What the clergy praying at Biden’s inauguration signal about his priorities

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Joe Biden bows his head in prayer in front of a stained glass window.
Joe Biden at Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Delaware on June 1. Bethel’s pastor, Rev. Silvester Beaman, will offer the benediction at Biden’s inauguration. | Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The choice of Fr. Leo O’Donovan and Rev. Silvester Beaman have personal and national significance.

As with everything that happens at a presidential inauguration, the selection of clergy to pray at the ceremony is not just a formality — it’s a statement by the incoming president, telegraphing the values of his administration to the country.

And for Joe Biden — a lifelong Catholic who has frequently cited his faith in his recent speeches, quoting everyone from St. Francis of Assisi to the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings” — the two men offering prayers hold personal meaning. Father Leo J. O’Donovan, a Jesuit priest and spiritual mentor to Biden, will offer the invocation at the start of the service on January 20, and Rev. Silvester Beaman, a friend and confidant, will give the benediction at the end.

Beaman and O’Donovan’s participation in Biden’s inauguration places them in a long line of clergy who have prayed at inauguration events, stretching back to the second inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an Episcopalian, in 1937. Trump’s inauguration in 2017 featured six religious leaders, a record, including Franklin Graham (who participated in George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration), Paula White, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York City.

Biden is only the second Catholic to become US president, following John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960. But in recent years, he has also been criticized by fellow Catholics for his stance on abortion rights. In 2019, he announced that he no longer supported the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortions, a more progressive stance than he previously took (though it was in line with what his fellow 2020 Democratic presidential candidates proposed).

Some Catholic clergy have suggested that he ought to be barred from participating in Holy Communion — the central feature of the Catholic mass — and some have already denied him outright. However, Biden contends he is a devout Catholic (he received a congratulatory call from Pope Francis following his election), and his invocation of his faith throughout his campaign suggests his Catholicism will be an important part of not just his inauguration ceremony, but also his presidency.

Fr. Leo O’Donovan’s invocation is a signal of Biden’s connection to his Catholic roots

The careers of Biden and O’Donovan have intersected for decades. O’Donovan, a native New Yorker, served as the president of Georgetown University from 1989 to 2001, a time marked by the university’s evolution into a highly selective, more diverse, and more financially stable institution. But there were controversies, too; most notably, in 1992 he was ordered by a Vatican court to defund a campus abortion rights advocacy organization.

In 1992, while Biden’s son Hunter was a student at Georgetown, O’Donovan invited then-Sen. Biden to give a lecture on how his faith informed his public service. “I’d never talked about my faith publicly,” Biden told Esquire in 2011. “Anyway, I never worked so hard on a speech my whole life. What I realized as I wrote it was the greatest sin a man or woman can commit is the abuse of power.”

O’Donovan stands at a podium, speaking.Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Georgetown University
Fr. Leo O’Donovan speaking an at event in 2019 in New York City.

Since leaving Georgetown’s presidency, O’Donovan has returned to teaching as a visiting professor at institutions including Fordham University, General Theological Seminary, and Union Theological Seminary. At the request of former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, whose son attended Georgetown, O’Donovan served on the board of directors of the Walt Disney Company.

In 2015, Biden’s son Beau, the former attorney general of Delaware, died at the age of 46 after a recurrence of brain cancer. Biden asked O’Donovan to give the homily at Beau’s funeral. “Joe, I am so sorry,” O’Donovan said to Biden, and then started crying.

“He began to comfort me,” O’Donovan later told the National Catholic Register. “He became the pastor there.”

In 2016, O’Donovan became director of mission at the Jesuit Refugee Service USA, and has since sharply criticized President Trump’s immigration policies. On November 12, 2020, days after his election, Biden participated in a virtual fundraiser for Jesuit Refugee Service, during which he announced that he would increase the target for admitted refugees into the US from the Trump administration’s 15,000 per year to 125,000 per year. Biden also wrote the foreword to O’Donovan’s 2018 book Blessed Are the Refugees: Beatitudes of Immigrant Children.

On Inauguration Day, O’Donovan’s prayer will represent not just a long friendship and a connection to one of the most tragic events in Biden’s life; it will be a statement about the new president’s continued connection to his Catholic roots. Biden has often spoken of his faith as a “solace” in a time of tragedy and sorrow during the loss of his own family members. And that seems especially important for a president taking office in a time marked by suffering and grief for many Americans.

Rev. Silvester Beaman’s benediction is a reminder that there’s work to be done

O’Donovan’s invocation — traditionally, a prayer that asks for assistancewill likely call for God’s blessing on the ceremony and on Biden before the new president swears to uphold the Constitution. Following the ceremony, Rev. Silvester Beaman will offer a prayer of benediction, or a blessing for those assembled.

A native of Niagara Falls, New York, Beaman is a graduate of Wilberforce University, the first private historically Black university to be owned and operated by African Americans. Wilberforce is associated with the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, as is Beaman’s church, Bethel AME, a predominantly Black church located in Wilmington, Delaware. (Biden’s main residence is in Greenville, a suburb of Wilmington.)

Biden and Beaman met in 1993, after Beaman took over Bethel. Biden attended a community event that Beaman held and introduced himself to the new pastor, and the two men struck up a friendship. Beaman occasionally traveled with Biden during his previous presidential campaigns and became a friend to the entire Biden family, especially Beau.

Beaman told NBC News that while Beau Biden was the Delaware attorney general, he found a partner in his work. “Beau and I became kindred spirits,” Beaman said. “We became good friends in the trenches dealing with social issues in Wilmington and the state.” He also participated in Beau’s 2015 funeral service.

Biden sits near the altar in the sanctuary at Bethel AME.Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
Biden praying at Bethel AME on June 1, 2020.

On June 1, 2020, amid national unrest and protests against racism and police violence following the death of George Floyd, Biden — who had sharply decreased his public appearances due to the coronavirus pandemic — met with 15 Black community leaders in a meeting in the sanctuary at Bethel. He vowed to address institutional racism and set up a police oversight body during his first 100 days in office if elected. “The vice president came to hear from us,” Beaman said before the group prayed. “This is a homeboy.”

The June 1 meeting at Beaman’s church became fodder for three misleading and racist Trump campaign ads, which used footage of Biden kneeling in the church sanctuary in front of Beaman and other Black leaders. In an ad released in June, the video was superimposed over images of violent protests, with the church context blurred out and a narrator saying, “Antifa destroys our communities. Rioting. Looting. Yet Joe Biden kneels down.”

In August, the footage was digitally altered to make it appear that Biden was alone in an ad designed to insinuate that the former vice president was cowering in fear and defeated, having all but given up campaigning.

In September, the footage appeared again, this time in slow motion and with the Black leaders visible. The words “Stop Joe Biden and his rioters” followed the footage, with audio of Vice President Mike Pence saying, “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” Beaman told Religion News Service that this ad was “overtly racist,” an “attack on the African American Church.” Along with other AME leaders, Beaman signed a letter that denounced the ad and called on federal law enforcement to investigate it, as it “might incite violence, and encourage racial tensions that lead to placing people of color in harm’s way.”

On Wednesday, the benediction from Beaman — a friend and confidant for nearly 30 years — will signal a promise to be connected to the concerns of Black communities, a matter of great importance as Biden steps into the role of president at this moment.

And Beaman is well aware of the stakes: “I will be standing in front of a building that slaves built and I will be standing at a podium that a mob desecrated,” he told NBC News. “The last word that day will be the voice of God. I’m asking God to use me to channel his final grace upon the occasion and speak to the moment. And it’s an honor to do so.”