WILMINGTON, DE – DECEMBER 26: U.S. President-elect Joe Biden arrives for Mass the day after Christmas at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church on December 26, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)
GREENVILLE, Delaware — St. Joseph on the Brandywine is an ordinary Catholic parish, except in one respect. About every other Saturday afternoon, Secret Service vehicles surround the church. Armored guards and bomb sniffing dogs patrol the churchyard. A security detail wands down parishioners as they enter the building. And an executive aide stands in the vestibule, ready to play usher for the parish’s most prominent member, President Joe Biden, who is, almost without fail, late.
Biden this week sneaks into the back of the church just as the permanent deacon is beginning to read from the Acts of the Apostles. The president just got off the golf course, and he looks relaxed in his blue turtleneck and unstructured brown blazer. This is pretty casual attire, at least by the standards of his fellow congregants, many of whom sport Ivy League neckties. The Mass’s celebrant, Fr. Glenn Evers, shoots Biden a piercing glance as he shuffles into the second to last row on the right, the pew in which his family has sat for decades. Other than that, his appearance goes mostly unacknowledged.
There’s no reason why it would be a big deal, since Biden is a longtime fixture at St. Joseph. He’s been a member since his time in the Senate. His children and grandchildren were received into the faith here, beneath the baptistry’s embroidered banners. His first wife, Neilia, and their daughter, Naomi, are buried behind the church. So is his son, Beau, whose gravestone has become a minor Democratic pilgrimage site. The granite rock is covered in Biden-Harris campaign material—bumper stickers, wrist bands, and lapel pins—in addition to more personal tributes presumably left by friends and family.
Biden himself often visits the St. Joseph cemetery after the Sunday vigil, which he almost always attends. This is a well-known fact in Wilmington, and whenever Biden is around, a dedicated band of protesters outside the church keep watch for his approach. Usually they hold signs highlighting the discrepancies between Biden’s publicly professed Catholicism and his vocal support for legal abortion, which directly conflicts with the Church’s teaching on human life.
This Saturday, a lone protester heckles the president as he walks into the church.
“Joe Biden commits sacrilege by receiving Holy Communion,” he shouts from the street. “Joe Biden is a fake Catholic.”
Biden, however, has never up to this point had to worry about his pastor sharing that sentiment. Msgr. Joseph Rebman, who’s run St. Joseph for more than twenty years, defends Biden’s ability to receive communion at every chance he gets. Although an opponent of abortion himself, Rebman has always maintained that denying an elected official communion runs the risk of politicizing the Body and Blood of Christ. And when reporters push him to get tougher on Biden, Rebman deploys a line used by many of Biden’s clerical defenders: “We’re in dialogue.”
But Rebman, who recently turned 85 and is retiring this month, seems to be getting the worse part of that conversation. Biden in the past decade has become much more committed to the abortion cause (not to mention gay marriage, another Catholic no-no), dropping his endorsement of the occasional anti-abortion measures he backed as a senator. He shifted in large part because his party did, which in the past several election cycles has made full-throated support for abortion—from conception to birth—a litmus test for membership.
Perhaps in reaction, a small but vocal number of American bishops since Biden’s election have pushed for the church to bar him and other abortion friendly Catholic politicians from communion. Of course, there’s no clear consensus there. Washington D.C.’s Cardinal Wilton Gregory has stated several times that he will give Biden communion when he’s in the city. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is set to address the communion debate this summer.
Whether Biden can continue to receive communion in the Diocese of Wilmington is an open question. Bishop Francis Malooly, who, throughout his tenure, shielded Delaware’s favorite son, retired in April. His successor, William Koenig, at a press conference last week said he needs a meeting with the president before he can take a position.
But even without a word from Koenig, it’s unclear right now if Biden is allowed to receive communion at St. Joseph. Rebman, who walks with a cane and is losing his ability to speak, is no longer running the show. And Evers, who this week took over his duties, did not respond to requests for comment on how he will handle Biden. In the past, though, he’s taken a forthright approach to the issue. On the feast of the Holy Innocents last year, for instance, Evers asked the congregation to pray for the victims of abortion, comparing the terminated fetuses to the children “who died at the hands of Herod.”
In any case, St. Joseph has worked out a clean way for Biden to escape public scrutiny. Because of the pandemic last year, the church no longer distributes the sacrament during Mass, like other churches still caught up in the liturgical reforms of the last century. Instead, the priests wait until after Mass, a tradition stretching back beyond the Mass’s Tridentine form, when church leadership was more scrupulous about sin—and when Catholics were hardly ever expected to receive communion.
So much the better for Biden. As soon as Evers pronounces the benediction and gives him the nod, the president genuflects his way out of the church. That’s the president’s custom, after all. Always in a little late and always out a little early. And, by leaving a few minutes before the rest of the congregation, Biden skips the communion line, and, perhaps, an occasion for mortal sin.
What a glorious afternoon outside. As Biden walks out of St. Joseph, he pops on his trademark aviators, fistbumps an usher, and hustles down to his motorcade, the barest of bare minimums in his Sunday obligation fulfilled.
Nic Rowan is a reporter for the Washington Examiner.
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