Plan to beatify priest killed by Mafia is strong papal message


Palermo parish priest Don Pino Puglisi was gunned down 19 years ago by Cosa Nostra

ONE OF the many vivid memories left by Pope John Paul II concerns his remarkable tirade against organised crime during a visit to Agrigento, Sicily, in May 1993. That visit came just one year after Italy had been rocked by a series of high-profile Mafia killings in Sicily, including those of investigators Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.

Visibly angry and shaking his index finger, John Paul exclaimed: “The people of Sicily . . . cannot live forever under the pressure of a contrary culture, a culture of death . . . In the name of the crucified and resurrected Christ . . . I say to those responsible, convert yourselves. One day the judgment of God will come . . .”

Cosa Nostra two months later bombed two historic churches in the centre of Rome. Much worse still, in September of that year, Cosa Nostra killed Palermo parish priest Don Pino Puglisi, who had clearly begun to annoy the Mafia.

Don Puglisi worked for three years in the Mafia-infected, relatively impoverished parish of Brancaccio. Unafraid to speak out against Mafia violence, he challenged Cosa Nostra through his work with his parishioners and their children. He tried to show that there was another way, other ideas, other values than those of the Mafia. He became so successful and such a community force that he began to represent a challenge to the most powerful Mafia family in the precinct, the Graviano family.

On September 15th 19 years ago, a day that also marked Don Puglisi’s 56th birthday, two Cosa Nostra killers, Salvatore Grigoli and Gaspare Spatuzza, were waiting for the parish priest when he got back to his home in the evening. Spatuzza attracted his attention, while Grigoli shot him.

Known as The Hunter because of his good aim, Grigoli was arrested in June 1997 and is serving a series of life sentences. In prison he has repented his sins, found God and admitted to at least 46 killings. In an interview with Panorama magazine earlier this year, he recounted how Don Puglisi had smiled at him and said: “I have been expecting you.”

Pope Benedict XVI has now opted to beatify Don Puglisi. His decision, made public in June, represents arguably the church’s strongest anti-Mafia signal since John Paul’s tirade in Agrigento. Don Puglisi will be beatified next year as a martyr to the faith, someone killed in odio alla fede (out of hate for the faith). “The martyrdom of Don Puglisi throws some light on the murky world of the Mafia, on all its illegality,” commented the archbishop of Palermo, Paolo Romeo.

Some would go further and suggest this beatification is a reminder that mafiosi are “automatically outside the church”, as defined by an Italian bishops’ document in 2009. But this is not Benedict’s message.

When the pope visited Pompeii, in the heart of a region dominated by the Neapolitan Mafia, the Camorra, in 2008, many were disappointed by his failure to make any public reference to organised crime. His visit came just shortly after reports that the Camorra had issued death threats against writer Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, a hard-hitting analysis of the dirty dealings of the Camorra.

Elements of the Italian Catholic Church have historically had a complex, if not to say ambivalent relationship with organised crime, especially in those southern regions where various mafias have their roots.

’Ndrangheta godfathers like to meet at a shrine to the Madonna. Godfathers throughout Calabria and Sicily regularly take part in religious processions. Being on the run does not even interrupt the mafioso’s religious life.

Carmelite Sicilian priest Padre Mario Frittitta was arrested (later acquitted) in 1997 after he had heard the confession of fugitive godfather Pieto Algieri. He told German writer Petra Reski in her book The Honoured Society: “Jesus went to the sinners . . . so I went to them too.”

At least he acknowledged they were sinners. Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini, the prelate who ordained Don Pino Puglisi in 1960, tended to see Sicily’s communist party as a greater threat than the Mafia. Once asked about the Mafia by a reporter, he replied: “Mafia? Isn’t that some form of soap powder?”

The beatification of Don Puglisi might suggest that the “soap powder” era is far behind us.