Pope Francis will make his first visit to the U.S. as pontiff next year, attending a conference in Philadelphia aimed at strengthening families, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The pope will attend the World Meeting of Families in September 2015, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops conference. The Catholic News Service reported that Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said Thursday that the pope had accepted an invitation to the meeting.
A papal visit to Philadelphia has been widely anticipated. It was not clear yet whether the pope would visit additional cities in the U.S., Walsh said.
Francis’ visit would mark the first papal trip to the U.S. since Pope Benedict’s 2008 visit, in which he met with President George W. Bush in Washington and then traveled to New York.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told the Catholic News Service on Friday that Pope Francis had expressed “his willingness to participate in the World Meeting of Families” in Philadelphia. The Vatican, however, had not officially confirmed the U.S. trip, and calls to the spokesman were not returned Friday.
The World Meeting of Families takes place every three years at locations around the world, according to Kenneth Gavin, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The conference, which will be held at Philadelphia’s downtown convention center, will focus on 21st century challenges to families, and will involve Jewish and other non-Catholic religious leaders.
The pope traditionally attends the conference, which was founded by Pope John Paul II in 1994.
Organizers estimate at least 10,000 people will attend the conference, but that number could jump to 1 or 2 million if the pope celebrates a papal Mass. Officials are scouting locations to accommodate large numbers of worshipers, likely an outdoor venue because Philadelphia does not have a stadium large enough to accommodate a papal Mass, Gavin said.
The conference’s focus is in keeping with Pope Francis’ own statements on the importance of family, said Dennis Doyle, a religious studies professor at the University of Dayton.
“This is a really big issue right now,” he said. “The pope has been talking frequently about the need to discuss Catholic responses to families that are divorced. Homosexuality has to be addressed.”
Francis’ visit to the United States would be the latest in a series of high-profile papal visits. Pope John Paul II was a prolific traveler, visiting the U.S. seven times over the course of his papacy. One of his busiest visits came in 1987, when he visited nine American cities, including Los Angeles.
That trip saw the first U.S. use of the bulletproof “popemobile” and featured a service at Dodger Stadium. He later visited the Spanish mission in Carmel, the burial site of the founder of California’s missions. An estimated 250,000 people lined his route through Los Angeles. On an earlier visit to the U.S., John Paul was accompanied down New York City’s Broadway with a 20,000-strong parade of teenage Catholics.
Francis, unlike John Paul II, is more apt to listen to worshipers than to formally address them, said Thomas Groome, a professor of theology at Boston College.
“One of the problems of John Paul II was that whenever he visited a country, all he did was talk,” he said. “Francis is not coming out with big proclamations. He’s asking good questions and listening.”
Pope Francis’ populist style has endeared him to many American Catholics, said the Rev. Steven Avella, a professor of history at Marquette University.
“Pope Francis has touched a real chord in the hearts of Catholics, but particularly American Catholics,” he said. “We like our leaders to be like us.”
Despite a tightly managed schedule, Francis will likely make time to break free of his official duties to meet regular people during his trip, Avella said.
“I would look for a gesture out of the official schedule,” he said. “He’ll say, ‘Stop this motorcade, I want to talk to this person.’”
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