I have been both pleased and amused at Vt. Sen. Bernie Sanders' affinity for Pope Francis, specifically the pope's outspokenness on economic issues such as growing income inequality. Vermont's independent senator has even posted Facebook memes featuring quotes from the pope on economic justice.

So I would have liked to attend a press conference last Friday, June 20, in Burlington featuring Sanders and Vermont religious leaders on precisely this topic, but both distance and my schedule would not permit. Fortunately a video of it was posted on YouTube earlier this week.

"These are critical ethical issues, touching on our obligations to each other has human beings and therefore central to our faith traditions," said Thomas Ely, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont. "We as faith community leaders have a responsibility to provide leadership on these moral issues, which have such a direct impact on so many of our fellow Vermonters."

As is often the case, Sanders offered plenty of statistics to back up his view that inequality is way out of hand in the country, greater than any time since the 1920s, greater than any other major country on earth, with more Americans in poverty than ever. Sanders said:

The top 1 percent owns 38 percent of the wealth in America. The bottom 60 percent owns 2.3 percent of it. The Walton Family of Wal-Mart owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of American families.

In the last few years, while tens of millions have seen their standard of living decline, 95 percent of all new income generated has gone to the top 1 percent.


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For instance, last year the top 25 hedge fund managers made more than $24 billion. This is enough money to pay the salaries of 425,000 public school teachers.

The U.S. has the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country, 22 percent.

Citing another issue Pope Francis has spoken about - unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, Sanders said the real unemployment rate in the U.S. is 12 percent. The youth unemployment rate is 20 percent. The African-American youth unemployment rate is close to 40 percent, he said.

The Rev. Dr. Lynn Bujnak Bujnak, the conference minister of the United Church of Christ in Vermont, said, "It seems to me that a moral economy must be concerned with a fair balance for all. To settle for anything less is to fail to do the just and right thing."

Rabbi Joshua Chasan joined Sanders to emphasize that increasing wealth and income inequality in the United States is one of the great moral issues of our time and is undermining the fabric of our nation.

Chasan, a rabbi at the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, said, "As the power of wealth in our country is concentrated in the hands of a very few, democracy is falling apart because the center is not holding. At stake is not only economics, but also our very capacity to be free. We are once again in a time that tries the soul of America."

Also present to show solidarity, but not speaking, was Msgr. Roland Rivard, a priest in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington.

Ely warned that "social unrest is a growing possibility in our country."

"The suffering and impoverished majority will continue to have the struggle for jobs, affordable housing, education, retirement security and a sustainable environment. If we keep silent, these things will happen," he said. "The situation cries out for us to open our ears, our eyes, our minds, our hearts to this growing bitter reality. The excesses of the sin of avarice, of greed, along with the sin of pride are at work in our midst and they have the potential to destroy that which we cherish so much."

BRAVO PAPA FRANCESCO: Speaking of Pope Francis and of YouTube videos, on Saturday the pope was traveling in a motorcade along a highway in southern Italy on his way to the town of Sibari in the province of Calabria. There he would denounce the Mafia and declare its members excommunicated.

Along the main road leading to Sibari, however, the family of a disabled woman had put up big signs along the road in front of their house to get his attention. According to the Catholic News Service, one said, "Dear Pope, bless and embrace little Roberta." So the pope complied. Francis opened his back-seat door before the car even stopped completely and popped out with a big smile on his face. He blessed, caressed and kissed Roberta and then shook a lot of hands, posed for photos and blessed a baby held out to him.

"Bravo, Papa Franceso," people yelled and then as he got back into the car "grazie, grazie." A woman, apparently Roberta's mother, was in tears.

I have watched this delightful minute-and-a-half video several times. It can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVCrfNqQLWQ

BLOG: I like religion blogs. So to begin with I will give a shout out to the religion blog of the Denver Post, the flagship newspaper of Digital First Media - the company which owns the Banner. It is called Hark and located at http://blogs.denverpost.com/hark/. In my view, with reporters dedicated to covering the religion beat full-time an increasing rarity, every newspaper of any size should at least have a religion blog. (The Banner does, World of Faith, at Blog Southern Vermont).

Hark describes itself as "opinions exploring faith, morals, ethics and character at the intersection of society and politics."

Every time I look at Hark it has interesting posts on it. Earlier this week was no exception. Posts had titles such as "Eve Tushnet - gay, Catholic and chaste - seeks to discern her vocation within the church" and "Needed warriors: Earth gardens and guardians" and "Gay marriage v. straight marriage: Not the real issue endangering stable homes."

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don't allow our bodies to heal, and we don't allow our minds and hearts to heal." ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk

FACTOID(S): A 2011 study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life estimated as of 2010 that there are 5.8 billion religiously affiliated adults and children around the globe, representing 84 percent of the 2010 world population of 6.9 billion.

The study found 2.2 billion Christians, 32 percent of world population; 1.6 billion Muslims, 23 percent; 1 billion Hindus, 15 percent; nearly 500 million Buddhists, 7 percent; 14 million Jews, 0.2 percent. In addition, more than 400 million, 6 percent, people practice a folk or traditional religion; and around 1 percent of the world's population belongs other faiths such as Baha'i faith, Jainism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism. The Pew Forum also found that roughly one-in-six people around the globe (1.1 billion, or 16 percent) have no religious affiliation, though the study found that many of these people hold some religious or spiritual beliefs. The study noted that unaffiliated is the third largest group, behind Christians and Muslims.

Mark E. Rondeau is the Banner's County News Editor and Religion Editor. He can be reached at mrondeau@benningtonbanner.com. Twitter: @banner_religion