In the southern Italian region of Calabria in January 2014, a burnt car was discovered with the remains of three people, all of whom were shot in the head. One of the victims was 3-year-old Nicola “Coco” Campolongo.
The charred car was discovered at a farmhouse in the stronghold of the ‘Ndrangheta, one of the world's most powerful criminal organizations. The apparent mob hit included Campolongo, his grandfather, and his grandfather’s partner.
“Women and children used to be off limits,” local journalist Patrizia Venturino told NBC at the time. “But it’s all changed now.”
Upon hearing the news, Pope Francis immediately flew to Calabria, and in an unprecedented condemnation, cast the Mafia out of heaven.
“The ’Ndrangheta is this: the adoration of evil and contempt of the common good,” Pope Francis said of the 6,000-member syndicate. “Mafiosi are excommunicated.”
Although the Mafia had been sharply rebuked before by Pope John Paul II in a scathing 1993 speech, this marked the first time the church proactively banned the mob.
While some mob-linked individuals reportedly have stopped engaging in criminal activities, many others now simply follow their own independent brand of Catholicism and continued their trafficking, extorting and money laundering.
Despite the papal defenestration of the mob, which remains deeply religious in defiance of the Vatican, there remains some consternation within the Church hierarchy long suspected of having close ties to the Mafia.
At the pope’s speech in Calabria, the disquiet among some of the clergy was visible.
“I realized the priests in attendance were rather disconcerted because they were afraid this would divide their communities,” said Giacomo Galeazzi, journalist for La Stampa, an Italian daily newspaper. “From now on, no priest, no bishop can say ‘I didn’t know.’ Churchmen will no longer be able to muddle through in a gray area and turn a blind eye to where the money in the collection plate is coming from.”
However, a week after the mass excommunication, a religious procession in the small town of Oppido Mamertina diverted from its normal course, stopping in front of the home of convicted local godfather Peppe Mazzagatti, who was serving a life sentence under house arrest.
“True mobsters don’t pay any attention to what Francis said,” Father Marcello Cozzi, the vice-president of Italian anti-Mafia association Libera, told VICE News in July. “These are people who make the sign of the cross before and after they kill someone. They’ve created an image of the Holy Father according to themselves. What’s worrisome is that we the priests aren’t distancing ourselves. The priests allow what occurred [in Oppido Mamertina] to happen, and it’s nothing new”.
Father Luigi Ciotti, president of Libera, noted that the church remains “lukewarm” in some places, failing to enforce the papal diktat.
“Still today there are those who only stand and watch, who always say ‘it is up to someone else to take a stand’,” said Ciotti.
‘Churchmen will no longer be able to muddle through in a gray area and turn a blind eye to where the money in the collection plate is coming from.’
journalist, La Stampa
Though a majority of clergy seem to have accepted the excommunication with good grace, Father Michele Pennisi, bishop of Monreale, said there’s been subtle resistance.
“Usually it derives from wanting to live a quiet life, to let sleeping dogs lie, because many Mafiosi are benefactors to the local church,” said Pennisi. “Benefactors, above all, when they sponsor religious festivals. And often because the Mafia has power over a city, it can be convenient.”
One prison chaplain in Calabria, where over 70 percent of the inmates belong to ’Ndrangheta, says he’s not even able to follow the papal ruling.
“I can’t make distinctions. I can’t withhold the sacraments from, or excommunicate ‘Ndrangheta as opposed to other prisoners,” said Father Giacomo D’anna.
For most members of the Mafia though, the excommunication may not have changed business as usual. Though it’s led to some Mafiosi leaving behind lives of crime and made others hesitant and confused, enduring faith traditions allow for the same religious beliefs and cultural practices to be sustained.
“For the Mafioso, the immediate and broader family grouping is much more important than society,” said Roberto Scarpinato, prosecutor general at Palermo’s Court of Appeals. “Mafioso will take certain aspects of Catholic culture, like the notion of redemption, sexual morality, family values, and make them into a framework for his own particular relationship with God and religion.”
‘Mafioso will take certain aspects of Catholic culture, like the notion of redemption, sexual morality, family values, and make them into a framework for his own particular relationship with God and religion.’
prosecutor general, Palermo
Cosa Nostra member Leonardo Messina, whose testimony in 1992 led to the arrest of over 200 Mafiosi, described a deeply religious organization that included a Friday no-kill rule.
“As men of honor, we all believe we are Catholics. We even trace Cosa Nostra’s origins back to Apostle Peter,” said Messina of the Sicilian crime alliance. “It might seem strange, but we men of honor all have a Bible, and we all honor the saints. For example, there’s a rule in Cosa Nostra against killing on Fridays, because it’s a day of mourning for us.”
Initiation rites for many Mafia families use icons of saints, and Italian prosecutors have said this drives many criminals to be convinced of their morality while carrying out illegal acts.
Moreover, killing enemies or traitors is often viewed as necessary and forgivable by Christ.
For Father Giacomo Panizza, a priest in the southern town of Lamezia, the repercussions of resisting the Mafia are all too real, and the excommunication of the Mafia has done little to help.
On Easter Sunday, and on the first Sunday of Lent, his church was shot at. On Christmas, a bomb blew up the church’s entrance. The church door was recently set on fire. Police say it’s to send a message to the priest.
“Yes, I’m scared. I’m really scared of them,” said Panizza, before explaining the mob's lack of a moral compass. “But when I look at how they live, I always said to myself that I’d be more scared if I’d submitted to them because I see them living a life like that.”