Ending months of “will-he-or-won’t-he” speculation, Pope Francis confirmed early Monday that he will come to Philadelphia next fall for the World Meeting of Families.
It is Francis’ first scheduled visit to the U.S. since the Argentine Jesuit became pope in March 2013. The Vatican has yet to confirm an itinerary, but Philadelphia Archdiocese spokesman Ken Gavin said tradition suggests that the pope is most likely to be here for the last two days of the Sept. 22-27 conference.
One such event the pontiff is likely to be present for is the Festival of Families, a celebration of family life around the world. It would be held Sept. 26. A papal Mass would likely be held Sept. 27.
Both events will take place on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and will be open to the public. It’s expected that more than a million people would attend the Mass.
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It was widely assumed Francis would come to Philadelphia. But the official announcement from Rome nevertheless generated buzz in the city. The pope also has been invited to address the U.N. General Assembly, also held in September, and to visit Washington, D.C.
Charles Chaput, archbishop of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, was present for the announcement at the Vatican.
“I applauded the loudest,” he told the Associated Press.
“I am overjoyed by Pope Francis’ announcement that he will join with us for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia next year,” Chaput said in a statement. “A hallmark of his papacy has been a keen focus on the many challenges that families face today globally. His charisma, presence and voice will electrify the gathering.”
The conference is billed as the largest global gathering of Catholic families, held every three years. The 2015 conference will be the first one held in the United States, following seven previous events in Italy, Spain, Mexico, Brazil and the Philippines.
The pope’s presence is sure to boost an already massive event. The conference is expected to generate tens of millions of dollars in spending at local restaurants, hotels, retail shops and tourist attractions – and cost tens of millions for security, logistics, space and other needs.
A nonprofit foundation led by Pennsylvania religious and civic leaders has been heavily engaged in planning and fundraising since February 2013, when Philadelphia was selected – and before Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to succeed Pope Benedict.
In recent months, there have been numerous indications that the pontiff would make the trip. The pope himself said in August that he wanted to attend the conference and perhaps also travel to New York to speak at the United Nations and to Washington to address Congress.
In his short tenure, Pope Francis has become a popular figure, even among non-Catholics. But he has rankled some conservative Catholics by opening up for debate long-standing church doctrine about homosexuality, birth control and divorce.