is set to become the first leader of the Catholic church to address
both chambers of Congress, during his trip to the US later this year.
The House speaker, John Boehner, said on Thursday that the pope will
visit the US Capitol in Washington on 24 September, where he is
scheduled to be the first pontiff to address a joint meeting of
Congress. “It will be a historic visit, and we are truly grateful that
His Holiness has accepted our invitation,” Boehner said in a statement.
Francis announced that he would be visiting Washington DC, New York and
Philadelphia in September. It is his first trip to the US since
becoming the pontiff.
“In a time of global upheaval, the Holy Father’s message of
compassion and human dignity has moved people of all faiths and
backgrounds,” said Boehner. “His teachings, prayers and very example
bring us back to the blessings of simple things and our obligations to
one another. We look forward to warmly welcoming His Holiness to our
Capitol and hearing his address on behalf of the American people.”
Last month, Boehner announced that Congress had invited another world leader to address a joint session of Congress – the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Neither Boehner nor Netanyahu cleared the trip with the White House.
Though the details of Francis’s itinerary are not yet known, in
Congress he will face an audience grappling with issues Francis has
championed, like immigration, climate change and relations between the
US and Cuba.
The immigration battle in Congress took on new urgency after Obama
announced executive actions to help protect undocumented migrants in the
US. Republicans are hoping to undo these actions, while the White House
has threatened to veto legislation that tries to block them.
Francis, meanwhile, has decried conditions at the US-Mexico border
and said that he would have liked to enter the US through the Mexico
border as a “sign of brotherhood and of help to the immigrants”, but his
schedule does not have enough space for such a trip.
He is also hoping to influence this year’s UN climate meeting in Paris, according to papal representatives.
Delegates from around the globe are gathering in Paris as part of a
UN-led attempt to end 20 years of negotiations on how to reduce
emissions and better address climate change.
In 2015, the pope is due to speak about the issue in an address to
the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide and the UN general assembly. He is
also to call a summit of the main global religions to discuss the
This week, Congress has also held three hearings on Cuba-US ties, in
response to the December announcement that the two countries are easing
diplomatic relations. The Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida has
been a vocal critic of the plan and said in a hearing that he did not support the policies “for the simple reason that I don’t think they will be effective”.
Barack Obama has said Francis played an important role in getting US
and Cuba to reopen diplomatic relations. The Vatican sent letters to
Obama and the Cuban president, Raúl Castro, asking the two to consider
resolving their strained relations on humanitarian grounds. The Vatican
also hosted meetings between delegations from the two countries – which were said to have been where important breakthroughs in the discussions were made.
Francis is expected to meet with Obama at the White House. At the
national prayer breakfast on Thursday, Obama said he is looking forward
to welcoming him to the US.
“Like so many people around the world, I’ve been touched by his call
to relieve suffering, and to show justice and mercy and compassion to
the most vulnerable,” Obama said. “He challenges us to press on in what
he calls our ‘march of living hope’.”