Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said in an interview with The Associated Press that he met with Pope Francis, describing the meeting as a "real honor."
Sanders said the meeting took place Saturday morning before the pope left for his one-day visit to Greece. He said he was honored by the meeting, and that he told the pope he appreciated the message that he is sending the world about the need to inject morality and justice into the world economy. Sanders said it's a message he has been sending as well.
"We had an opportunity to meet with him this morning," Sanders said. "It was a real honor for me, for my wife and I to spend some time with him. I think he is one of the extraordinary figures not only in the world today but in modern world history."
The Vermont senator is challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination and the meeting comes the weekend before Tuesday's pivotal New York primary, a state with a significant number of Catholic voters. Clinton holds a 250-delegate lead over Sanders in the primaries and the senator is trying to string together a series of victories in upcoming contests to draw closer to the nomination.
Sanders said it was a brief meeting at the papal residence. "I told him that I was incredibly appreciative of the incredible role that he is playing in this planet in discussing issues about the need for an economy based on morality, not greed."
Sanders and wife, Jane, stayed overnight at the pope's residence, the Domus Santa Marta hotel in the Vatican gardens, on the same floor as the pope. They were seen at the hotel reception, carrying their own bags.
Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, a Sanders foreign policy adviser and adviser to the United Nations on climate change, said there were no photographs taken of the meeting.
The Vatican is loathe to get involved in electoral campaigns, and usually tries to avoid any perception of partisanship as far as the pope is concerned. Popes rarely travel to countries during the thick of political campaigns, knowing a papal photo op with the sitting head of state can be exploited for political ends.
However, Francis has been known to flout Vatican protocol, and the meeting with Sanders is evidence that his personal desires often trump Vatican diplomacy.
"His message is resonating with every religion on earth with people who have no religion and it is a message that says we have got to inject morality and justice into the global economy," Sanders said.
Sanders said the meeting should not be viewed as the pope injecting himself into the campaign. "The issues that I talked about yesterday at the conference as you well know are issues that I have been talking about not just throughout this campaign but throughout my political life. And I am just very much appreciated the fact that the pope in many ways has been raising these issues in a global way in the sense that I have been trying to raise them in the United States."
Sachs said Sanders and his wife Jane met the pope in the foyer of the domus as the pope was leaving for Greece. The meeting lasted for about five minutes, Sachs said.
Sanders later joined his family, including some of his grandchildren, for a walking tour of St. Peter's Basilica, one of the holiest Catholic shrines.
Sanders traveled to Rome to attend a Vatican conference on economic inequality and climate change. He is an admirer of the pope and has praised the pope's views on poverty and the environment.
The trip gave Sanders a moment on the world stage, putting him alongside priests, bishops, academics and two South American presidents. Sanders has been at a disadvantage during his campaign against Clinton, President Barack Obama's former secretary of state, on issues of foreign policy but he was peppered with questions from academics and ecclesiastics during the meeting in a manner that might have been afforded a head of state.
The invitation to Sanders to address the Vatican conference raised eyebrows when it was announced last week and touched off allegations that the senator lobbied for the invitation.
But the chancellor for the pontifical academy, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, said he invited Sanders because he was the only U.S. presidential candidate who showed deep interest in the teachings of Francis.
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Vatican City contributed to this report.