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When Pope Francis takes on the Mafia: Who’s winning?

POPE AUDIENCE

Antoine Mekary | ALETEIA

I.Media - published on 03/22/24

Aleteia speaks with a priest who founded an anti-mafia association as Italy celebrates a day of remembrance for the victims of organized crime.

On February 24, 2024, a parish priest in Calabria, Father Felice Palamara, was celebrating Mass when he realized that bleach had been added to the chalice used for the celebration. This poisoning attempt was the latest in a series of attacks believed to have been perpetrated by organized crime in the Diocese of Mileto-Nicotera-Tropea, in southern Italy.

In Italy, there have been many priests who have been targeted for their stand against the mafia. Pope Francis in fact wrote a letter on March 19 for the 30th anniversary of the murder of Father Giuseppe Diana, killed by the mafia in 1994. 

On Thursday, March 21, Italy celebrates the 29th National Day of Remembrance and Commitment to the Victims of the Mafia. The day was launched in 1995 by the Libera (meaning “free” in Italian) association, a network of anti-mafia organizations founded by 78-year-old Italian priest, Luigi Ciotti.

I.MEDIA spoke to him to understand better how the Church, Pope Francis, and his predecessors have confronted the issue of organized crime. 

Recently, an attempt was made to poison a priest in Calabria. How did you react when you heard the news? 

Father Luigi Ciotti: I picked up the phone and tried to contact the priest. I was only able to reach another priest in the same municipality who had also been threatened. I left them a message of support, of closeness, to let them know they were not alone. These gestures are important. I was also able to speak with their bishop. 

Of course, we have to wait for the results of the investigation before we can properly express ourselves. But these [priests] must not be left alone in the meantime. The Libera association took part in a demonstration of support attended by many people, including the bishop, police, and civil authorities. 

Italian Father Luigi Ciotti who founded the anti-mafia association Libera.

Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed his support for priests who promote justice, and regularly mentions Father Pino Puglisi and Father Giuseppe ‘Peppino’ Diana, both killed by the mafia. How do these words encourage priests to continue their work for greater justice?

Father Luigi Ciotti: Exactly 10 years ago, in light of the Day of Remembrance and Commitment to the Victims of the Mafia, I asked the Pope if he would be willing to meet with 1,000 family members of innocent victims of mafia violence. And he did, on March 21, 2014, here in Rome. On that occasion, he showed his affection, his closeness, with great determination, support, and passion. That day, we listened for 45 minutes to the names of all the victims being read out. I then placed on the Pope’s shoulders the stole of Father Peppino Diana, who had been killed on his feast day, March 19, 1994, and he then gave a blessing to all those present. 

Among the victims honored were a number of priests. But the Pope is not only encouraging priests to play their part well. We must not be labeled as ‘anti-mafia’ or ‘anti-drug’ priests. We are simply priests and we are committed, in one way or another, to proclaiming the word of God.  

The Pope has a strength, an authority in his word. And it’s also very coherent and true, because it’s always based on the word of God. It’s a word to listen to, but above all to translate, to live. It’s a word that’s sometimes is uncomfortable, because it invites you to get involved.

In fact, Pope Francis repeatedly condemns all forms of organized crime. He has declared that they are irreconcilable with the Gospel. How powerful do you think Pope Francis’ words are in the regions most affected by this phenomenon? 

Father Luigi Ciotti: Pope Francis’ words, like those of Benedict XVI or John Paul II, are of great importance and value. They have served to shake the consciences of many, but also to irritate others, especially those who have chosen the path of evil, violence, and illegality.

Some criminals asked themselves some questions about what they were doing. Among them is Luigi Bonaventura, who committed crimes and belonged to the mafia before collaborating with the justice system. Pope Francis prefaced his book [“Passiamo all’altra riva” (Passing to the other shore) published in February 2022 by Youcanprint, editor’s note] which recounts his conversion and change of life. I wrote the afterword. 

The Pope encourages us, he leads us, he says that we need a Church that is not locked up in sacristies or presbyteries, but that is in the midst of the people. We are therefore called to Christian witness and civil responsibility, a double commitment that life demands of us. 

How did John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis confront the problem of organized crime in Italy?

Father Luigi Ciotti: Each of them made their contribution and did their part. They used very firm and clear words. John Paul II’s visit to the Valley of the Temples in Sicily was a turning point. On May 9, 1993, the Polish Pope made an unexpected intervention at the end of Mass. He referred to the mafia as the “civilization of death,” urging them to convert and asserting that one day God’s judgment would come. Strong, categorical words, accompanied by an invitation to conversion. The Church must intervene wherever people’s dignity, life and freedom are trampled. We cannot stand idly by, we cannot remain silent. 

John Paul II said these words because, before celebrating Mass, he had met privately the parents of Rosario Livatino, [a judge murdered by organized crime, editor’s note] and now beatified. This meeting created a flame in the Pope’s heart and conscience. 

Shortly after the Pope’s words in the Valley of the Temples, the mafia was angry and planted bombs near two churches in Rome in July 1993 (St. John Lateran and St. George of the Velabre). 

This was their signal that the Church should not intervene. 

How have his two successors positioned themselves with regards to the mafia? 

Father Luigi Ciotti: When Pope Benedict XVI visited Sicily in 2010, he met a group of young people and declared that the mafia is “a path to death.” He too, in a different way, emphasized the incompatibility between the word of God and the criminal action of the mafia.

And then Pope Francis has delivered a whole series of speeches, including the one I mentioned that happened 10 years ago. At that event, the Pope addressed “the absent bosses […] the men and women of the mafia.” I’ll summarize what he said to them: “Convert and change, I ask you on my knees, and if you don’t, you’ll go to hell.” 

How has the Church’s position on organized crime evolved over the years? 

Father Luigi Ciotti: John Paul II’s authoritative voice was certainly a turning point. But before him, the Church had already spoken out. For example, during the Ciaculli massacre in Sicily [on June 30, 1963, when seven members of the police force died, editor’s note], the local Church didn’t react immediately. So Pope Paul VI [elected on June 21 and installed on June 30, editor’s note] sent a letter to the Bishop of Palermo inviting him to take a stand. In the Church, there have been high points and low points. For some, there was an awareness of the problem, but many others have been in collusion with the mafia. 

What role can priests play within the Church in the fight against organized crime? 

Father Luigi Ciotti: The Christian community is sensitive to the promotion of mankind and the common good. It is called upon to make its contribution to the development of justice, the right to freedom and the dignity of the individual. Pope Francis has said that Christians must “get their hands dirty” on social issues. This means that we are called to devote a little of our lives, of our priestly ministry, to creating paths of justice. 

All this can be found in the social doctrine of the Church. Some might say that mafias and corruption are not problems for priests. But this is not true. Social doctrine is based on the Gospel. The very life of Jesus is immersed in the most diverse social relations. Jesus fought for the justice to which we are called out of love for our brothers and sisters. 

We, in turn, must have the strength to speak engaging words to invite people to realize that the changes we dream of really do need each and every one of us.

Tags:
ItalyPope FrancisRome
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