(CNN) - Vice President Joe Biden, the first Roman Catholic to serve as vice president, will lead the U.S. delegation to next week's formal installation of Pope Francis, he said in a statement Wednesday.
"I am happy to have the chance to personally relay my well wishes, and those of the American people, when I travel to Rome for his Inaugural Mass," he wrote. "The Catholic Church plays an essential role in my life and the lives of more than a billion people in America and around the world, not just in matters of our faith, but in pursuit of peace and human dignity for all faiths."
Speaking on CNN, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Tom Rosica called the news Biden would attend the installation mass "significant," explaining the Vatican doesn't formally extend invitations to other governments.
"Many heads of state have been letting us know their desire to come," Rosica said. "The Holy See never invites people to come to this, but they inform governments we have a new leader and I think many people will be coming and I'm sure many people from Latin America, South America will be coming as well."
The choice of Biden to attend next week's installation means President Barack Obama will not have to alter his planned trip to the Middle East. Asked if it would have been more appropriate for Obama himself to attend Pope Francis' installation, Rosica said "it is not up to me to comment on anything like that."
"We're just grateful people are coming, and those who are coming know who they are coming to see," he added.
Earlier in the day, Obama said in a statement the selection of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina to become the next pope spoke to the "strength and vitality of a region that in increasingly shaping our world."
He also pointed to the large number of Hispanic-Americans in the United States, who are overwhelmingly Catholic.
"Just as I appreciated our work with Pope Benedict XVI, I look forward to working with His Holiness to advance peace, security and dignity for our fellow human beings, regardless of their faith," Obama wrote. "We join with people around the world in offering our prayers for the Holy Father as he begins the sacred work of leading the Catholic Church in our modern world."
Obama learned a new pope had been selected during a meeting with House Republicans on Capitol Hill. An aide passed him a note with the news that white smoke was seen pouring out of the Sistine Chapel chimney, and he relayed the information to lawmakers present.
One Republican jokingly asked whether it meant tours at the White House, which have been suspended as a result of spending cuts, had resumed. He replied tours of the Vatican were back on.
After the meeting, House Speaker John Boehner, who is also Catholic, said he was pleased at how quickly the cardinals selected a new pope.
"I'm happy that they were able to come to a choice as quickly as they did," Boehner said. "I think that reaching out beyond the traditional continent of our church is another big step in the right direction for the church."
Outstanding choice and I am sure VP Biden sees it as a great honor.
Wonderful....a total embarrassment is representing the US.
Why again is it that we're sending our Vice President to see the installation of a pope?
Biden- the Catholic when he wants to be is leading it up. Great- maybe Pope Francis can pull him aside and remind him what the Church actually teaches on abortion and contraception.
Bob, honey. Give it up. Seriously.
I am not a Catholic, but I know Vice President Biden is very happy to attend this most important. holy moment for the
Catholic faithful, and I am happy for him and those who are going with him.
@Bob – actually, it is comments like yours that are a total embarrassment.
Let's hope Uncle Joe doesn't have one of his all to famous gaffes we've all come to love while representing the USA.
Geez maybe he could fire off a few shotgun rounds in the air as a salute. Do you think we could find a bigger clown?
"Why again is it that we're sending our Vice President to see the installation of a pope?"
It's called diplomacy. Diplomacy is not just when you talk like an angry cowboy and threaten to bomb people you don't like or who scare you.
Sending the Gaffomatic? Brilliant!
@Chicadow-Just so you know........It has been a common practice to send the VP to things like funerals, olympics, or other important matters of foreign state that the Prez cannot attend for, ohhhh, the last ten or fifteen decades.
No politician should ever attend the installation of a religious figure – period.
Because he is the leader of 1.2bill people you pay respect to them
Why would America want to embarrass itself by sending this ignorant individual
A total waste of scarce funds on silly, frivolous carrying-ons ! !
Bob - The "total embarrassment" part is organized religion itself ! !
What happened to separation of state and religion. And Joe are you paying for this? My bet the taxpayer is paying for it. Have a nice vacation Joe.
The pope is not the leader of a country. He is a religious leader. Tax payers money being spent on sending Biden. Get over it...there is separation of church and state. If the U.S. sends a a politician to one religious organization, why not all. I hope the new pope will make the catholics happy but no tax payer money should be spent to send someone.
As a Catholic, I am so pleased to have Pope Francis. His choice of name Francis is so in keeping with his personality of love for the poor. I have been in Italy and enjoyed visiting the Vatican and Assisi. Most appropriate for Joe Biden to attend March 19th in Rome. His patron saint is Saint Joseph and March 19th is St Josph's Feast Day.
The US has no business getting involved in religious affairs. Remember separation of church ans state?
What a bunch of idiots we have! Give the new guy a chance to sit in his chair before visiting.
I have no problem with Biden attending, but please, for the love of the United States, someone please make sure he doesn't speak.
It's sad for to read so many negatives about our elected Vice President. It was many of the poor who stood in line for him to be elected. I think too many are listening to Fox New with Bill O'Reilley. Personally, I like keeping them honest.
Please, someone, please tell JB that the Pope is not Jewish. That "hat thingy" can be confusing, ya know?
I wonder if the Catholics in Congress who have been pushing the birth control exemptions so strongly for the past year will now listen to Pope Francis. He gave up his formal residence in Buenos Aires to live in a humble single room apartment. He has written papers against the free market because it depresses the poor. He spoke against big business and the deruglation of the financial industry in 2005 as immoral. Bet we wont hear anything about it though...
Is Dennis Rodman going?