Speaking aboard his flight from the Philippines to Rome on Monday, Pope Francis confirmed rumors that he would travel to the United States in September.
The pope will make stops in Washington, Philadelphia and New York. He will speak at the U.N. General Assembly, and is likely to accept an invitation to address a joint session of Congress, becoming the first pope to do so. In Philadelphia, he will attend the World Meeting of Families, a Vatican-sponsored event. (RELATED: Pope Appoints 20 New Cardinals, But No Americans)
Francis said that he regrettably would be unable to visit the U.S.-Mexico border, joking that to be so near Mexico and not visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe would provoke divine wrath — “war could break out!” But in a gesture toward America’s Hispanic Catholics, he said he would canonize 18th-century California missionary Junípero Serra while in Washington.
While Pope Francis enjoys an 88 percent approval rating among American Catholics, and 67 percent popularity overall in the U.S., his public statements will inevitably affect the visit’s tone. Some Americans have begun to criticize a planned papal encyclical on climate change, though it will not be released until the summer. His recent role in the U.S.-Cuba deal and his remarks on free speech have also attracted complaints. (RELATED: Was The Cuba Deal A Papal Blessing?)
Francis’s in-flight press conference, which has become a trademark of his reign, also featured questions on contraception, Vatican relations with China and his former statement on free speech. Clarifying his prior remarks, that free speech has “limits,” he explained that he was urging “prudence” as a moral virtue, and that violent reactions to provocation were still “unjust.” (RELATED: Pope Francis: ‘Limits’ Needed On Free Expression, ‘You Cannot Insult The Faith Of Others’)
House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, both Catholic, endorsed the Congressional invitation to Francis last year. The last foreign leader to address a joint session was Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko who spoke in September 2014.
The last papal visit to the United States was in April 2008, when Pope Benedict XVI met with former President George W. Bush, addressed the U.N., visited the World Trade Center site and celebrated large public masses in Yankee Stadium and Nationals Park.
Francis also expressed hopes to visit Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay, along with a later trip to Uganda and the Central African Republic.
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