VATICAN CITY >> Pope Francis confirmed Monday that he will make his first papal visit to the United States in September to attend an international meeting in Philadelphia on the theme of family, as part of a U.S. journey that is also expected to include a stop in New York.
Francis has already traveled to the Middle East, Albania, South Korea, Brazil and elsewhere in his 20-month papacy, and his visit to the United States will come at a pivotal moment for the Roman Catholic Church. Weeks later, bishops are scheduled to hold a critical meeting at the Vatican that could finalize changes in the church’s stance on issues such as homosexuality and divorcees receiving communion.
"I wish to confirm, according to the wishes of the Lord, that in September of 2015, I will go to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families," Francis said Monday as he opened a conference at the Vatican on the theme of marriage.
The trip may include a stop in New York. Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the head of the Holy See’s permanent observer mission to the United Nations, told The Associated Press last week, "If he comes to Philadelphia, he will come to New York."
But the Vatican’s spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said only the stop in Philadelphia had been confirmed.
"Philadelphia is the only public engagement of the trip to the United States as of now," Lombardi said. "The Pope intentionally didn’t mention any other possible stops."
Francis’ visit to Philadelphia is expected to draw as many as a million people to a Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the heart of the city.
"I am overjoyed by Pope Francis’ announcement that he will join with us for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia next year," Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia said. "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."
Francis said in August that he hoped to visit the United States in 2015 for the meeting in Philadelphia, the Catholic News Agency reported. At the time, he said he had also received invitations from President Barack Obama, the U.S. Congress and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations, the agency said.
Francis is a popular figure among Catholics in the United States, where his humble style of leadership has won him wide admiration.
In March, the pope met with Obama at the Vatican, where the two avoided controversial social issues and instead talked about the plight of the world’s poor, the protracted conflict in Syria and the search for global peace. Obama has come under criticism from Catholic bishops over abortion and the requirement under the Affordable Care Act that some religion-based groups provide access to contraception for employees.