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President-elect Joe Biden bows his head during a prayer during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

What faith leaders are praying for on Inauguration Day

President Joe Biden, who is Catholic, referenced his faith multiple times during his inaugural address

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Wednesday’s inauguration festivities featured pomp, circumstance and plenty of calls for prayer, including from the new president.

During an address to the nation delivered moments after he was sworn in, President Joe Biden asked Americans to join him in a moment of silence for victims of the COVID-19 pandemic and to continue praying in the days ahead for peace and healing.

“Let’s, us, add our own work and prayers to the unfolding story of our great nation,” he said, riffing on a verse from the song, “American Anthem.” “If we do this, then when our days are through, our children and our children’s children will say of us, ‘They gave their best. They did their duty. They healed a broken land.’”

Many religious leaders offered similar thoughts this week as they marked the beginning of Biden’s time in the office.

The Rev. Gary Studniewski, pastor of St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Capitol Hill, said the new president and all of us must turn to God for support if we hope to overcome the challenges currently facing the country.

“Our country has deep troubles. From whence shall come our help? Do we look to the mountains or do we look to the depths? Today, as every day, we look to God for that divine assistance that saves, that rescues, that can calm and unify,” he said during a Wednesday morning prayer service.

The “deep troubles” currently facing America include efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, which culminated in a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Because of that event, the streets outside St. Peter’s were filled with police officers and military troops, rather than a boisterous crowd of Americans excited to take part in Inauguration Day.

Among the relatively small number of regular people who were out and about in Washington, D.C., Wednesday morning was Pastor Shurlend McLeod of Chosen Generation Ministries.

He carried a large shofar, a type of horn typically used in Jewish ceremonies, that was painted with glitter and adorned with American flags, and blew on it before explaining that he felt called to be in the city to work against the forces of violence.

“There is a war going on in this land, a spiritual war. People are living in fear,” he said. “We came all the way from New Jersey to pray that everything goes smoothly.”

In a nearby church, Biden joined with Vice President Kamala Harris and congressional leadership from both parties Wednesday morning to offer similar prayers and reflect on the significance of Inauguration Day.

The Rev. Kevin O’Brien, a Jesuit priest who serves as president of Santa Clara University, delivered the sermon during the Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. He shared Bible readings on the importance of caring for people in need and encouraged Biden to turn to God for support during the difficult moments that lie ahead.

“My deepest prayer for you today, as a priest, citizen and friend, is that you always remember that the Lord is near and no matter the sound and fury around you, that God wants to give you peace, a deep-seated peace that will sustain you,” he said.

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President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, attend Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle during Inauguration Day ceremonies on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington. 

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

The formal inauguration ceremony featured several reminders of the significance of faith in Biden’s life. The program included two faith leaders who have provided spiritual guidance to the new president throughout his career in politics and a shoutout to a Catholic saint.

Father Leo O’Donovan, who delivered the opening prayer during the event, previously presided at funeral of the president’s son, Beau Biden, in 2015. On Wednesday, the Jesuit Catholic priest prayed for all Americans to join Biden’s fight for a brighter future.

“Today, we confess our past failures to live according to our vision of equality, inclusion and freedom for all. Yet we resolutely commit still more now to renewing the vision, to caring for one another in word and deed ... and so becoming a light for the world,” said the Rev. O’Donovan, who serves as director of mission for Jesuit Refugee Service and is also president emeritus of Georgetown University.

Biden, who is Catholic, used similar language in his inaugural address. He reflected on the pain caused by the pandemic and by political violence and promised to do everything he could to bring unity to the nation.

“My whole soul is in this: bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation,” he said.

Biden was sworn in on a large family Bible that he’s used in previous swearing-in ceremonies. Harris, on the other hand, chose to use two Bibles: one belonging to a family friend and another that was used by the late Thurgood Marshall, when he was sworn in as the first Black Supreme Court justice, according to Religion News Service.

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Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts as Jill Biden holds the Bible during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.

Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

During his concluding prayer, the Rev. Silvester Beaman, who leads Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Delaware, asked God to support Biden in his quest and to help the country heal.

“More than ever, (our leaders) and our nation need you. We need you for, in you, we discover our common humanity and, in our community humanity, we will seek out the wounded and bind their wounds,” he said.

He and other religious leaders said they’re excited to see what the future will hold.

“We’re definitely just appreciative of the opportunity to push the reset button. We’re very hopeful about the direction that we, as a country, are headed in,” said the Rev. Emil Peeler, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church in Washington, D.C., during an interview earlier this week.

He added, “Our congregation is praying for the success of President Biden and (Vice President) Kamala Harris and (praying) that, as they follow the mandates of God, our country will rebound and move in the right direction.”

On Wednesday night, his church will host an event titled “Women on Fire” in honor of the inauguration, generally, and the new vice president, in particular. The virtual event includes an all-female lineup in tribute to the fact that Harris is not only a woman of color but, also, “a woman of faith.”

“This is an amazing, defining moment in our history,” the Rev. Peeler said.

It’s also an intimidating moment, since it won’t be easy to heal partisan divisions, end the pandemic and address persistent economic and racial inequality. Biden will need God’s support and wisdom to choose the right path forward, said Imam Mohammed Magid, who leads All Dulles Area Muslim Society, during a Tuesday event focused on what Biden’s inauguration means to Muslim Americans.

“Give him wisdom to address the issues that concern this nation and to be there for the most vulnerable in our community and our society,” he said during the prayer he offered as part of the virtual event. “Heal the nation from racism, bigotry and hate.”

Faith-based inauguration festivities will continue throughout the week as more houses of worship mark the start of the Biden-Harris administration.

The traditional inaugural prayer service, which is hosted this year by Washington National Cathedral, will be held virtually Thursday morning and feature Christian, Jewish and Muslim speakers.

The interfaith nature of that event and many others held in Biden’s honor this week fulfill the new president’s call for all Americans to reject conflict and seek unity in the days ahead.

“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural against urban, conservative against liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts,” he said during his inauguration speech.

By turning toward God and one another, we will overcome the historic challenges of this moment, Biden said.

“As the Bible says, ‘Weeping may endure for the night but joy cometh in the morning.’ We will get through this together,” he said.