PHILADELPHIA - Mayor Michael Nutter said Friday he's optimistic about the possibility of Pope Francis visiting Philadelphia for a major church gathering, though he stressed the pontiff's plans will not be announced until next year.
The mayor's comments came at a City Hall news conference the day after he returned from a trip to Rome with a local delegation that included Gov. Tom Corbett and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput.
The delegation met briefly with the pope Wednesday to personally ask him to attend the World Meeting of Families, which will be held in Philadelphia from Sept. 22-27, 2015. Popes have attended five of the past seven such conferences around the globe.
"He just seemed not only joyful to see us but was quite well aware why we were there," Nutter said.
The Philadelphia group's lobbying efforts came a day before President Barack Obama's first meeting with the pontiff. On Thursday at the Vatican, Obama also invited Francis to visit the United States, to which the Argentine pope responded in his native Spanish, "Why not?" In addition, Francis has a standing invitation to address the U.S. Congress.
Donna Crilley Farrell, executive director of the organizing group in Philadelphia, said Friday that the next 18 months will be filled with "high-speed, high-intensity planning" and efforts to raise tens of millions of dollars to support the massive undertaking.
"This trip to Rome created so much excitement, enthusiasm and momentum that now it's on us to capitalize on that momentum," said Farrell, who was among those who traveled to Italy.
Officials have said the meeting in Philadelphia, which focuses on strengthening family bonds, could attract more than 1 million people.
City leaders and event planners are still hammering out details on timelines and programming with the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family, said Nutter. Venues have not yet been chosen, he noted, but decisions are being made as if the pope will come.
A visit from Francis, which would be his first to the U.S. as pontiff, would be "truly historic and significant" for the city, Nutter said.
The pope's presence would require coordination among multiple local, state and federal security agencies. Organizers hope the costs will be covered through fundraising, which Nutter said he expects will gear up in coming weeks.
At the news conference, Nutter displayed gifts received on the trip, including rosary beads from the pope; books and commemorative Vatican coins from the Pontifical Council; and tokens from students and staff at Temple University's campus in Rome.