Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in Brooklyn on April 8. (Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images)

If Bernie Sanders were someone other than a secular Jewish democratic socialist, it might be thought of as a “Hail Mary” moment for him.

The senator from Vermont has decided to step off the campaign trail for two crucial days before what could be a do-or-die primary in New York to attend a conference on income inequality at the Vatican.

Polls show him with a double-digit deficit against front-runner Hillary Clinton, and Sanders desperately needs a strong showing in the April 19 primary if he wants to chip away at her delegate lead.

The Vatican gathering, hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, is an event that allows Sanders to showcase his commitment to the issue that is the cornerstone of his presidential campaign. And it may win points with Catholic voters, as well as Pope Francis’s legions of liberal fans.

However, it is difficult to imagine that any political benefits of the visit would outweigh those that Sanders might reap from spending those two days making his case directly to New York voters.

And the Vatican is already showing some sensitivity to the prospect of giving a platform to a presidential candidate, given that Francis has already been drawn into the election fray once before, when he tangled with GOP front-runner Donald Trump on the issue of immigration.

Sanders’s move came as a surprise — even to his own chief strategist.

“I really haven’t been that involved” in the decision, his political consultant Tad Devine said in an interview. “There wasn’t a big circle on this one.”

Sanders is a big fan of Francis — who has himself been described as a socialist.

But it is not certain whether Sanders will have an opportunity to meet the pontiff, much less be seen with him publicly.

“That is not yet clear. It is something I would very much like to do. The pope’s schedule is determined by the Vatican, but I would certainly be enthusiastic about it,” Sanders said. “I think there is a possibility, but that has not been scheduled.”

Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said: “There really wasn’t any discussion of the politics of this. Bernie felt it was very important to accept the invitation, given his affinity for the pope.”

As for the fact that the trip comes at a critical moment on the electoral calendar, Weaver said: “The timing is what it is. He was very honored by the invitation and wanted to accept.”

Sanders expects to head for Rome shortly after Thursday’s Democratic debate and return to New York the following Saturday.

There also appears to be some confusion as to how Sanders finagled what he described as an invitation “to talk about an issue that is very dear to my heart, which is how we create a moral economy that works for all of the people rather than just the top 1 percent.”

Shortly after the visit was announced, Bloomberg News quoted Margaret Archer, the president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, saying that Sanders had committed a “monumental discourtesy” by failing to contact her office in advance.

However, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the academy’s chancellor, said that he had arranged the invitation and that Sanders’s presence is welcome.

The Sanders campaign produced a copy of the invitation, signed by Sánchez Sorondo. Sanders said he expects to speak at the conference for about 15 minutes — about a quarter of the time he devotes to a typical stump speech.

Sanders, who would be the nation’s first Jewish president, often refers to Francis on the campaign trail, praising his leadership on economic and environmental issues. Sanders said he thinks that he will be the only U.S. public official speaking at the gathering.

In the meantime, he is keeping a busy schedule in New York. On Friday, Sanders held a pair of rallies in Brooklyn and made a string of media appearances.

“I have not forgotten where I was born, which is Brooklyn!” he said at his second rally in a borough that also is the site of Clinton’s national campaign headquarters.

Sanders has won six of the last seven states to hold primaries or caucuses, including Wisconsin on Tuesday. The Democratic race has grown more contentious in recent days, and Sanders has gone so far as to say that Clinton is not qualified to be president because of “her views and her actions on a number of the major issues facing this country, and the way she’s run this campaign in terms of how she’s raised her money.”

The outspoken pope, meanwhile, has already been part of the U.S. election story line.

In February, while on a visit to Mexico, Francis criticized Trump, telling reporters aboard the papal plane that anybody who wants to build border walls “is not Christian.”

Trump, a Presbyterian, fired back: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.”

The exchange made even Trump campaign officials queasy, but the celebrity billionaire nonetheless went on to win the South Carolina primary two days later by a comfortable margin.

Wagner reported from New York.