Amid burgeoning conflict regarding the president’s response to riots across the country, President Donald Trump visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday morning.
While a shrine spokesman said the visit was initially planned as the signing of an international religious freedom executive order and had been scheduled some time ago, Washington’s archbishop called Trump’s visit to the shrine “reprehensible.”
According to the White House daily press guidance, Trump had a scheduled visit to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in the city’s northeast at 11:20 a.m. on Tuesday.
The president’s visit now comes shortly before he will sign an executive order “to advance international religious freedom.”
A spokesperson for the shrine said on Tuesday that the White House “originally scheduled this as an event for the president to sign an executive order on international religious freedom.”
“This was fitting given St. John Paul II was a tireless advocate of religious liberty throughout his pontificate,” the shrine stated. “International religious freedom receives widespread bipartisan support, including unanimous passage of legislation in defense of persecuted Christians and religious minorities around the world.”
He added that “the shrine welcomes all people to come and pray and learn about the legacy of St. John Paul II.”
The revamped visit, following nights of civil unrest in Washington, was met with criticism from Washington’s archbishop.
Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C. said on Tuesday morning: “I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree.
“Saint Pope John Paul II was an ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings. His legacy bears vivid witness to that truth,” Archbishop Gregory stated: “He certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace.”
The shrine contains a first-class relic of Pope St. John Paul II’s blood, as well as an interactive exhibit on his life, accomplishments, and significant historical events. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops designated the shrine as a national shrine in 2014.
A group of around 200 protesters gathered on Tuesday morning down the street from the shrine. Some of the protesters chanted “black lives matter” and “no justice, no peace,” while a small group of the protesters prayed the rosary.
Eugene F. Rivers is director of the William J. Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies in Boston.
Rivers took a different view of the president’s visit, telling CNA Tuesday that “Because the president’s visit had been prearranged and was to focus on the one issue that has transcended partisanship in recent years, this was a very difficult situation.”
“I don’t see how a shrine or other house of worship can turn down a visit by anyone who wants to pay their respects or pray there – let alone the president. Those who call the president a sinner should remember that Jesus regularly caused scandal by eating and welcoming those who were seen as unpopular or inappropriate during his lifetime. I think Jesus welcomes anyone – including Trump.”
According to a senior administration official, the executive order on international religious freedom Trump is scheduled to sign on Tuesday would continue his previous call for other countries “to end religious persecution.” It would integrate this call into U.S. foreign policy.
On Monday evening, Trump had visited St. John’s Episcopal Church adjacent to the White House, which every sitting U.S. president, beginning with James Madison, has attended.
Trump stood outside the church in front of cameras holding a Bible in one hand in an apparent photo-op. The church had suffered fire damage during protests on Sunday night.
At the time Trump stood outside the church, Washington, D.C. was entering a 7 p.m. curfew. Crowds had stood across from Lafayette Square behind the White House, protesting the death of George Floyd and police brutality.
According to the Washington Examiner, police dispersed crowds with tear gas and other non-lethal weapons on H Street behind the park and next to the church, but not one block over on Vermont Avenue where protests continued past curfew; the dispersal of the crowds was apparently done to make room for Trump’s visit to St. John’s rather than enforcing the city’s curfew.