September 24, 2015 01:45 PM

While millions clamor for a glimpse of Pope Francis on his visit to America, House Speaker John Boehner enjoyed a private audience on Thursday, where he won papal approval for the hue of his necktie.

“Green is the color of hope,” Francis said quietly, and with a twinkly smile, to the congressional leader as the two men sat down in Boehner’s office for private talks ahead of the Pope’s historic speech to a joint session of Congress.

Moments before the Pope had entered, Boehner waited awkwardly beneath the chandelier in the Speaker’s Ceremonial Office. “I saw him pull up, so he’ll be here,” he told PEOPLE and a small pool of congressional press.

“He’s on Boehner Time. Which is on time. I’m always on time.”

Pope Francis (left) and House Speaker John Boehner
Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
Pope Francis (left) and House Speaker John Boehner (right)
Sandra Sobieraj Westfall

He straightened his green tie. A Catholic, Boehner explained that he chose it because it was the color of the church’s current liturgical season.

And then it was show time.

Francis walked in without fanfare. Two Cardinals and five Monsignors of the church slipped in quietly behind him.

The two powerful men – politician and priest – clasped hands for several smiling moments before taking their seats and giving the press its cue to leave so they could have more substantive private talks.

“This is a big deal,” Boehner said.

And, for the Ohio Republican, one a long time in coming.

Raised in a devoutly Catholic home – where portraits of both President John F. Kennedy and the Pope hung on the Boehner family’s wall – the Speaker told The Cincinnati Enquirer this week that he grew up saying a prayer for the pope and archbishop every day.

Boehner's gift for Pope Francis
Sandra Sobieraj Westfall

And once he was elected to Congress, and then House leadership, he began inviting the Pope – first John Paul II, then Benedict – to Capitol Hill. After 20 years of trying, Francis was the first to accept.

“For a little Catholic boy like me, this is big stuff, he told the Enquirer.

He presented the Pope with a silver pitcher engraved with the date and the Speaker’s seal, and nestled – with a small notecard – in Royal blue satin.

The historic, unprecedented papal address to Congress is, in fact, such a personal big deal to Boehner that he was taking no chances on his congressional colleagues ruining it.

Tape marking assigned spots for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid
Sandra Sobieraj Westfall

Leadership warned members in advance that protocol – and the need to keep Francis on schedule – dictates that they not hold him up with handshakes and hellos inside the House chamber.

A congressional aide described the months of planning for Francis as “hundreds of meetings, more than we’ve ever had for any other event.”

The visit was so precisely choreographed that the 36 members of Congress who escorted Francis into the House chamber had their assigned positions in the corridor outside the Speaker’s Office marked on the floor with tape.

And they had to send staffers to a Tuesday rehearsal of how they would line up and walk.

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