Pope pays trib­ute in Si­cily to priest slain by the Mafia


PALERMO, Si­cily — Pope Fran­cis ap­pealed to Mafiosi to re­nounce their quests for power and money as he vis­ited Si­cily on Satur­day to honor a priest slain by mob hench­men for try­ing to pro­tect youths from the evil clutches of or­ga­nized crime.

The day­long trip by Fran­cis to the Mediter­ranean is­land where the Cosa Nos­tra is rooted marked the 25th an­niver­sary of the as­sas­si­na­tion of the Rev. Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi’s as­sas­si­na­tion. Puglisi was de­clared a mar­tyr by the Vat­i­can and be­at­i­fied in 2013, the last for­mal step be­fore pos­si­ble saint­hood.

Fran­cis paid trib­ute to the priest, who worked to keep un­em­ployed youths in a poor neigh­bor­hood of Palermo from turn­ing to lo­cal Mafia bosses for jobs such as push­ing drugs. The pa­pal pil­grim­age came in coun­ter­point to the lat­est rev­e­la­tions about pri­ests and bish­ops who sex­u­ally abused chil­dren or con­nived to pro­tect the abusers in var­i­ous na­tions, dis­clo­sures bat­ter­ing the high­est lev­els of the church and test­ing the faith of rank-and-file Catholics.

Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple cheered Fran­cis at an open-air Mass held in the late morn­ing at an es­planade along the port city’s wa­ter­front. “Let’s re­new the church,” read a large ban­ner car­ried by young peo­ple in the crowd as Fran­cis was driven by in his white pope­mo­bile.

Pres­sure is build­ing on Fran­cis to say what he knew about the sex­ual mis­con­duct of U.S. prelate Theodore Mc­Car­rick, who re­cently was stripped of his car­di­nal’s rank by the pope.

In a city where lo­cal bosses can ex­ert in­flu­ence by walk­ing through a neigh­bor­hood and many busi­ness own­ers pay Cosa Nos­tra “pro­tec­tion” money to stay open, Fran­cis drew ap­plause when he told the crowd: “If the Mafioso litany is, ‘you don’t know who I am,’ the Chris­tian one is ‘I need you.’ If the Mafia threat is ‘you will pay me,’ the Chris­tian prayer is ‘Lord, help me to love.’”

“Thus I say to the Mafiosi: change, brothers and sis­ters. Quit think­ing about your­selves and your money,” Fran­cis con­tin­ued in his homily.

“You know, a fu­neral shroud doesn’t have pock­ets. You can’t take it with you,” Fran­cis said of or­ga­nized crime’s ill-gained wealth from drug and arms traf­fick­ing, ex­tor­tion and bet­ting and pros­ti­tu­tion rack­ets.

In a 2014 pil­grim­age to another south­ern re­gion of Italy, Cal­abria, where the pow­er­ful ‘Ndrangheta crime syn­di­cate con­di­tions much of daily life, Fran­cis de­clared that mob­sters ex­com­mu­ni­cate them­selves with their con­duct.

Puglisi was fa­tally shot in the neck, on his 56th birth­day, on the doorstep of his home in Palermo. Courts ruled the gun­man was car­ry­ing out the or­ders of Mafia bosses ir­ri­tated by the priest’s en­cour­age­ment of young peo­ple to turn their backs on the mob.

The pope later vis­ited the apart­ment build­ing where Puglisi lived and laid a bou­quet of roses on the side­walk where a me­mo­rial marks the lo­ca­tion of the priest’s slay­ing. Fran­cis also prayed silently in front of Puglisi’s tomb in Palermo’s cathe­dral.

Puglisi was gunned down a few months af­ter Pope John Paul II made a pil­grim­age to Si­cily and an­grily de­manded that mob­sters con­vert their hearts or face the wrath of God at the end of their lives. At that time, the is­land still was shocked by the 1992 bomb­ing as­sas­si­na­tions, by Cosa Nos­tra, of Italy’s top anti-Mafia mag­is­trates.

The gun­man later turned state’s ev­i­dence, tes­ti­fy­ing that Puglisi turned to him with a smile and said he was ex­pect­ing to be killed.

Dur­ing his time at the cathe­dral, Fran­cis warned clergy to be on guard for lo­cal crime clan bosses ex­ploit­ing pop­u­lar re­li­gious pro­ces­sions in Si­cil­ian towns.

“You’ve seen it in the news­pa­pers, no?” the pope said. “When the Madonna [statue] halts and bows be­fore the home of the Mafia boss. That can’t be that way, ab­so­lutely not.”

Fran­cis’ de­nun­ci­a­tion of the Mafia prompted praise from Italy’s in­te­rior min­is­ter, Mat­teo Salvini, who in a tweet called the pope’s words “holy” and vowed to use more po­lice and funds in the state’s war against Cosa Nos­tra.

Com­ing from the pop­ulist min­is­ter, the com­pli­ment was un­usual. Salvini’s anti-mi­grant poli­cies clash with the pope’s fre­quent ap­peals for more, not less, sol­i­dar­ity with peo­ple in need.


Pope Fran­cis prays Satur­day in front of the house of the Rev. Pino Puglisi in Palermo, Italy.

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