By its very nature Washington is a transient city.  The presidential Inauguration is a uniquely Washington event that is intricately tied to that impermanence.  Every four years, after Election Day, the federal city sees a partial or full change of personnel.  The inauguration itself has also changed. From 1793 until 1933, the inauguration was held on March 4 of the year following the election.  This was changed by the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which established January 20 as Inauguration Day.  

The tradition of the bishops of the United States offering prayers for United States government and its leaders can be traced to Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore.  In 1791 he composed a prayer for our government.  In it he prays not only for the pope and all the bishops of the world but also the president, the Congress, the governor and other leaders of Maryland, the citizens of the United States, and those that have died.  

Since 1937, 13 Roman Catholic priests and prelates provided prayers in the form of an invocation or a benediction at the presidential inauguration. An invocation is a prayer said at the beginning of an event to call down the Lord’s blessing upon the participants.  A benediction is done at the end of an event to bless those who attended.

Those priests and prelates who have been asked to do this include the archbishops of Washington, New York, Boston, San Antonio, and Minneapolis-St Paul, a professor at The Catholic University of America, and the president of Georgetown University among others.  We know that President-elect Joe Biden has chosen Jesuit Father Leo O’Donovan, a family friend and the former president of Georgetown University, to deliver the invocation at his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021.

Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle is the only archbishop of Washington to be given this honor so far.   He gave the benediction at President Harry Truman’s 1949 inauguration, which took place almost exactly one year after his own episcopal ordination.  Interestingly, Truman’s 1949 Inauguration was the first to be broadcast on television.   Here is a link to part of that broadcast hosted by the Harry Truman Presidential Library: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWwcZLNrtAY.  Then-Archbishop O’Boyle can be seen beginning at 54:22.  

Archbishop O’Boyle also gave the invocation at President Dwight Eisenhower’s first inauguration in 1953.   The text was published in the Catholic Standard. Here is an excerpt of Archbishop O’Boyle’s prayer at that inauguration:

“Bless with every needful grace, and abundantly endow the mind and heart and will of our President with all the divine gifts and helps that make bearable the great burdens of his high office. May Thy Holy Spirit descend upon him with the gift of Wisdom, to lead, and Understanding to know Thy holy will, together with Knowledge to enlighten him in whatever difficulties he may encounter. Impart to him the divine gift of Piety by which he may walk humbly with Thee in the stern way of duty and honor.  Fill him with Courage to face his gigantic tasks with serenity and infuse into his spirit that Charity, whose first law is, by Thy will, the love of his fellow men.”

In this time of transition, we, like Archbishop O’Boyle, pray that our government leaders may be endowed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit as they tackle the difficulties they will face in the coming weeks and months.  

(Dr. Jacobe serves as the director of the Archives for the Archdiocese of Washington.)