A pope and and a secular Jew from Vermont walk into the lobby of a Vatican guesthouse. They shake hands. It was nothing, the pope maintains. “If someone thinks that greeting someone means getting involved in politics,” he said, “I recommend that he find a psychiatrist!”
There’s a punchline in there somewhere, but this is not a scene drawn from the rabbi-priest-joke canon. On Saturday, Bernie Sanders met Pope Francis in Rome, greeting the pontiff as he departed for Greece. The senator had been invited to speak on “the moral economy” at a conference at the Pontifical Academy of Social Science, and the speculation was fierce: Will he meet the pope, or won’t he? Although Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, suggested before the trip that a meeting wouldn’t happen, Sanders got his wish. According to The New York Times, a personal secretary to the pope found Sanders while he was at dinner and told him where and when to be if he wanted to catch Francis. It may be mostly one-sided, but the love affair of Bernie and Francis is not unrequited: Against all logic, the world’s foremost Catholic theologian and a socialist who’s running for United States president have found a jam.
On its face, the affinity between the two men might seem obvious. Both speak critically about capitalism, wealth, and greed; both seem to connect economic issues to the rest of the world’s ills. Sanders has pulled Francis close throughout his campaign, praising the pontiff ardently after he spoke to Congress last September, for example. Perhaps Sanders is hoping to soak up some of the pope’s massive popularity, or feels naturally drawn toward the other 70-something white man who has recently become an unlikely icon of progressive values. His affection seems heartfelt, though. As he told the press when news of his trip became public, “I was very moved by the invitation.”