US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, backdropped by St. Peter's Basilica, talks at the Vatican Saturday, April 16, 2016. (Photo: AP)
Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders met briefly with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Saturday, using the lightning visit to align his White House bid with the popular pontiff's advocacy of a "moral economy."
Sanders, who broke away from the campaign trail to travel to Rome, spoke of the meeting afterward in interviews with CNN and ABC, calling the pope "a beautiful man."
There were no cameras at the meeting and no immediate comment from the Vatican on what others described as a five-minute encounter in a foyer at the pope's residence at Santa Marta, shortly before he departed for the Greek island of Lesbos to meet with refugees.
But it clearly was a dramatic way for the Vermont senator to gain attention for his campaign just days before a crucial primary in New York where he faces off against frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
Sanders has made attacks on Wall Street, the "billionaire class" and a growing rich-poor divide the core of his campaign, and he seized the opportunity Saturday to identify with Francis' calls for greater economic equality.
"I just conveyed to him my admiration for the extraordinary work he is doing raising some of the most important issues facing our planet and the billions of people on the planet and injecting the need for morality in the global economy," Sanders told ABC.
On CNN, Sanders praised the pope's call for "a moral economy" and the need to "transform our energy system so as to prevent climate change from wrecking havoc on this planet."
He said he wanted Francis to know "how appreciative I was of the extraordinary role he is playing throughout the world in raising consciousness about massive levels of income and wealth inequality, greed such that the top one percent now owns more wealth globally than the bottom 99 percent."
The meeting was striking in that Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, is a secular Jew whose positions on social issues are far from those of the pope.
"I am not a Catholic, but there is a radiance that comes from him. It was very wonderful to meet him," Sanders told ABC.
He told CNN, "It is no secret that my view on women's rights, on gay rights, on contraception is different than the church's."
"But in this world what we have to do is work with people when we can work with them," Sanders said.
Sanders' wife Jane, who is Catholic, was also at the meeting along with Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the Argentine head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a kind of Vatican think tank on social, economic and environmental issues.
Sanchez Sorondo had invited Sanders to come to the Vatican for a conference on Friday.
Sanders was returning to New York on Saturday for an afternoon rally.
The Brooklyn-born Sanders lags behind Clinton in the polls in New York by more than 10 points, according to a Real Clear Politics average.
But he attracted thousands to a rally in New York's Washington Square earlier this week, demonstrating the pull of his well-funded campaign, particularly among young voters.
The Democratic race has become increasingly acrimonious, with Sanders and Clinton sharply attacking each other's qualifications to lead the country.