Pope Francis and the Mafia

On June 21, 2014, while on a visit to Calabria, Italy, home of the Mafia ‘Ndrangheta, Pope Francis spoke to all Italians, and the world, clearly defining the status of Mafia groups with the Catholic Church. “Those who go down the evil path, as the Mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated.”

Francis minced no words speaking directly to the ‘Ndrangheta on their own turf. When speaking of the “Mafiosi”, he was also including members of the Neapolitan Camorra and the Sicilian Mafia as others who could not be in communion with Christ and members of the Catholic Church. These are not just local Italian crime groups. They are worldwide criminal organizations with money and political influence. In one sentence, not uttered by any previous Pope to my knowledge, Francis drew a bright line that these Mafiosi will not accept.

In Calabria on July 2, 2014, the town of Oppido Mamertina held its annual religious procession led by the mayor, the local clergy and several Carabinieri police officers. In a direct challenge to the words of Pope Francis, the leaders deviated from the parade route to take the statue of the Madonna to the house of a convicted Mafioso serving his life prison sentence at home. Here the Madonna was lowered to pay respect, a salute, to this Mafioso. The mayor and the clergy continued on with the parade. The Carabinieri police officers were the only ones who refused to continue the parade after this outrageous act. They returned and filed a complaint which is now being investigated by anti-Mafia prosecutors. In response to this direct challenge, the local bishop has ordered no further church processions may take place in Calabria until further notice. Their religious parade season has been shut down for now.

The courage of this order was with the knowledge of a similar incident in southern Calabria at Easter, 2011 when a local bishop barred organized crime members from carrying the statue of the Madonna in a religious procession. Shortly thereafter a shot was fired through the front door of the residence for the town’s parish priest. Was it a warning? What will the Mafia groups do? How far will they go in their efforts to bully the Catholic Church and Francis to back off of his current religious dictate?

Over the years many, including myself, thought the Catholic Church routinely turned a blind eye toward Italian organized crime activities. Even worse they allowed Mafiosi to appear as respected members of local parishes. This in turn gave community members no place to turn for help. By not denouncing these Mafia criminal groups – which all require prospective members to participate in a murder before membership is bestowed – there existed no bar to recruiting new members. Young men could become a “man of honor,” as they describe themselves, and enjoy a relationship with their church where no priest or bishop would tell them differently.

Catholic religious rituals hold an important place in the mobster mentality. The Mafia’s Oath of Omerta was sworn to by new entrants – in one induction ceremony where I have personal knowledge – with a holy card bearing the images of Saints Peter and Paul ablaze in their cupped hands, while they mouthed their words of criminal allegiance. It has been a desecration of religion for centuries. No one challenges their evil so, in their minds, no evil exists? They delude themselves into believing what they pretend to be with no reference to reality. However, Pope Francis has told the world and all Mafiosi that by their own choice of action they cannot and will not be members of the Catholic Church. Hereafter, no matter what they do or say, they are banished, formally separated from the life of the church.

In 1989, I wrote to an American Catholic Cardinal who knew I was actively serving as an FBI agent investigating the American La Cosa Nostra and the Sicilian Mafia. I noted that in many Italian communities the Mafiosi seemed to have a place of honor with the clergy and in religious processions. I thought this served as a public sign of de facto clergy approval and was a clear statement the church would not challenge the mob’s power nor lose its support. Who would go to the parish priest for help when it concerned the Mafia?

I learned later from one of the Cardinal’s administrative priests that it took the Cardinal’s advisors two days to decide how to respond to my comment about the church and the Mafia. I was advised by return letter that if I thought some law was being broken, I should contact the Papal Nuncio (the Pope’s personal representative in the US) in Washington, D.C. The Cardinal reminded me of Pontius Pilate. I considered his response totally lacking in substance and disingenuous.

A few years later, I was temporarily but falsely heartened when the then current Pope said in a speech in Sicily that the Mafia was “intrinsically evil.” I wasn’t sure what that meant or what impact he intended his words to have. What was he telling his priests to do? He went back to Rome. I never heard any further public comment, much less action, offered by him on this subject. The historic relationship between the Mafia and the Catholic Church continued on.

In the 1990s the Sicilian Mafia grotesquely targeted for death Italian law enforcement officers, judges, politicians, journalists, and put the stability of the Italian government up for grabs. Many Italians have made great sacrifice and evidenced great courage in their ongoing and successful effort to rid Italy of this Mafia plague.
I pray Pope Francis continues on this path. It is not a problem he can solve with one pronouncement. He cannot flip a switch and change the status quo overnight. To be effective he will need to challenge his priests and bishops to put his words into practice. It is they who need to provide better example and leadership to their congregations.

I admire and respect Francis greatly. He speaks clearly and with courage. He addresses issues that have been too long ignored. The Mafiosi will fight to retain church recognition that they think they are owed. Francis knows this. He must expect Mafia counterattacks designed to force him to reverse or neutralize his declared position on their excommunication. I hope all of Italian law enforcement, the Swiss Guards, and his own priests will support and protect him. He cannot do this alone.