Pope Francis to address US Congress on Sept 24

Pope Francis greets a child during a general audicence in the Vatican City on Jan 28, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA
Pope Francis greets a child during a general audicence in the Vatican City on Jan 28, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Pope Francis will bring his message of peace and compassion to politically gridlocked Washington in September when he becomes the first pontiff to address the US Congress, lawmakers said Thursday.

House Speaker John Boehner announced that Francis would speak before members of the Senate and House of Representatives on Sept 24 after finally accepting an invitation extended in March.

“That day his holiness will be the first pope in our history to address a joint session of Congress,” Boehner told reporters.

“We are humbled that the holy father has accepted our invitation, and certainly look forward to receiving his message on behalf of the American people.”

The 78-year-old leader of the world’s Roman Catholics confirmed late last year that he would visit the United States in September to take part in a Catholic Church congress in Philadelphia.

He is also expected to meet with President Barack Obama, although the schedule is not finalised.

“The President and his team here at the White House have been anticipating a visit from Pope Francis here to the United States for quite some time,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

“Even as far back as the President’s visit to the Vatican, where he first met Pope Francis, (Obama) talked about how eager he was to welcome the Pope to the United States.”

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who like Boehner is Catholic, said lawmakers were “honoured and overjoyed that Pope Francis, the first pontiff born in the Americas, has accepted our invitation.”

The Argentina-born pontiff “has renewed the faith of Catholics worldwide and inspired a new generation of people, regardless of their religious affiliation, to be instruments of peace,” she added.

US lawmakers could stand for some timely peace-building.

Republicans and Democrats have feuded over immigration, a controversial Canada-US oil pipeline and national security funding virtually from the moment the new Congress convened in January.

And Obama’s US$4 trillion (S$5.3 trillion) budget request for fiscal year 2016, defended by Democrats, has been dismissed by Republican opponents as a tax-and-spend wish list that will never pass congressional muster.

“On a happier note, a bit of good news,” Boehner said as he announced the Pope’s visit moments after highlighting the congressional gridlock.

‘ENGAGING, COMPELLING STYLE’

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he looked forward to hearing Pope Francis’ “call to love our neighbours and to find new and creative ways to meet the pressing needs of those who exist on the fringes of society.”

He also praised the pontiff’s “engaging and compelling style.”

The Pope is a popular figure on Capitol Hill, where his compassion for the poor, his pragmatism and candor, and calls for frugality are likely to resonate.

“In a place too often torn by political division, his words are certain to enrich and enlighten,” senior Senate Democrat Dick Durbin said.

Francis has touched on global issues, notably climate change, that remain deeply divisive in Congress, where many Republicans hesitate to openly accept scientific assessments that human activity has led to global warming.

Francis announced last month, as he returned to Rome from a week-long trip to Asia, that he will make his first visit to Africa later this year, with stops in Uganda and Central African Republic.

He is also scheduled to travel to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay in July.

The outspoken Francis caused a stir last month when he told reporters on the papal plane that Catholics should not breed “like rabbits.”

He rowed back from the remarks days later, describing large families as a “gift from God.”