Amanda Holpuch in Washington
Pope Francis 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.
Last month, 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 climate.
Climate change discussions in Congress, however, are more stilted. Last month, the Senate voted 98-1 that climate change is not a hoax. A majority of those voting agreed that climate change is caused in part by human activity, including 15 Republicans. But at least 19 members of Congress have made comments denying climate change.
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’.”
Pope Francis said he was traveling to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. This event is held every three years and organizers say it is the “world’s largest Catholic gathering of families”.
And along with his address to Congress, he plans to hold a controversial sainthood ceremony for Junípero Serra, the 18th-century Spanish Franciscan priest who set up a mission in California.