pope new yorkerIn some ways, it is surprising that Pope Francis made news by travelling to Calabria and excommunicating members of the Mafia. He went to a town where members of a local Mafia group, known as the ’Ndrangheta, had murdered a three-year-old boy, together with his grandfather, and burned their bodies, in a case tied up with suspected drug trafficking. The Catholic Church, under Pope Francis, had excommunicated an Australian priest for his support for the ordination of women and for gay marriage. Surely it shouldn’t be a dramatic move for him to say that those responsible for a grisly crime like the one in Calabria are outside the grace of God.

But the unequivocal opposition of the Church to the Mafia has not always been quite so clear. And the Mafia has a long history of appropriating the symbols and the language of Catholicism in order to create an aura of legitimacy for itself among the people of Southern Italy, an area where popular religiosity has been and remains widely felt. The initiation ritual of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra concludes with the burning of an image of a saint and the testament that the initiate’s soul should burn, too, should he break his vow to the organization. (The ’Ndrangheta also adopts religious imagery.) In the nineteen-forties, the Church made belonging to the Communist Party an excommunicable sin, and yet the Church never bothered to say that taking the Mafia oath might be a form of blasphemy.

In many towns in Southern Italy, organized-crime bosses make a point of taking part in, or control of, popular religious festivals as an expression of their power. It is common enough for a religious progression to stop pointedly in front of the house of the local boss. In the nineteen-eighties, the nephew of the feared boss of Catania, Nitto Santapaola, had the privilege of carrying the relics of St. Agatha, the patron saint of the city, on her feast day. In a wiretap made by Italian police, one mafioso suggested to an associate that they avoid pressuring a particular shopkeeper for protection money, because he was related to a police officer and might denounce them. It would be better, instead, to ask him for extra money for the festival of the town’s patron saint.

The Sicilian boss Leonardo Messina told investigators in the early nineteen-nineties, “All men of honor consider ourselves Catholic; Cosa Nostra sees itself as descending from St. Peter.” Michele Greco, the head of the internal commission through which the Sicilian Mafia regulated itself during the late nineteen-seventies and early nineteen-eighties, was nicknamed Il Papa, the Pope, because he was known for saying prayers several times a day and also because of his position in the organization. At the “maxi-trial” of Palermo, in the late nineteen-eighties, when he was one of four hundred and seventy-five defendants, he made a public statement in which he wished his judges “peace and serenity” as they went off to deliberate on their sentence.

The boss of bosses for many years, Salvatore (Totò) Riina, was married in a Palermo church while living as a fugitive. The priest who officiated, Agostino Coppola, was himself from a Mafia family: his cousin was an Italian-American gangster named Frank (Three Fingers) Coppola. Father Coppola was defrocked when he was discovered with a considerable amount of cash from a kidnapping ransom; he later married the daughter of a Mafia family. Riina’s successor, Bernardo Provenzano, who, in 2006, was captured after forty years on the run, always carried a Bible with him and frequently made religious references in the handwritten notes that he issued as a means of communicating with others in the organization. Police believe that he used the Bible as a kind of cipher, which could make his cryptic-seeming messages intelligible.

This odd state of affairs was made possible, in part, by the politics of Cold War Sicily. In the wake of the Second World War, when a victory by the Italian left seemed possible, the newly formed Christian Democratic Party accepted support from all directions, including the Mafia. Local bosses proved helpful in winning elections, and it became tempting, even for national leaders, to lean on local Southern Italian politicians, who were enmeshed in a system in which politics, religion, corruption, and organized crime were bound. Giulio Andreotti, who served seven terms as Italy’s Prime Minister, was tried, convicted, and then acquitted of ties to organized crime. (The verdict found that he had been dependent on Mafia support earlier in his career, but noted that the statute of limitations had run out.) In a speech in Palermo, in 1980, attended by some local politicians who had come under fire for their Mafia ties, Andreotti said, “Let the priests take care of our souls, the Lord has given us the grace of the State. What’s important is that the D.C. [Democrazia Cristiana] obtains a good result in the administrative elections.”

The hundreds of murders committed in Sicily and elsewhere during the early eighties, including the assassinations of prominent public officials, began to turn the public and Church officials away from a see-no-evil attitude toward the Mafia. Several Southern Italian priests made it part of their pastoral mission to steer young people away from a life of crime, and inveighed against Mafia culture. John Paul II was the first Pope to speak out forthrightly against the Mafia: in a speech he gave in Agrigento, Sicily, in 1993, he called on the men of the Mafia to repent. During the nineties, at least three anti-Mafia priests were murdered because of their work.

And yet, in the past twenty years, many politicians with ties to organized crime have returned to the political scene. One of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s closest associates, and friends, Marcello Dell’Utri, has been convicted of collusion with the Mafia; when he was working for Berlusconi, he hired a mafioso who also worked for Berlusconi. Having met with a Mafia member or attending a Mafia wedding stopped being a disqualifying demerit, and contributed to an attitude of relative indifference to the problem.

Some mafiosi have justified themselves by stressing the difference between a crime and a sin; the Mafia, and not only the Mafia, has appropriated the Catholic culture of forgiveness as a kind of license for anything. In one fascinating set of wiretaps, in the early two-thousands, the Mafia boss Giuseppe Guttadauro, a medical doctor who was on close terms with the governor of Sicily (since convicted of collusion), talked with an associate about his relationship with his priest-confessor. Guttadauro explained that the priest called being in the Mafia a sin, to which he replied, “The sin of ‘Mafia’ doesn’t exist. Where is it written in the Bible? You need to find an intelligent priest who understands these things.”

Many in the Church have, indeed, preferred to ignore the problem. Even in the Calabria case, the local priest of Cassano all’Ionio, where the body of three-year-old Cocò Campolongo was found, had been reluctant to discuss the case in public, as the author Roberto Saviano pointed out. “More Cocò,” the priest said in a recent interview. “We did the funeral. I am not an investigator. It’s not my job to say who did it. It’s still not clear whether drugs and the ’Ndrangheta had anything to do with it.”

Now, at least, something is clear. “The ’Ndrangheta is this: the adoration of evil and contempt of the common good,” Pope Francis said. “Mafiosi are excommunicated.”

Photo by Vatican Pool/Getty.


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