PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Organizers of the World Meeting of Families for months were coy when asked if Pope Francis would come to Philadelphia for the massive Roman Catholic-sponsored gathering.
It turns out that when the pontiff finally confirmed his attendance Monday, organizers already had gotten inside information from an unimpeachable source: Francis told Gov. Tom Corbett during a Vatican meeting in March that he would make the journey, his first papal visit to the United States.
"The Holy Father answered our invitation by whispering three words in Tom's ear: 'I will come,'" said Susan Corbett, Pennsylvania's first lady.
Protocol kept them from saying anything publicly until now, she said at a news conference hours after the pope's statement.
Still, the timing of Francis' announcement — made during an interreligious Vatican conference on traditional family values — came as a bit of a surprise and set cellphones abuzz in Philadelphia around 3:30 a.m. EST. Organizers had not expected official word until later next year.
The September voyage will come at a time when the U.S. church is trying to keep Catholics in the fold, including Latino immigrants who have been joining Protestant churches or leaving organized religion in significant numbers. Expectations will also be high for Francis to address the clergy sex abuse scandals.
The World Meeting of Families is a conference held every three years in a different city to celebrate the importance of family. It will be the first pontifical trip to the U.S. since 2008.
"What an historic day, and an unparalleled day for the city of Philadelphia," Mayor Michael Nutter said. "We could not be more excited."
Details of Francis' itinerary will not be finalized until next spring or summer, officials said. But his confirmed attendance will likely help spur fundraising for the huge event. Just over half of the $45 million budget has been raised so far, said Daniel J. Hilferty, president and CEO of Independence Blue Cross who also serves on the organizing committee.
The pope is also expected to visit New York and Washington, but Vatican officials would not confirm those legs of the trip Monday. The Vatican's envoy to the United Nations strongly hinted last week Francis would visit New York to address world leaders at the General Assembly.
The World Meeting of Families, set for Sept. 22-27, will feature several days of workshops, lectures and other activities. The conference — and the events surrounding it — are open to anyone who pays the registration fee.
Francis is expected to participate in the gathering's closing days and, like Pope John Paul II in 1979, celebrate a Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
"We're very, very grateful for this opportunity," said Archbishop Charles Chaput, who was at the Vatican for Francis' announcement Monday.
Organizers expect more than a million people will come to the papal events, some from as far as Francis' native South America. Hotels within a 10-mile radius of downtown Philadelphia have already sold out, and organizers are hoping local families will volunteer to host visitors.
Just last week, more than 10,000 Philadelphia Catholic schoolchildren sent handwritten notes encouraging the 77-year-old Francis to make the visit. A large crowd of enthusiastic students attended the news conference.
"Pope Francis is probably one of my favorite people ever ... I love how he's just so open about everything," said Emily McDermott, 16, a sophomore at Hallahan High School, an all-girls Catholic school. "This is amazing. Like they said, it's history, so we were all just so proud to be a part of this."
Associated Press writers Rachel Zoll and Cara Anna in New York, and Nicole Winfield in Rome, contributed to this report.