Tony Gentile/Reuters/Landov
November 17, 2014 12:20 PM

A pontiff who has long championed human kindness – sneaking off to break bread with the homeless as an archbishop and washing the feet of young prisoners early in his papacy – is coming to the City of Brotherly Love.

Pope Francis confirmed Monday that he will make his first papal visit to the United States with a trip to Philadelphia next September for the World Meeting of Families, a conference held every three years in a different city to celebrate the importance of family.

Francis’s announcement, at an interreligious Vatican conference on traditional family values, ended months of lobbying and speculation. It will be the second papal visit to Philadelphia – John Paul II celebrated Mass in the city in 1979 – and the first papal visit to the U.S. in eight years.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, speaking at a news conference, called it a “joyous day” and said Francis’ visit would be the largest event in the city’s modern history.

Vatican officials toured the city in May and President Barack Obama, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Congress have extended invitations.

Just last week, more than 10,000 Philadelphia Catholic school children sent handwritten notes encouraging the 77-year-old Francis to make the visit.

The Vatican’s envoy to the United Nations last week strongly hinted that Francis would visit New York to address world leaders at the General Assembly, saying the coming 70th anniversary of the world body would be “the ideal time.”

Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the permanent observer of the Holy See, told The Associated Press that “if he comes to Philadelphia, he will come to New York.”

Francis’s visit 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 him to address the clergy sex abuse scandals. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, met privately with victims on his April 2008 visit to Washington, D.C., and New York City.

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