Pope Francis, who contributed to the eventual thaw of tense relations between the United States and Cuba last December, plans to visit the island nation before coming to America later this year, NBC News has confirmed.
The 78-year-old Catholic leader and first Latin American pontiff had written letters to both President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, requesting that they “resolve humanitarian questions of common interest,” after more than five decades of a strained relationship. Then in December, Obama shared with Americans his intent to improve relations with Cuba.
Francis is from Argentina, which made his role in the U.S.-Cuba talks particularly notable. His personal involvement in the easing of diplomatic relations highlighted the human rights issues involved in the development between the two countries. Negotiations for normalizing relations between the two countries took place in Canada before moving last fall to the Vatican, where the exchange and transfer of prisoners was specifically discussed. American contractor Alan Gross, who had been held in Cuba for five years, was released in December in exchange for three Cuban spies who were being held in U.S. prisons for more than 15 years.
Francis reportedly had received and accepted the invitation from the civil authorities and bishops of Cuba, and made his decision to visit the island before the United States. The last pontiff to visit communist Cuba was Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
Francis will be the first pontiff to address a joint meeting of Congress when he visits the United States in September. The pope will begin his four-day trip to America on Sept. 20, and has stops planned in Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington, D.C. He will visit the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 24 to speak in front of legislators, House Speaker John Boehner confirmed earlier this year.
The trip will be Francis’ first to the United States since he took control of the papacy from Pope Benedict in March 2013. Since then, Francis has made significant rhetorical breaks with Catholic tradition. He has broken with his predecessors several times, saying the church cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptives. He asked, “Who am I to judge?” in response to reports of gay clergy members.
During his European tour last March, Obama met with Francis for the first time, where they reportedly discussed U.S. relations with Cuba. The two leaders spoke for almost an hour, which contrasts to the half-hour Obama spent with Francis’ predecessor.
TIME magazine named Francis “Person of the Year” in 2013.