Sanders meets Pope in Vatican against expectations

US Democratic presidential candidate Sanders addresses a conference at the Vatican, April 15, 2016. © Stefano Rellandini
Despite indications that this would not happen, US presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders met Pope Francis during a visit to the Vatican. Sanders is attending a globalization forum hosted by the Catholic country.

During his campaigning, Sanders, a self-described socialist, evoked the words of the Pope on issues such as social injustice and the moral shortcomings of capitalism and said he admired the pontiff. As he was going to a conference held by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, a Vatican in-house think-tank, he said he would like to meet Pope Francis, but Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said a scheduling conflict would make it impossible.

Despite this the Pope and Sanders did meet, the Vermont senator told AP. It happened just before Francis was leaving for a one-day visit to Greece on Saturday.

"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."

Reuters confirmed the meeting citing Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who was present at the event.

The meeting comes just days before a Democratic Party primary in New York. Sanders has beaten front-runner Hillary Clinton in seven out of eight previous state contests for the nomination, boosting his supporters’ hopes that he may yet turn the race in his favor.

Sanders was invited to the Vatican conference because his stance on issues such as climate change and the problems of the poor are “very analogous to that of the Pope,” said Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the academy’s chancellor, who is reputed to be close to Pope Francis.

Speaking at the event, Sanders said income inequality today is worse than over a century ago, in 1891, when the issue was addressed by Pope Leo XIII, who lamented the gap between the rich and the poor in the first encyclical on social justice issued by the Roman Catholic Church.

"That situation is worse today. In the year 2016, the top one percent of the people on this planet own more wealth than the bottom 99 percent," Sanders said. "At a time when so few have so much, and so many have so little, we must reject the foundations of this contemporary economy as immoral and unsustainable."

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The meeting with Sanders is not Pope Francis' first brush with the ongoing US presidential race. Earlier he criticized Republican hopeful Donald Trump for his negative stance on Mexicans.

"A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel," the Pope said during his Mexico visit.

Trump called the comment “disgraceful” and accused the Mexican government of “using the Pope as a pawn.”