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On House’s First Day, A Time for People and Power Not Prayer

USCCB asks the US Congress to show a preference for the poor

© DR

Mark Stricherz - published on 01/06/15

A busy day for new elected officials leaves little time for the spiritual.

WASHINGTON — On Monday, Father George M. Reilly took an Amtrak train from Newark, N.J., to Washington, D.C. Father Reilly has known Barbara Comstock since the 1960s, so he was not going to miss the day she was sworn in as a member of Congress.

"I knew her as a girl. I baptized all of her children. I gave her first Communion. Her mom taught kindergarten at the school. Her grandfather, Dan Malloy, was a Democrat," the retired 81-year-old priest said Tuesday morning, clutching a black fedora in his right hand and wearing a long black coat.

Reilly was the pastor at St. Catharine’s in Glen Rock, N.J. After Comstock’s family moved away to Texas  for a few years, Reilly visited the family there too. Reilly is so close to the family that he said Mass at the home Comstock and her husband share in Virginia’s Fairfax County Monday night.

What did Comstock think of the Mass at her house? Comstock had no comment. She did not go to it.  In an interview, Comstock volunteered that her family’s priest would celebrate her big day with her, but she smiled tightly and nodded her head sideways after being asked if she had gone. "I had to go to meetings," Comstock said.

On Capitol Hill, Tuesday was the first day of the 114th Congress. All 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 members of the Senate could take their oaths of office to start their new terms. Not all did so; some members attended the funeral of former Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, while Rep. Michael Grimm of New York resigned his seat Monday.

For three Catholic House Republicans, swearing-in day was more about power and people than prayer. Representatives Dave Brat of Virginia, Frank Guinta of New Hampshire, and Comstock have said they practice their faith. But a cold snap, the busy-ness of the historic day, and last-minute bid to unseat House Speaker John Boehner prevented them from going to Mass or discussing Catholicism.

For Brat, Tuesday morning was a time to build up support for an attempt to dethrone Boehner. At 11:38 a.m., Brat conferred with Rep. Steve King of Iowa outside Brat’s office on the third floor of the Cannon House Office Building. Brat said he would oppose Boehner’s nomination on Monday and with the vote one hour away, he granted King’s wish to discuss the vote count. (Both King and Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida, a leader of the rebellious conservatives, patrolled the third floor of Cannon Tuesday morning).

Walking the marble hallway of Cannon, the 50-year-old lawmaker looked relaxed. His red-and-blue tie was askew, he smiled so much his eyes squinted, and he held a half-empty cup of mocha-colored coffee in his right hand. But Brat declined repeated invitations to discuss the day or his Catholicism, which he has cited as an influence on his political beliefs. "I would refer readers to my statement on Breitbart, and I look forward to Pope Francis’ visit to Congress," Brat said.

For Comstock, Monday night and Tuesday morning were a time to meet fellow members of Congress, talk with the media, and honor her supporters. At 11:07 a.m., Comstock gave a television interview near the picturesque second floor of Cannon. Walking to her office at 226 Cannon, she talked briefly about her faith.

With a smile, she said she attends St. Luke’s and St. John’s parishes in Fairfax County and has a St. Michael’s cross that she wears, although the cross in question was back in her office. "I visit all the parishes in my district. It’s great," Comstock, 55, said. She said she wanted to go to Mass Tuesday morning, but the two to three inches of snow that a storm dumped earlier prevented her.

After Comstock arrived near her office, more than a dozen supporters greeted her, exchanging hugs and kisses on the cheek. Beside them was a sign with the inscription "Representative Barbara J. Comstock Virginia." Later, a young boy wearing a long-sleeved checkered shirt, tan pants, and white tennis shoes emerged from her office. Two young girls in dark dresses dropped by with a parent in tow.

For Guinta, Tuesday morning was a time to greet well wishers and get settled on Capitol Hill. On a cold and windy Monday afternoon, Guinta moved into an apartment on the 400 block of New Jersey Avenue, S.E., unloading boxes from a U-Haul truck and lugging them up three flights of stairs to a new home. "It was a miserable day. I know. I helped him. His apartment is all the way up on the third floor," Jay Ruais, chief of staff to Guinta said Tuesday morning, referring to the temperature that dropped into the 20s.

A few minutes before noon Tuesday, Guinta walked to the House floor to vote. Back in his office, Ruais entertained guests, like an elderly man who wheeled a black piece of luggage into Guinta’s office. Guinta has said he and his wife are practicing Catholics who have put their children in Catholic schools, but on Tuesday there was no time to discuss eternal matters.

Mark Stricherz covers Washington for Aleteia. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.

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