ROME – Thirty years ago today, a young Italian priest was gunned down by a mafia hitman as he was preparing to say Mass, thereby giving his life for his people. In itself, perhaps, there’s nothing especially unique about that, since scores of Christian martyrs of all eras, both clergy and lay, have done exactly the same thing.

Yet under the logic of seeing a world in a grain of sand, the story of Father Giuseppe “Peppe” Diana nonetheless is worth telling, because in many ways it contains the entire drama of Christianity in miniature.

Diana was born on July 4, 1958, in Casal di Principe, a town of roughly 20,000 people located in the southern Italian region of Campania, about two hours south of Rome by car. His parents were farmers, and when Diana decided he wanted to enter the minor seminary at the age of ten, it required serious sacrifices, since the family was required to pay his tuition and fees.

Yet his parents were happy to scrimp and save, because they understood the realistic alternative for a young man at that time probably was the camorra, the form of organized crime which, in various forms, had dominated social, political and economic life in the Campania since the 18th century.

Eventually Diana ended up at Rome’s Gregorian University studying for the priesthood, but was turned off by what he saw as the joylessness and isolation of the place. He briefly tried to pursue a degree in engineering, but could never escape the sense he was being called to the priesthood. He enrolled in the seminary in Naples and was ordained in 1982.

In addition to serving as a parish priest, Diana became a leader in the Italian scouting movement, seeing it as a way to give young people a sense of purpose and belonging away from organized crime, and also led pilgrimages for the sick to Lourdes – all while rarely missing a Sunday afternoon appointment in San Paolo Stadium, to cheer for his beloved Naples soccer club during the glory years of Maradona.

Early on, Diana was flagged as a potential clerical star. He became secretary to the bishop of the Diocese of Aversa, and there was talk of him taking up a teaching position in Rome as a prelude to one day becoming a bishop himself. Instead, he became the pastor of St. Nicholas of Bari parish in Casal di Principe in September 1989 and opted to stay, sensing his path lay instead in rousing the church to fight the camorra’s grip.

At the time, Casal di Principe was basically under the direct rule of a camorra boss named Francesco Schiavone, nicknamed “Sandokan.” By all accounts, Diana was especially galvanized in 1991 when a shootout in the town’s central square of accidentally left a 21-year-old young man dead. Diana swiftly published a flyer calling on the community to resist what he called the “armed dictatorship of the camorra.”

Later, at Christmas Mass in 1991, Diana led the other two pastors of Casal di Principe in reading out a lengthy declaration against the camorra, the title of which has become famous: Per Amore del Mio Popolo, Non Tacerò. (“For Love of My People, I Will Not Stay Silent.”)

Its most celebrated language was the following:

“The camorra today is a form of terrorism that incites fear, imposes its laws and seeks to be an endemic component of society in Campania. The camorra represents a deviant state parallel to the official one … The weakness of our pastoral action must convince us that the church’s activity has to become sharper and less neutral …To our brother priests and pastors, we ask you to speak clearly in your homilies and all other occasions that demand courageous testimony. To the church, we ask that it not renounce its prophetic role, generating the capacity to produce a new consciousness marked by justice, solidarity and ethical and civil values.”

After that public declaration, Diana helped lead an anti-camorra association and supported politicians and businessmen willing to defy the gangs. He also began working to meet the material and spiritual needs of migrants and refugees, many of whom were being trafficked by the camorra.

The risks of such activity were all too obvious – he was well aware, for instance, that another anti-mafia priest, Father Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi, had been assassinated in Palermo in September 1993.

Thus it was that on March 19, 1994 – the feast of St. Joseph, meaning it was Diana’s onomastico, his saint’s name day – a camorra gunman walked into the sacristy at St. Nicholas as Diana was preparing to celebrate the 7:30 morning Mass and shot him five times. He died instantly, as two bullets struck his head, one his face, one his throat, and the other his hand as he sought in vain to protect himself.

Diana was 36 years old at the time of his death. The next day, which was a Sunday, Pope John Paul II paid tribute to Diana in his noontime Angelus address.

“I ask the Lord to ensure that the sacrifice of this his minister, like an evangelical piece of grain fallen to the earth, will produce fruits of full conversion, of committed harmony, and of solidarity and peace,” the pope said.

In the immediate aftermath of the killing, mafia-linked media outlets in Campania tried to sully Diana’s reputation, suggesting variously that he was killed because he was having affairs with local women, that he was a pedophile, even that he was himself a member of the camorra who maintained a secret cache of weapons on their behalf. At one point, newspapers published a photograph of Diana with two young women, suggesting they had been his lovers, while in reality they were two female scouts who were part of a larger group on a campout, and who vigorously denied that anything untoward ever happened.

Diana’s family eventually would file suit for defamation and win their case, but they nevertheless described the rumors as virtually a second assassination attempt.

Diana’s funeral was held on March 21, 1994, which coincidentally that year was the first day of spring. Many observers took it as providence – as Bishop Antonio Riboldi of Acerra said, “A priest is dead, but a people has been born,” referring in part to the 20,000 people who thronged the streets of Casal di Principe to take part in the funeral procession, winding their way past balcony after balcony from which locals had hung white sheets in a gesture of silent protest.

Thirty years later, while organized crime has not been completely eradicated in Casal di Principe, observers say the landscape is dramatically different. Many clans have been dismantled, bosses are either in prison or on the run, and public administration has become at least somewhat more transparent. Properties seized from the camorra have been transformed into community centers, libraries, and facilities for non-profit organizations that promote employment and help locals produce staples for market ranging from pickles to chocolate.

This week, a delegation of civic leaders from France is making a visit to Casal di Principe to study Italian laws regarding the social use of confiscated mob assets, as well as support systems for mafia victims and their families, all of which were in part inspired by Diana’s example.

Perhaps most importantly, citizens say they no longer feel afraid to speak out when they perceived corruption or criminality, following Diana’s lead of not remaining silent.

The Diocese of Aversa, where Casal di Principe is located, requested Vatican approval to open a beatification cause for Diana in 2015. To date, permission from the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints has yet to arrive, which many observers attribute to the impact of the camorra’s defamation campaign.

Nevertheless, many who knew Diana aren’t waiting for officialdom: “He was a martyr of Christ for love of his people,” declared retired Bishop Raffaele Nogaro of Caserta, a close friend and spiritual father of Diana, in a recent interview.

Roberto Saviano, an Italian journalist who grew up in Casal di Principle and who’s lived with a police escort since 2006 for his own condemnations of the camorra, published an essay today that more or less summed up the sentiments of those who knew and cherished the young priest.

“I wonder if we really deserved someone like Father Peppe Diana,” he wrote. “I wish he hadn’t become a hero … I wish he were still alive.”