LESBOS, Greece — Bernie Sanders can officially thumb his nose at all the naysayers who criticized the political wisdom of a Democratic presidential candidate taking 36 hours off the campaign trail to travel to Rome just days before a major primary. He had come on a wing and a prayer, as it were, to speak briefly at a Vatican conference, but there was nothing on the pope’s schedule suggesting the two men would meet. Then, in the early hours of Saturday morning, the gamble paid off: Sanders got five minutes of facetime with Pope Francis.
As luck would have it for Sanders, panelists who speak at Vatican-sponsored events are given the rare opportunity to stay at the Santa Marta guesthouse inside the walls of Vatican City. Most decline. Who would want to stay in such Spartan digs in what is essentially a hostel for clerics when the glory of Rome calls? But for Sanders, the sacrifice of a midnight stroll through Rome’s cobbled streets or a toss of a coin into the Trevi Fountain paid off before sunrise this morning, when the Santa Marta’s other VIP guest, Pope Francis, was in the foyer of the hotel getting ready to leave for Lesbos, Greece. That’s where the two met for around five minutes, Sanders told the Associated Press. No photographer was present.
On the flight back from Lesbos, Francis confirmed the encounter, but played it down considerably. “This morning as I was leaving, Senator Sanders was there,” Francis told reporters on the plane. “He knew I was coming out at that time, and he had the kindness to greet me. When I came down, he introduced himself, I greeted him with a handshake, and nothing more. It’s common courtesy, this is called common courtesy."
Then, for good measure, he added, “If someone thinks that greeting someone is getting involved in politics, I recommend that they find a psychiatrist.”
Still, it would be unfair to call what the senator did “doorstepping.” Francis would have had to approve the encounter, and his security detail would have made sure Sanders wasn’t just milling about the foyer when the pope was heading out if the pope wasn’t inclined to meet him. Although the Vatican’s official channels had nixed the possibility of a private audience, they always conceded that with this pope “you never know for sure.” Francis had sent a personal note to participants in the conference on Friday, apologizing for not being able to swing by to see them, though he did meet Bolivian President Juan Evo Morales Ayma during a private audience.
By Friday night, the senator hadn’t given up hope. In an early-morning interview with the AP Sanders said, “We had an opportunity to meet with him this morning. 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.”
Sanders, who faces a make-or-break primary in New York against Hillary Clinton next week, said he was humbled to meet the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, an organization with which he differs on almost every topic except the evils of capitalism and the dangers of climate change. “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,” the candidate said.
Sanders’s visit had raised eyebrows last week amid conflicting stories about just who invited him to speak at the conference and why. The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences has been described as a think-tank sponsored by the Vatican, and the Vatican press office made it clear that the invite did not come directly from the pontiff, who does not busy himself with the approval of various speakers at the Vatican’s wide-ranging organizations.
In the end, it clearly didn’t really matter who invited the senator.