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article imageOp-Ed: Pope Francis going after the mafia could be dangerous

By Ryan Hite     Jul 23, 2014 in World
Pope Francis is spending a lot of time going after the powerful Italian mafia, which has a long history with the Catholic Church, but could that cost him more than a few members or dollars?
It all began with the murder of a 3-year-old boy who burned to death in his grandfather’s car in a Mafia ambush in January. Pope Francis was so shaken by the death of Nicola “Coco” Campolongo that he spoke out against the ferocity of the crime and the mafia behind it.
In June, the outspoken pope traveled to the southern Italian town where the murder took place and accused Mafia members of pursuing the “adoration of evil.”
“They are not with God,” Francis said during the visit to the nearby town of Sibari in Calabria where the crime syndicate ‘Ndrangheta is based. “They are excommunicated!”
At a local prison, Francis embraced Coco’s father and two grandmothers and declared that “this evil must be fought and distanced.”
Now, Francis is about to visit the Mafia stronghold of Caserta, near Naples, this coming Saturday. The second trip to the heart of Italy’s Mafia country is spurring debate in the impact of his uncompromising stance and what it means for the papacy.
“I think it’s significant because this society is divided,” Philip Willan stated, who is the British author of “The Vatican at War,” which was released last year and looks at relations between the Holy See and organized crime against the backdrop of the Cold War era politics.
“The church has been divided over what sort of stance to take against organized crime. When the pope puts his weight decisively behind the people fighting that battle, he gives them extra strength and encouragement,” he continued.
On Saturday, Francis plans to celebrate Mass and meet Catholic clergy in Caserta, headquarters of the powerful Casalesi mafia, whose vast crime syndicate includes drug trafficking, prostitution, extortion, and money laundering, among other things.
The pope is shaking some boundaries between the mafia and the Church, which enjoyed a cozy relationship in Italy, which may be unfamiliar to the Argentinian Pope.
“I think it’s simply his desire to be coherent with the Christian message; he sees organized crime as radically incompatible with Christianity,” Willan stated. “And he is reaffirming that this has been forgotten or watered down in the past.”
Since Francis made his excommunication pledge, even the Vatican sought to backtrack, saying Mafiosi were not being formally excommunicated under church law. One prison chaplain, Rev. Marco Colonna, told the La Repubblica that he believed the pope was simply appealing for redemption. In turn, he said, many convicted Mafiosi were confused by Francis’ message and refused to come to Mass in the prison.
“I tried to explain to them that the church doesn’t kick anyone out, and after a few days of reflection, I told them that they would continue to receive the sacrament,” Colonna stated.
The pope’s stance seems to have given other clerics more courage. One bishop in Calabria called for a 10-year moratorium on naming godfathers at baptisms in a bid to stop Mafia members from spreading their influence in the region.
The church and the Mafia faced off in July when another bishop ordered an end to religious processions after hundreds of people carrying a statue of the Madonna bowed in front of the house of a powerful mafia leader who was under house arrest.
Catholicism has always been embedded in the rituals and practices of the Calabrian Mafia. Newcomers will swear allegiance to and carry pictures of St. Michael the Archangel, the patron saint of warriors, with them. Bosses have been known to decorate their bunkers with crucifixes and even hold their secret summits in churches.
Enzo Ciconte, one of Italy’s top experts on the Mafia, said that he believed many Mafiosi used religion simply as a means to gain social approval and advance their criminal operations. He said that the actions of the pope could drive a wedge between the Mafia and the lay faithful.
“From this point of view there is no doubt that the words of the pope are like a boulder that will be difficult to overcome,” he stated.
In 1993, St. John Paul II told members of the powerful Sicilian Mafia that they would “one day face the justice of God.” They responded with bomb attacks against several churches, including the Basilica of St. John Lateran, considered as the seat of the pope as the bishop of Rome.
Last fall, a local prosecutor in Calabria warned that Francis’ focus on rooting out corruption in the Vatican’s financial networks could subject him to death threats from the powerful families. “If the godfathers can find a way to stop him, they will seriously consider it,” Nicola Gratteri said. The Vatican later said that there was “absolutely no reason for concern.”
Ciconte said that he did not believe the pope was under threat.
“The Mafia is not stupid,” he concluded. “It is not worth it for the Mafia to attack the pope. They will look for ways to pressure the faithful or will stop giving money to the church.”
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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