PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Plans for a major Catholic gathering in Philadelphia next year are proceeding with the assumption Pope Francis will attend, though that hasn't been officially confirmed, church officials said Saturday.
The eighth World Meeting of Families, set for Sept. 22 through Sept. 27 in 2015, is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors.
"We have been planning from the beginning ... that the pope would come," Philadelphia Archdiocese spokesman Ken Gavin said. "We are very, very hopeful the Holy Father will be there."
Pope Benedict XVI announced in 2012 that Philadelphia would host the triennial event. At the time, he said he looked forward to meeting the region's Catholics. He attended previous family convocations in Milan and Valencia, Spain, though he skipped one in Mexico.
Benedict has since retired, and Francis' schedule remains unclear. President Barack Obama is expected to meet with the pope during a trip to the Vatican in March.
Traditionally, papal trips abroad are first confirmed a few months before the journey by the local diocese hosting the visit. The Vatican releases details of such a pilgrimage only a few weeks before departure.
Church officials in Philadelphia have established a separate operational and fundraising organization to plan the international meeting. The five-county archdiocese has about 1.5 million Catholics.
But Gavin said the event, which focuses on strengthening family bonds, "is not just for Catholics, it's really a gift for the whole region." The pope's presence would "electrify" the gathering, he said.
Benedict made the last papal visit to the U.S. in 2008, a six-day pilgrimage that saw him visit Washington and New York
The most recent visit to Philadelphia by a pontiff was in 1979, when Pope John Paul II drew gigantic crowds as part of his first papal tour of the country.
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