On Tuesday, US President Donald Trump visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, Washington, alongside First Lady Melania Trump.
The visit to the shrine took place less than 24 hours after Trump had been criticised by the Episcopal bishop of Washington for posing unannounced with a bible outside the historic St John’s Church opposite the White House. It was later reported that the police and the National Guard had dispersed nearby protestors with tear gas to allow Trump to visit the church.
The controversial visits come amidst the wider political turmoil that has gripped America since the tragic death of George Floyd on May 25.
During Trump’s visit to the John Paul II Shrine, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington released a statement saying that he found it “reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles.” He said that Saint John Paul II was “an ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings” and he insisted that the former Pope “certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship”.
Archbishop Gregory, appointed the first African American Archbishop of Washington on the 2019 anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, had already spoken out in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder about the evils of racism and the need for people to “non-violently and constructively work together to heal and build the ‘Beloved Community’ that was spoken about by the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.”
In response to Archbishop Gregory’s criticism, the Saint John Paul II National Shrine released a statement noting that the “White House originally scheduled this as an event for the president to sign an executive order on international religious freedom.” The White House later released this executive order, which Trump had signed after he returned to the Oval Office around noon on Tuesday.
The shrine said that their association with the directive “was fitting given Saint John Paul II was a tireless advocate of religious liberty throughout his pontificate.” The shrine’s statement concluded with an invitation for “all people to come and pray and learn about the legacy of Saint John Paul II.”
— Saint John Paul II Shrine (@JP2Shrine) June 2, 2020
A number of prominent lay Catholics offered a more personal counter to Archbishop Gregory’s strongly worded criticism. The president of CatholicVote, Brian Burch, released a statement defending Trump’s visit, saying that the new executive order should be “celebrated by all those who love the Church”. He then added that it was “regrettable that the Archbishop of Washington chose this occasion to engage in a partisan attack on the president, especially when the country is in desperate need of healing and unity.”
But ahead of President Trump’s arrival at the shrine, a number of other American bishops also weighed in on the issue.
Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, a Conventual Franciscan, was prompt in pointing to the day’s Gospel reading to criticize Trump’s visit. “As Trump visits the St John Paul II National Shrine today,” he said, “I hope someone proclaims today’s Gospel (Mark 12:13-17) where Herodians and Pharisees are called out for their hypocrisy.”
Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio similarly compared Trump’s visits to the “hypocrisy” highlighted in Tuesday’s Gospel. “The story repeats itself these days: To use God versus to love and serve him,” he said.
Meanwhile, in apparent reference to Trump’s use of the Bible in his photo-ops, Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle tweeted that the “Word of God is not a prop.” He added, “It is meant to be lived and integrated into every aspect of human life.”
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