Pope Francis is expected to draw tens of thousands of people to Washington when he visits later this month. Among them will be at least one presidential candidate.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and his wife, Columba, plan to be among those attending Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Sept. 23, aides confirmed Friday. During the Mass, Francis will canonize Junipero Serra, an 18th century Franciscan friar who founded missions in California. The Mass will mark the first time the Catholic Church has held a saint-making ceremony in North America.
It wasn’t immediately clear how Bush and his wife obtained access to the service. But aides stressed that the couple plans to keep a “light footprint” and blend in with other pilgrims eager to see the pope.
Bush’s visit to Washington will coincide with campaign duties, as he is scheduled to attend a breakfast fundraiser for his campaign Sept. 24, according to a fundraising scheduled obtained by The Washington Post.
Francis is making his first visit to the United States from Sept. 23 to 27 and is poised to use his tour to address important to him, including poverty, immigration and climate change. His crowded schedule includes a meeting with President Obama and speeches to a joint session of Congress and the United Nations, as well as four Masses expected to draw as many as 2 million people.
Bush converted to Catholicism in the mid-1990s, joining the religion of his wife and children shortly after an unsuccessful 1994 campaign for Florida governor. He has said that the conversion strengthened his marriage and helped him reconnect with his family. In recent months, he has expressed a strong desire to attend one of the events that Francis will hold in Washington, New York and Philadelphia when he visits this month.
But like other Catholics running for president, Bush has faced his share of questions about Francis’s stance on gay rights, the environment and, more recently, abortion.
When Francis issued an encyclical on the environment in June, Bush said he planned to read the document and respected the pope’s desire to weigh in. “But I think it’s better to solve this problem in the political realm,” he told reporters at the time. “I’m going to read what he says, of course, I’m a Catholic and try to follow the teachings of the Church.”
When asked about the encyclical, he grew agitated when a reporter asked how heavily his Catholicism might influence his presidency.
“Same as it does now and same as it did as governor,” he said. “With respect, understanding that my views are not the universal views. I think it’s okay to have a set of principles that are informed by some moral underpinning, whether it’s my case my Catholicism or other peoples’ case, their belief in a set of principles that they adhere to that may not be faith-driven.”
And he made clear: “I don’t go to Mass for economic policy or for things in politics.”
Last week, Bush faced questions about Francis’s decision to allow Roman Catholic priests to absolve women who have had abortions if they seek forgiveness during the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy.
“Look, I think we could all use a lot of mercy in this world,” he told Fox News shortly after the pope’s announcement. “And the pope is a loving person, and having absolution — [allowing] the priest to give absolution is extraordinary, but I’m not surprised at all.”
He added later: “I think we need to have a society that protects life from the beginning to end, and we should be a repentant society for sure. And mercy should be at the heart of everything we do.”
In addition to Bush, four other Catholic Republicans are running for president: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. None of them have announced plans or intentions to see Francis.