On a highly significant weekend for the Italian Catholic Church, Pope Francis yesterday welcomed the beatification on Saturday of Fr Pino Puglisi, the church's first "Mafia martyr". Speaking after yesterday's Angelus prayer in St Peter's Square, the pope described Don Puglisi as an "exemplary priest" who had sacrificed his life in an attempt to steer young people away from organised crime.
Fr Pino Puglisi, who was gunned down by Cosa Nostra in Palermo in September 1993, had become a major thorn in the side of the Graviano family in the working-class neighbourhood of Brancaccio. In his efforts to set up a social centre for the area, catering especially for the young, Fr Puglisi had undermined the power and influence of the Gravianos who consequently ordered his execution.
Speaking at the beatification ceremony in Palermo, attended by 80,000 faithful, the cardinal of Palermo, Paolo Romeo, said: "The church recognises in his life, sealed by his martyrdom because of hatred for the faith, a model to be imitated in all his choices . . . He was someone who deprived the Mafia in Brancaccio of consensus, of a future work force and of control over the territory."
Cardinal Romeo also repeated the words of a famous homily given in Agrigento, Sicily by Pope John Paul II in May 1993, just months before the assassination of Don Puglisi, saying: “In the name of the crucified and risen Christ, of Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, I say to those responsible, Repent, the day of God’s judgment will one day come . . .”
Pope Francis said that Don Puglisi had not died in vain because he had left behind a “glowing testimony” and “a glittering example to be treasured”.
Don Puglisi was one of two prominent Italian priests to be remembered on a weekend also marked by the funeral in Genoa of Don Andrea Gallo, a priest who had devoted his ministry to the deprived and homeless, including prostitutes and drug addicts. Don Gallo's funeral in Genoa's Carmine Church, however, was marked by a remarkable moment when the congregation protested against the homily given by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian Bishops Conference.
Don Gallo spent much of his life at loggerheads with senior church figures, including many members of the Roman Curia and he was regularly bitterly critical of both popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. When Cardinal Bagnasco chose to recall Don Gallo's relationship with another of his "opponents" within the church, Cardinal Giuseppe Siri of Genoa, the congregation became uneasy, with some people shouting at the cardinal as those listening to the oration on loudspeakers outside the church broke into a rendition of the old partisan song, Bella ciao . It required the intervention of Don Gallo's long-time assistant, Lilli, before order was restored.
Finally, yesterday saw the pope make his first parish visit when he travelled to the Rome suburb of Prima Porta, an area marked by many of the social problems afflicting today’s Italy such as unemployment, petty crime and a lack of state services and infrastructure. In his Angelus homily, Francis highlighted the visit, calling on the faithful to pray for “my pastoral service to the church”.