Sunday services: Biden's faith on display in renewed presidential ritual

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Mike Memoli and Carol E. Lee
·5 min read
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WASHINGTON — As the pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Washington, D.C., Rev. Kevin Gillespie often saw then-Vice President Joe Biden among the faithful on Sundays. And so when Biden was elected just the nation’s second Roman Catholic president in November, Gillespie checked the parish files.

“He is a registered parishioner,” Gillespie told NBC News. “I looked him up. He’s still there.”

It’s been decades since the occupant of the White House has been a regular churchgoer. Biden, who has often said his faith has seen him through searing personal loss, is expected to end that. But amid heightened security and an ongoing pandemic, a permanent routine may have to wait.

Biden attended the noon service at Holy Trinity on Sunday — one of the few that the church is conducting in person during the health crisis. But administration officials would not say if the new president, for whom mass is a family affair, has decided which, if any, local church he might make his own for the next four years.

Attending church virtually or having a priest come to the White House to hold socially-distanced services are among alternative options under consideration. However he decides to worship, the president, and first lady Jill Biden, are likely to receive weekly “spiritual encouragements” over text message, as they did during the campaign.

Gillespie is among those who’ve been in touch with the White House about Holy Trinity’s adjusted schedule of weekly services — in-person mass held Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon and a virtual mass Sunday morning. He’s also offered to send one of the parish’s Jesuit priests to the White House to perform mass, if requested.

“That's for them to say yes or no,” he said.

Bill Clinton was the last president who regularly attended church in Washington while in office and become a member of a local church. He joined Foundry United Methodist Church, about a mile from the White House. Jimmy Carter also joined a church about a mile from the White House, attending services at First Baptist on 16th Street most Sundays during his time in office.

Donald Trump attended services on occasion, including at St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House, although his most frequent destination on Sundays was to a golf club he owns across the Potomac in Virginia.

Barack Obama also liked to hit the links on Sundays but did attend occasional services at different area churches, including St. John's.

George W. Bush, was deeply religious but didn’t become a regular presence at a church while in the White House.

Like his father, George H.W. Bush, he spent time at the chapel at Camp David, the secluded presidential retreat in Maryland. After 9/11, there were also concerns about security, but the younger Bush attended services when he returned his home state of Texas.

John F. Kennedy, the nation’s first Catholic president, joined St. Matthews in Washington while he was in office and would attend church regularly. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy attended a different church, St. Stephen Martyr, because it was smaller and easier to secure. Part of the reason Kennedy went to church while in the White House was “he thought that a president should,” said presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

Nixon didn’t go to church but held religious services in the White House, which he used to invite political allies.

Reagan did not go to church regularly, and his team said it was for security reasons after the assassination attempt. But he was a devoted churchgoer after he left office and returned to California.

“Almost always we find that we never really understood a president’s private religious belief and practice at the time he served,” Beschloss said. “And you usually have to wait decades to find out what he believed and what he practiced.”

With Biden, that’s not necessarily the case.

Through the campaign and into the transition, Biden not only rarely missed weekend mass at his home parish in Delaware, he also attended services on holy days of obligation and made an effort to attend services while traveling. His daughter, Ashley Biden, told the "Today Show" last week about helping her father find a small church to attend mass while on the road in the heat of the Democratic primary campaign, before the pandemic.

But he has also opted for in-home services. Over Christmas, when the Bidens never left their Wilmington home, a close family friend, Rev. Kevin O’Brien, a Jesuit priest who is now president of Santa Clara University, celebrated mass for the Bidens virtually.

O’Brien was asked by the Bidens to celebrate mass on Inauguration Day — a service at Washington’s Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle that included bipartisan congressional leadership and close family and friends. He’d held smaller, private masses for the Bidens before his inauguration as vice president in 2009 and in 2013.

“It was something so beautiful because it was so familiar,” O’Brien told NBC News. “I just was so happy that I could help offer that — it was really the church offering that to him.”

O’Brien first met the Bidens while at Holy Trinity and then at Georgetown University. Biden would attend services at both — sometime the morning masses at Holy Trinity, or the later service at Georgetown’s Dahlgren Chapel, depending on his schedule.

O’Brien said he stayed in touch with Biden after he left the vice presidency, and would send him and Jill Biden weekly “spiritual encouragements” over text message during the campaign — something he expects will likely continue with him in the White House.

“I'll be of any support I can to them in the next four years,” O’Brien said.