ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE TO ROME — Pope Francis says his brief meeting Saturday morning with U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders was not meant to make any kind of political statement.
In a press conference on his way back from a one-day visit to Lesbos, Greece, the pontiff said Sanders, who spoke at a Vatican conference Friday, simply came to greet him Saturday morning in a kind gesture.
"This morning, when I left, Senator Sanders was there," said Francis. "He knew that I would go at that hour and had the kindness to greet me."
"Nothing more," said the pope. "If someone thinks that saying hello is to get mixed into politics, I recommend they see a psychiatrist."
Sanders had arrived at the Vatican Friday for a brief visit away from the campaign trail to address a conference on building a more moral economy. The question of whether the candidate would meet the pope had hovered over the trip, with some criticizing the Vermont senator for politicizing Francis.
The candidate spent the night Friday like most of the conference participants at the Vatican's Casa Santa Marta guesthouse, where Francis lives.
Jeffrey Sachs, an American who had helped organize the Vatican conference, told reporters traveling with the pope on speakerphone from Greece that Sanders used the meeting to thank Francis for his environmental message and his recent encyclical Laudato Si'.
Sachs, the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, said those present for the meeting also included Sanders' and Sachs' wives and Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of the Sciences.
Sachs said the candidate met Francis at about 6:00 am in Rome, just before the pope headed to the airport for a one-day visit to Lesbos.
It is as yet unknown whether any photographs were taken of the meeting.
Sanders spoke Friday at an event co-hosted by the pontifical academy and the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies on the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's 1991 encyclical letter Centesimus Annus.
Sanders' presence at the conference has been the source of some controversy, as the pontifical academy's president, Margaret Archer, initially said the candidate had asked for an invitation to come. But Sanchez Sorondo later clarified that he had invited the candidate.
The senator told press after the event that he has been "enormously impressed" by the pope, who he said is giving "visionary views about creating a moral economy, an economy that works for all people not just the people on top."
Sanders returned to New York Saturday, rejoining the campaign trail.
Francis spent just under five hours Saturday on Lesbos, a Greek island that has become the waypoint for hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking asylum in Europe. He was joined by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos II.