WASHINGTON, April 8 (Reuters) - Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders embraced a kindred spirit in the popular Pope Francis on Friday when he announced a visit to the Vatican next week, a move that could broaden his appeal before presidential contests this month.
Sanders accepted an invitation to Vatican City, where he will give an April 15 speech on how to create a moral economy, a favorite theme of the pontiff, who has chided the world's wealthy and political economic elite for being deaf to the poor.
"I am a big, big fan of the pope," Sanders, who would be the first Jewish U.S. president if elected, said in an interview on MSNBC. "He's trying to inject this sense of morality into how we do economics ... and we need that absolutely desperately."
Speaking to reporters in New York later, Sanders said he hoped to meet with the pope.
"The pope's schedule is determined by the Vatican but I would certainly be enthusiastic about that," he said. "... I think there is a possibility but that has not been scheduled."
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Sanders accepts Vatican invitation, hopes to meet Pope Francis
A supporter sports a t-shirt with a montage of photographs of Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, during a mock caucus at Drips coffee shop in Council Bluffs, Iowa, U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. Hoping to persuade undecided Democrats with just a week until the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders took on some of the questions that have most dogged their candidacies, from trustworthiness and e-mails to feasibility and socialism. Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Ben Cohen, left, and Jerry Greenfield, co-founders of Ben & Jerry's Homemade Holdings Inc., talk to supporters during a mock caucus at Drips coffee shop in Council Bluffs, Iowa, U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. Hoping to persuade undecided Democrats with just a week until the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders took on some of the questions that have most dogged their candidacies, from trustworthiness and e-mails to feasibility and socialism. Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A supporter of Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders listens during a campaign event at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, January 24, 2016, ahead of the Iowa Caucus. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 22: A supporter of presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., shows off buttons during a campaign rally at Bedford High School in Bedford, N.H., January 22, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 22: Supporters of presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., listen to him speak during a campaign rally at Bedford High School in Bedford, N.H., January 22, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
BIRMINGHAM, AL - JANUARY 18: Cassidy Lamb waves a sign before Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) arrives to a campaign rally at Boutwell Auditorium, January 18, 2016 in Birmingham, Alabama. Sanders spoke to a capacity crowd of around 5,000 supporters. (Photo by Hal Yeager/Getty Images)
MARSHALLTOWN, IA - JANUARY 10: Marc Daniels, of Springfield, Illinois, travels from one campaign event to another selilng what he calls 'Presidential Yarmulkes.' He is wearing a yarmulke printed with the phrase, 'Bernie Sanders 2016,' in Hebrew. Daniels was a guest at a campaign event for Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on January 10, 2016 in Marshalltown, Iowa. Sanders drew an overflow crowd to the 600 person capacity meeting room of the Best Western Regency Inn in Marshalltown. Both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have been making appearances at events across Iowa to build support in advance of the 2016 Iowa Caucuses. (Photo by Charles Ledford/Getty Images)
BURLINGTON, VT - JANUARY 07: A Bernie Sanders supporter holds up a pair of 'Bernie Briefs' in a local bar on January 7, 2016 in Burlington, Vermont. The line to see Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump's campaign rally wrapped around the venue and down multiple streets and multiple groups of protesters were. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
DES MOINES, IA - NOVEMBER 14: John Jarecki wears a puppet of Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to show his support for the candidate prior to the start of the Democratic presidential debate at Drake University on November 14, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. The debate will be the second for the democratic candidates seeking the nomination for president. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
A woman wearing a hat with a sign in support of Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, stands at a rally ahead of the Democratic presidential candidate debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015. The second Democratic debate, hosted by CBS News, KCCI and the Des Moines Register, is the Democratic National Committees only sanctioned debate in Iowa prior to the states first-in-the-nation caucuses on Feb. 1. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Sanders, 74, the Brooklyn-born son of Polish-Jewish immigrants who calls himself both an independent and a socialist, has made tackling poverty a central issue of his campaign and amassed support, particularly from young people, to compete with front-runner rival Hillary Clinton.
Pope Francis, a 79-year-old Argentine also has been outspoken about helping the poor. Sanders said on Friday he admires the pope for criticizing the "worship of money, the greed that's out there."
"There are people who think that Bernie Sanders is radical," Sanders said on MSNBC. "Read what the pope is writing."
"There are people who think that Bernie Sanders is radical. Read what the pope is writing."
Francis' popularity with both Catholics and non-Catholics has given him an image of a grandfatherly priest who understands how difficult it sometimes is to follow Roman Catholic Church teachings.
He also has shown a willingness to evolve on key issues, on Friday calling for a church that was less strict and more compassionate toward "imperfect" Catholics.
The invitation comes at a crucial time for Sanders, who is desperate to expand his base of support ahead of nominating contests in states like Pennsylvania, which has a sizeable Catholic population.
The visit will come four days before the primary election in delegate-rich New York, a state both Sanders and Clinton view as home turf and hope to win.
Sanders announcement on the Vatican visit followed a week in which he and Clinton traded insults about each other's qualifications to be president. Both Democrats tried to paper over their differences in appearances Friday on NBC's "Today" show, making clear they thought the other was qualified to be in the White House.