(RNS) President Obama will welcome Pope Francis to the White House during the pontiff’s U.S. visit in September to “continue the dialogue … on their shared values and commitments on a wide range of issues,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday (March 26).
The meeting with the president and first lady will take place on Wednesday, Sept. 23, apparently near the start of a visit — the first to the U.S. by the Argentine pope — that will take Francis from the U.S. Capitol to New York and the United Nations and will conclude with a huge outdoor Mass in Philadelphia.
“During the visit, the President and the Pope will continue the dialogue, which they began during the President’s visit to the Vatican in March 2014, on their shared values and commitments on a wide range of issues,” Earnest said in a statement.
Those issues, he said, include “caring for the marginalized and the poor; advancing economic opportunity for all; serving as good stewards of the environment; protecting religious minorities and promoting religious freedom around the world; and welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into our communities.”
This will be the second meeting between the pope and Obama; the two met a year ago at the Vatican, where they began confidential discussions that led to a Vatican-brokered deal to reopen relations between the U.S. and Cuba that was announced last December.
The Vatican has not yet published the official itinerary for the visit, but several stops and dates have been announced.
During his U.S. tour, Francis is scheduled to address a joint meeting of Congress on Sept. 24, the day after his meeting with Obama — the first pope to address both the House and Senate. While in Washington, he will also celebrate a Mass during which he will canonize the 18th-century Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra.
Francis will address the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25 — and will likely visit Ground Zero and St. Patrick’s Cathedral — before heading to Philadelphia for the church’s World Meeting of Families, which will conclude on Sunday, Sept. 27.
Both St. John Paul II (1979) and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (2008) visited the White House during trips to the U.S. Pope Paul VI was the first pontiff to visit the U.S., in 1965. But he only stopped in New York City, where he met President Lyndon Johnson.
U.S. presidents have regularly met with popes at the Vatican, starting with Woodrow Wilson back in 1919. And presidents have often flown to meet a pope who was visiting another part of the country. In 1984, Ronald Reagan met John Paul in Fairbanks, Alaska. Reagan was returning from China and the pope’s plane was making a refueling stop during an Asian trip.
In contrast to this month’s controversial address to Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that divided Republicans and Democrats, leaders of both parties are working every angle to try to host the popular pope.
It’s unclear, however, whether Francis’ presence will be a boon to either party.
Francis is as opposed to abortion, for example, as his predecessors, and opposes gay marriage — issues that could make Democrats squirm.
But he has also spoken out forcefully and insistently on behalf of immigrants and universal access to affordable health care, and against income inequality and the death penalty. Those are topics that could make Republicans uncomfortable.
The lobbying is reportedly no less intense inside the Catholic Church, as bishops are just as eager to host the pope as any politician. But Francis, 78, has made it clear he prefers to spend just a few days in any country he visits, so the venues are limited.
In an interview earlier this month, Francis revealed that he wanted to enter the U.S. through the Mexican border to make a statement about immigration reform. But he said Mexico “needs a week to visit. I want to visit without rushing.”
KRE/AMB END GIBSON