And, well, with the season upon us, there's really no better time to attempt a substantive answer.
As previously noted here, the tradition goes back a long ways. While prayers at the early conventions were dominated by Episcopal clerics, as early as 1900 Archbishop Patrick John Ryan of Philadelphia blessed the Republican National Convention there. But the custom of a host-city's chief Catholic ascending the podium really began taking flight in 1912, when Baltimore's Cardinal James Gibbons opened the Democratic convention which met in his see to nominate Woodrow Wilson for his first term.
Only the second Stateside cardinal, and the first US prelate since John Carroll to command universal respect at the highest levels of government, Gibbons (above right) transcended party lines; a year before his appearance with the Dems, the era's Republican titans, President William Howard Taft and his predecessor, Teddy Roosevelt, led the civil contingent that came to pay homage to the cardinal (whose archdiocese, at the time, still included the capital) on his golden jubilee as a priest.
(Now, for those who adhere to the "past as prologue" school, the "Maryland Tradition" of Carroll and Gibbons was reborn in the tenure of Cardinal William Keeler, who retired last year as the Premier See's 14th head. In 12 days' time, of course, Keeler's chief protege takes office as bishop of Wilmington, where his most prominent parishioner will be... Bide -- er, bingo.)
Appropriately enough, though (at least, for this cycle), the chief ecclesiastical Republican of the time was Archbishop John Ireland of St Paul and Minneapolis, where today's GOP will hold its gathering next week.
Known among his contemporaries as the "Consecrated Blizzard of the Northwest," the builder of the Twin Cities' twin cathedrals (left) -- who served in his post for 43 years -- is commemorated in the name of a main street running just alongside the convention site at St Paul's Xcel Energy Center. Yet even for all his "stalwart" support of the party of Lincoln, the Eire-born Ireland -- whose 1896 election-season pastoral on class warfare was reprinted and circulated nationwide by the GOP -- never seemed to find his way to a rostrum.
In the decades following, as the nation's Catholic population grew -- and, with its attendance numbers in the 90-percent range, provided their prelates with keen blocs of the electorate -- the leaders of both parties eagerly turned to the bishops; among others, LA's Cardinal James Francis McIntyre prayed at the 1960 DNC there (which nominated JFK), Philly's John Cardinal Krol did the honors for the GOP in 1968 in Miami and, in one instance, a single archbishop got to pray over both in the same year: as the parties met in Philadelphia in 1948, 83 year-old Cardinal Dennis Dougherty was offered, and eagerly took, equal time.
Since Roe v. Wade and the breakdown of the parties on opposite sides of the abortion issue, it should come as no surprise that the hierarchy has largely avoided Democratic National Conventions. In 1992 and 1996, the late Cardinals John O'Connor of New York and Joseph Bernardin of Chicago declined invites to pray as the Dems gathered in their respective backyards, while Krol traveled to Dallas to bless the 1984 RNC, San Diego Bishop Robert Brom offered a benediction at the 1996 GOP convention there, and O'Connor's successor in New York, Cardinal Edward Egan, did the same following President Bush's acceptance speech at the Republicans' 2004 meeting in Gotham. At the last DNC in Boston, then-Archbishop Sean O'Malley was passed over in favor of nominee John Kerry's pastor, Paulist Fr John Ardis, then the director of the city's Paulist Center.
The lone recent exception to the no-DNC protocol, however, came in 2000, when Cardinal Roger Mahony prayed at the Democratic convention as it returned to Los Angeles for the first time since his mentor appeared before it four decades prior.
Not since 1988, when the US' first African-American metropolitan -- Atlanta's newly-arrived Archbishop Eugene Marino -- closed the Dems' convention there had a host-city prelate blessed the Blue bloc, and Mahony's presence ensured that the church's points would get a hearing from the podium.
With thanks to Kandra for digging it up, here's the text of that prayer:
I welcome you to the "City of Angels" with all its vibrant religious, ethnic, and racial diversity. I come to this great convening out of respect for our nation's democratic traditions. I come as a pastor, not a politician; an advocate of values, not candidates.And now, with next week's RNC program fresh off the presses, it's now official that but one Catholic cleric will offer a prayer in St Paul: the president of Phoenix's Brophy Prep High School, Jesuit Fr Edward Reese.
Prayer must be about moral values, not partisan politics. It should express faith, not ideology. So as we begin our prayer this evening let us be mindful that we are always in the presence of God:
Let us Pray:
God of life and love,
God of compassion and mercy,
God of reconciliation and forgiveness,
God of justice and peace.
As you gathered your people into the land that was promised to them, you called them to heed your voice and follow your commandments. These commandments are at once simple and profound: To love God above all else and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We have been called to "choose life" and to "serve the least of these."
Tonight we are gathered here profoundly aware of our need for God's wisdom and grace to embody these commandments in our laws and policies so that "justice will flow like a mighty river and uprightness like a never-failing stream" (Amos 5.24). Strengthen our will to build a nation that measures progress by how the weak and vulnerable are faring.
In the span of just three weeks, our nation's major political parties will have gathered at their conventions to select their candidates for the upcoming presidential campaign. We pray tonight that your Spirit will inspire all candidates, regardless of party, to embody in their words, actions, and policies values that protect all human life, establish peace, promote justice, and uphold the common good. For it is in you, O God, that we trust.
In You, O God, we trust…that you will keep us ever committed to protect the life and well-being of all people but especially unborn children, the sick and the elderly, those on skid row and those on death row.
In You, O God, we trust…that you will instill in us the resolve to not rest until every family has enough food to eat, the clothing to keep them warm, adequate shelter to protect them from the elements, and a decent education for their children.
In You, O God, we trust…that you will give us the resolve to create those conditions in society where working people earn wages that can sustain themselves and their family members in dignity, and that they have access to adequate healthcare, childcare, and education.
In You, O God, we trust…that you will plant deep in our hearts the truth that our neighbor is anyone near or far who needs our assistance and support regardless of whether they suffer from AIDS or debt in Africa, religious persecution in China or Sudan, or from hunger and poverty in developing countries.
In You, O God, we trust…that we will recognize that dignity and worth of each person comes from you and is not determined by race or ethnicity, by age or gender, by economic or immigration status, by faith or creed.
Tonight, O God, we pray for "a new kind of politics, focused more on moral principles than on the latest polls, more on the needs of the poor and vulnerable than the contributions of the rich and powerful, more on the pursuit of the common good than the demands of special interests."
We pray, O God,
That you will give us the courage, the wisdom, and the insight,
To build a nation founded on "life, liberty and the pursuit of justice" for all God's children.
We make our prayer in your name.
The brother of Jesuit Fr Tom Reese (the editor-emeritus of America), Eddie Reese has long ties to the family of Sen. John McCain -- two of the GOP nominee's sons graduated from Brophy, where a colonnade bears the McCain name in testament to the clan's largesse.