Maxima Culpa

Pope: No More Mafia Worship at Easter

Easter processions in southern Italy are used to pausing the statues of the saints to honor local Mafiosi holed up in their houses. No more, says Pope Francis.

03.31.15 9:15 AM ET

ROME — Last July, when the Catholic parishioners of Oppido Mamertina in Calabria dusted off the giant gilded statue of the Madonna delle Grazie for a saint’s day procession through the village streets, they did what they had done for years. They stopped in front of the house where 82-year-old Giuseppe Mazzagatti, a ‘Ndrangheta crime boss, was serving a life sentence on house arrest, to pay an unholy homage to a man been implicated in lethal crimes that have crippled the region. Videos of the procession show young men carrying the statue applauding in front of their idol’s home.

The act might have gone unnoticed, but a few weeks later, Pope Francis visited the area and was told of the practice by a regional bishop who found it “reprehensible.” Soon news of similar practices across Calabria in towns like San Procopio and Scido spread to the Holy See. The fact that the local cops and the priests of the dioceses led the processions made them even worse. 

The Pope used the examples as an opportunity to tell mobsters they could no longer hide behind their faith. Instead, he said, they are no longer welcome in the church.  “The ‘Ndrangheta is this: worship of evil and contempt for the common good. This evil must be fought until it goes away, you have to say no,” Francis told the local people. “Those who are not in this path of good, like the mafia, these are not in communion with God, are excommunicated."

Francis first took up the anti-organized crime cause in March 2014 when he held a ceremony in Rome during which he listened to the names of more than 800 men, women and children known to have been killed by mafia activity.

“The life that you are living now will not give you pleasure or joy,” he said then. “The power and money you have now from dirty business, and from mafia crimes, is blood-stained money, it is blood-stained power, and you won’t be able to take it to the after world. Repent. There’s still time to not end up in Hell, which is what awaits you if you continue on this path.”

Two weeks ago, the pope also met with people affected by organized crime when he visited the slums of Scampia outside of Naples. which is the epicenter for the Camorra crime syndicate’s heroin business.  There he likened the corruption of organized crime to “the stench of a corpse.”

The pope’s words have been taken to mean that stopping religious parades in front of known criminals’ homes is no longer an acceptable practice, even if the bosses are devout and repentant. And as Holy Week kicks off, dioceses across Italy’s criminal heartland are taking heed and vowing not to allow Easter processions to linger for the lawless.

“We need to stop making the statues protagonists in the criminal organization,” Luigi Renzo, the archbishop of Mileto-Tropea-Nicotera, declared on Palm Sunday.

To keep his word, Renzo has announced that he will divert the Holy Week procession entirely to avoid any known crime boss houses, promising that the statue from his church will stop only in front of the local hospital where he will give a blessing. But it won’t be easy. 

Renzo told The Daily Beast by telephone that his edicts are not being well received by everyone in the parish. “There are many people whose lives have been ruined by the ‘Ndrangheta,” he said. “But there are many others who couldn’t live without the organization. They have always been welcome in the church, but the Holy Father has changed that.”

Renzo says he told his parishioners to have courage to accept what is apparently a drastic change in the way many local dioceses in the deep south of Italy deal with known criminals. In February, Renzo and local bishops in Calabria met to adopt a set of regulations dealing with how the church must gradually change to turn its back on those known to be in organized crime, rather than allowing them forgiveness, which gives the impression they are allowed to hide behind their faith.

In Oppido Mamertina, Bishop Francesco Milito has also published a guide for local parishes on how to get through Holy Week without the usual practice of pausing the procession of the Madonna in front of known criminals’ houses. Last July, he defended his churchmen, telling local reporters that the priests don’t always know what’s going on in the procession, and that those who carry the saint are the strongest in body, not necessarily in faith. The guide, which was published online, advises priests not to give in to intimidation, and suggests that the best option for certain parishes is to “return the statues to the church using the shortest, most direct route possible.” 

Milito says stopping the practice of pausing the saints is only a small step to fight organized crime. “It is a gesture of caution, an invitation to reflection and silence,” he told his parishers on Palm Sunday. “Because the good of all and the serenity of mind sometimes require immediate sacrifices.”