On July 3rd, just days after the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI would beatify the Sicilian anti-Mafia priest Don Pino Puglisi, it became clear not everyone was happy with the decision. Police discovered a bomb in the form of a gas cylinder outside the entrance of a Centre in Palermo founded by the late priest.
“It’s a gesture that makes us realize that we must continue along this path, that we still have to learn all the messages and teaching of Blessed Puglisi,” said the Centre’s president, Maurizio Artale.
Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi (pictured) was a Roman Catholic priest who chose to serve in San Gaetano parish in Palermo’s poor neighbourhood of Brancaccio – his birthplace, also known to be a Mafia stronghold. Don Pino had been parish priest there for three years when, on September 15, 1993 – his 56th birthday – he was gunned down outside his home.
The day had been fairly routine: he had celebrated two weddings, went to a couple of meetings, met parents of soon-to-be baptized infants, and then attended a small birthday party thrown by his friends. But on returning home at 8:20 in the evening, a gunman shot the priest in the head soon after he got out of his car.
Don Pino was taken unconscious to a local hospital, but surgeons were unable to revive him. Local Mafia bosses, brothers Filippo and Giuseppe Graviano, were later found guilty of ordering the murder and received life sentences in 1998. One of the hired killers reportedly told the police that Don Pino had said, “I was expecting you”, on seeing the gunmen approaching.
The murder of Don Pino took place at a time when the Sicilian Mafia was facing challenges from all sides. It had gained considerable influence under the corrupt Christian Democratic governments from the 1950s until the early 1990s when it bribed politicians, judges and officials.
But its influence was beginning to wane, and organized crime was becoming targeted by the “Maxi-Trials” – anti-Mafia proceedings led by magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Both magistrates paid dearly for their heroic work: Falcone, his wife and three body guards were killed in a massive bomb attack in May 1992. Paolo Borsellino replaced him, but he and five bodyguards were killed in a car bomb just two months later. Their murders came as the Mafia were setting off bombs throughout Italy and especially in Sicily.
But while these killings incensed the population, it was the murder of a Catholic priest that crossed the line and caused the greatest outcry. A group of Sicilian priests pleaded for Pope John Paul II to attend Don Pino’s funeral, but although that wasn’t possible (he had a previous engagement to attend to in Tuscany), he made a visit to Sicily the following year. During that trip, the pontiff praised Don Pino as a “courageous exponent of the Gospel”, said his death was not in vain, and warned that silence and passivity about the Mafia was tantamount to complicity.
Born to a working class family in Brancaccio on September 15, 1937, Don Pino’s father was a shoemaker, his mother a dressmaker. He began training for the priesthood at the age of 16, and following ordination in 1960, he served in various parishes, including one struck by a bloody vendetta. He then spent much of his time teaching religious education in schools, became a vice-rector of a seminary, and served in other run-down parishes in Palermo. He returned to Brancaccio to be parish priest of San Gaetano in 1990, despite being offered less rough Palermo parishes.
Once there, he routinely and fearlessly spoke out against the Mafia who controlled the area, and opened a shelter for underprivileged children. He tried to change his parishioners’ mentality which, like much of Sicily even today, is conditioned by fear, passivity and omerta, an imposed silence. He was particularly forthright in his preaching, calling on his flock to give leads to authorities about the Mafia’s activities. He refused money from them for traditional feastday celebrations, and would not allow Mafia “men of honour” to march at the head of religious processions.
But his efforts focused on justice, solidarity and rehabilitation, and were primarily directed at the young, whom he saw as the key to eventually freeing the region from the grip of organised crime. He took disadvantaged children off the streets and discouraged them from dropping out of school and becoming embroiled in a life of theft, drug dealing and selling contraband cigarettes. He implored them to take responsibility for their own lives, and founded the centre in Palermo to help them.
“Get rid of that which leads you down the wrong path,” he would tell them, while his favourite rhetorical question was: “And what if somebody did something?” — meaning, perhaps, “You don’t have to follow suit.”
In his inevitable exchanges with the Mafia, he refused to award a construction contract to a firm they proposed to save the crumbling roof of the parish’s 18th century church. Seeing his exemplary life, his parishioners likewise put up resistance, and were similarly targeted, receiving death threats or vandalism to their houses.
Writing in Commonweal in 2002, Lawrence S. Cunningham described Don Pino’s basic intuition of the Mafia’s ideology as “radically pagan and profoundly anti-Christian” and that his struggle “was a kind of exorcism in the name of the Gospel.” He even wrote a parody of the Mafia, devising a special Our Father for them. It reads:
O godfather to me and my family, You are a man of honor and worth. Your name must be respected. Everyone must obey you. Everyone must do what you say for this is the law of those who do not wish to die. You give us bread, work; who wrongs you, pays. Do not pardon; it is an infamy. Those who speak are spies. I put my trust in you, godfather. Free me from the police and the law.
Indeed, Don Pino was well known for his sense of humour, and at times even made light of the lack of support from the Church hierarchy. He was ordained by Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini from Palermo, who was said to regard communism as a greater threat than the Mafia and once even questioned the latter’s very existence. According to the National Catholic Reporter, when asked by a journalist, “What is the Mafia?” the cardinal flippantly replied: “So far as I know, it could be a brand of detergent.”
Don Pino saw it as necessary to challenge such attitudes, but to do it sensitively. “We can, we must criticize the Church when we feel it doesn’t respond to our expectations, because it’s absolutely right to seek to improve it,” he said, jokingly adding: “But we should always criticize it like a mother, never a mother-in-law!”
The cause for Don Pino’s beatification and canonization opened in 1999 and has been expected for some time. As someone the Pope decreed had been killed in odium fidei (out of hatred of the faith), he will be declared a martyr and no miracle is required on account of his intercession.
During the homily of his last Mass, said for children about to receive Holy Communion for the first time, he used words which summed up his untiring efforts to defend human dignity in the face of violence – a stand that would lead him to facing that same violence, and paying the ultimate price.
“We have said: we want to create a different world,” he remarked. “Let us strive then to create a climate of honesty, of righteousness, of justice, which means the fulfilment of what pleases God.”
Edward Pentin is a journalist based in Rome.