvet Revolution” helped speed the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and eventually of the Soviet Union itself. Similarly, Nelson Mandela’s visit as Deputy President of the African National Congress in June 1990, just months after South Africa’s government lifted its ban on the party, added international legitimacy and momentum to the anti-apartheid movement.

Francis’s visit to the United States this week, and his formal visit to Congress on Thursday morning, is an example of political and moral leadership combined in one person. As “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church,” the Pope can only be said to exert pastoral authority over a community of religious believers. But since the Lateran Accords with Mussolini’s Italy in 1929, the Pope is also “Sovereign of the Vatican City State.” No matter that Vatican City is only 110 acres—the smallest internationally recognized independent state in the world (and Europe’s only absolute monarchy); it is enough to make him a “head of state.” In either capacity, he would have merited an invitation to Congress. In both capacities, the visit galvanizes the attention of Americans, millions of whom will no doubt be watching the Pope’s speech to Congress on live television. And in the long tradition of world leaders who have beaten a path to Capitol Hill over the past 190 years to draw attention to common concerns and aspirations, Francis may fulfill the meaning of yet a third title claimed by the Popes since the fifth century: “Pontifex Maximus,” or the great bridge-builder.