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."