John Boehner (R-OH) became Speaker of the House yesterday. If you didn’t know, he’s a pro-life Catholic (he’s one of twelve kids from a working class family, who grew up running the family bar, so he’s sort of a walking Catholic stereotype). His speech upon becoming Speaker of the House impressed even his political opponents for its humility.
Let’s set the stage: the Republicans picked up 63 Democratic seats in the House, the biggest midterm sweep since 1938. It was huge. Boehner could have easily given a speech reminding everyone of this, shoving it in the face of Nancy Pelosi, whose governing philosophy can be summed up by her charming adage: “If people are ripping your face off, you have to rip their face off.” But he didn’t. Rather than claiming (as Bush did in 2004) that the American people had given the Republicans a “mandate,” Boehner saw something much different:
We gather here today at a time of great challenges. Nearly one in ten of our neighbors are looking for work. Health care costs are still rising for families and small businesses. Our spending has caught up with us, and our debt will soon eclipse the size of our entire economy. Hard work and tough decisions will be required of the 112th Congress.
No longer can we fall short. No longer can we kick the can down the road. The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin carrying out their instructions.
In the Catholic faith, we enter into a season of service by having ashes marked on our foreheads. 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.”
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.
That’s beautiful, and he seems to believe what he said. It reminds me of the most charming feature of the old papal coronations. During the Middle Ages, the pope was perhaps the most powerful man in the world. Western Europeans were more concerned with being Catholics than with being, say, French or English, so the pope’s command trumped that of the secular crown. This was rooted in respect for God and for the Church, but it had the perhaps unavoidable feature that it made men proud. So beginning in 1409, and continuing until the last papal coronation (Paul VI in 1963), a remarkable feature was added to the ceremonies. Three times, the procession would stop, and the master of ceremonies would yell out to the pope “Sancte Pater, sic transit gloria mundi!” which means, “Holy Father, the glory of the world fades!”
It was a sharp reminder to one of the most powerful men on Earth that pretty soon, he’d be dead, and be judged by Someone infinitely more powerful and important, and that all those trappings (wealth, power, and the like) which seem so important on Earth are fleeting and worthless. It’s fitting that as the State has come to occupy men’s allegiance more than the Church, and as the balance of power has shifted from the pope to the president (and in no small way, the Speaker of the House, as well), that he proclaims a memento mori, a reminder to himself and his fellow Congressmen that after this comes death and judgment. That eye towards eternity is critical in good legislating, and it was a wonderful harbinger. My hope is that he and the rest of the House govern with that humility and that recognition of their role in the grand scheme of things.