Heading back to Rome following his moving visit with refugees in Greece on April 16, Pope Francis confirmed to reporters that he had met with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders that morning as he was leaving his residence. Sanders and other participants at a Vatican conference were staying in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where the pope lives.
“It was polite” for Sanders, who knew when the pope was leaving, to go downstairs to greet him, the pope said. “If someone thinks greeting someone is to get involved in politics, I recommend he see a psychiatrist.”
For his part, Sanders said it was “a real honor for me” to meet the pope. “I think he is one of the extraordinary figures not only in the world today but in modern world history,” he told a scrum of reporters outside the Vatican walls shortly after speaking at a Vatican conference commemorating the 25th anniversary of the publication of St. John Paul II’s encyclical “Centesimus Annus” on April 15.
The senator from Vermont is challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination; the meeting with Pope Francis came the weekend before the pivotal New York primary. Sanders and his wife, Jane, stayed overnight at the hotel in the Vatican gardens on the same floor as the pope.
The Vatican usually tries to avoid any perception of partisanship as far as the pope is concerned. But Francis has been known to flout Vatican protocol, and the meeting with Sanders is evidence that his personal desires often trump Vatican diplomacy.
While he may not have managed a coveted photo op with Pope Francis, candidate Sanders did achieve extensive international news coverage while in Rome and a chance to deliver his stump speech at the Vatican wrapped in the words of the pontiff, one of the most popular leaders on the planet.
“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.
“I believe that the pope has played an historic and an incredible role in trying to create a new world economy and a new vision for the people of our planet,” Sanders said. “What he is saying is that we cannot continue to go forward when so few have so much and when greed is such a destructive force, not only in the U.S. but throughout the world.”
He added, “I have long been a supporter of the economic vision of Pope Francis. His views on climate change have played a profound…role in turning many people’s minds around about the urgency of the moment in terms of dealing with climate change.”
During his 10-minute address, titled “The Urgency of a Moral Economy,” Sanders slammed the current global financial system and praised Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment, which called for an overhaul of the world’s approach to economics and climate change.
“As Pope Francis made powerfully clear last year in [the encyclical] ‘Laudato Si’,’ we have the technology and know-how to solve our problems—from poverty to climate change to health care to protection of biodiversity,” Sanders said.
“We also have the vast wealth to do so, especially if the rich pay their way in fair taxes rather than hiding their funds in the world’s tax and secrecy havens—as the Panama Papers have shown.”
Throughout his speech, Sanders referred to the “common good,” a phrase that is central to Catholic social teaching. It is also invoked frequently by Francis, often in contrast to the kind of individualism that many say characterizes U.S. society.