ROME (AP) -- U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders told The Associated Press that he met briefly with Pope Francis at the papal residence Saturday and said it was a "real honor" to call on "one of the extraordinary figures" in the world.
Sanders, in Rome for a Vatican conference on economic inequality and climate change, said the meeting took place before the pope left for Greece, where Francis was highlighting the plight of refugees.
The Vermont senator, in a race with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president, said he told the pope that he appreciated the message that Francis was sending the world about the need to inject morality and justice into the world economy. Sanders said that was a message he, too, has tried to convey.
"We had an opportunity to meet with him this morning," Sanders said in an Associated Press interview. "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."
Before returning to the United States and campaigning in New York, where voters get their say Tuesday in the next election contest, Sanders said he had the chance to tell the pope 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."
Sanders and his wife, Jane, stayed overnight at the pope's residence, the Domus Santa Marta hotel in the Vatican gardens, on the same floor as the pope. They were seen at the hotel reception, carrying their own bags.
Jeffrey Sachs, a Sanders foreign policy adviser, said there were no photographs taken of the meeting.
The Vatican is loath to get involved in electoral campaigns, and usually tries to avoid any perception of partisanship as far as the pope is concerned, although Francis in February rebuked Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump over Trump's stand on immigration. Popes rarely travel to countries during the thick of political campaigns, knowing a papal photo opportunity with the sitting head of state can be exploited for political ends.
But Francis has been known to flout Vatican protocol, and the meeting with Sanders was evidence that his personal desires often trump Vatican diplomacy.
"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.
Sanders said the meeting should not be viewed as the pope injecting himself into the campaign.
"The issues that I talked about yesterday at the conference, as you well know, are issues that I have been talking about not just throughout this campaign but throughout my political life," Sanders said in the interview. "And I am just very much appreciated the fact that the pope in many ways has been raising these issues in a global way in the sense that I have been trying to raise them in the United States."
Sachs said the candidate and his wife met the pope in the foyer of the domus, and that the meeting lasted about five minutes. Sanders later joined his family, including some of his grandchildren, for a walking tour of St. Peter's Basilica, one of the holiest Catholic shrines.
The trip gave Sanders a moment on the world stage, putting him alongside priests, bishops, academics and two South American presidents at the Vatican conference.
Sanders has been at a disadvantage during his campaign against Clinton, President Barack Obama's former secretary of state, on issues of foreign policy. But Sanders was peppered with questions from academics and ecclesiastics during Friday's conference in a manner that might have been afforded a head of state.
The invitation to Sanders to address the Vatican session raised eyebrows when it was announced and touched off allegations that the senator lobbied for the invitation.
But the chancellor for the pontifical academy, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, said he invited Sanders because he was the only U.S. presidential candidate who showed deep interest in the teachings of Francis.
Once back home, Sanders was set to refocus on the pivotal presidential contest in New York, a state with a significant number of Catholic voters. Clinton holds a lead among the delegates who will determine the Democratic nominee, and Sanders is trying to string together a series of victories in upcoming contests to draw closer.