Joe Biden made his first visit to the Georgetown University campus as president Feb. 17. While past presidents have come to the Hilltop to receive honorary degrees or unveil new policy proposals, Biden’s unannounced stop was for a different — and more personal — reason: Lent.
Biden, a lifelong Catholic, received his ashes for Ash Wednesday from Rev. Brian McDermott, S.J., at Wolfington Hall on the Southwest Quadrangle. Biden spent about 20 minutes on campus before returning to the Oval Office. Reporters remained in vans for the duration of the visit and did not see the president receive his ashes.
McDermott declined The Hoya’s request for comment.
In addition to stocking his administration with Georgetown graduates and professors, much of Biden’s religious life since taking office has involved Georgetown priests and institutions. Rev. Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J. (CAS ’56), a former Georgetown president, gave the invocation at Biden’s inauguration, and Rev. Kevin O’Brien, S.J. (CAS ’88), a former Georgetown vice president for mission and ministry, celebrated the Mass Biden attended earlier that day.
On two of his first Sundays in office, Biden has attended Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, which has historically served the campus community since being established in 1787 at the direction of the university’s founder, John Carroll. The church was the spiritual home of United States’ only other Catholic president, John F. Kennedy.
Biden’s faith is a significant influence in multiple areas of his life, according to Rev. Kevin Gillespie, S.J., the pastor at Holy Trinity.
“He witnesses a wonderful and resilient faith,” Gillespie said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “And he relies on his faith to give him hope, to give him courage.”
Biden has frequently invoked the Bible, both in campaign trail speeches and in his inaugural address, according to Gillespie.
“I looked at his inaugural speech as almost a homily,” Gillespie said.
During his visits to Holy Trinity, Biden sits discreetly in the back, according to Gillespie.
“He wants to be a man of faith, but not stand out conspicuously in the pews,” Gillespie said. “He wants to be there because it helps him support his own faith journey and prayer life. He doesn’t want to inconvenience people when he doesn’t need to.”
Biden still stands out, however. He received applause when he arrived at the church one recent Sunday. Later in the day, his motorcade made a much-noticed pit stop at Call Your Mother, the popular local deli formerly co-owned by White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients.
Biden also visited Holy Trinity throughout his tenure as vice president, including to attend the first Holy Communions and confirmations of his grandchildren, the daughters of his son Hunter Biden (COL ’92). The church offers a sense of comfort and familiarity for Biden, according to Gillespie.
“In a certain way, he feels Holy Trinity is his home — his home away from home.” Gillespie said. “Wilmington and his parish there is really his first home.”
When Biden comes now, the church receives a heads-up from the Secret Service about 90 minutes before services, according to Gillespie. For this Ash Wednesday, however, Gillespie said he emailed the Secret Service to urge Biden not to visit for morning services on Ash Wednesday since parents would be dropping off their kids at the church’s school at the same time.
For all other occasions, Gillespie said he extended an open invitation for the commander in chief to continue stopping by.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, you’re always welcome here at Holy Trinity,’ and he said, ‘Thank you very much, that means a lot.’”