ROME – On Holy Thursday, Pope Francis will kneel down and wash and kiss the feet of prisoners in the Paliano, a maximum-facility prison located south of Rome used to house mafia turncoats.

The event marks the latest stand against organized crime in a pontificate that has condemned the mafia, with much-needed hard words, both in Italy and globally. But it also highlights the complex relationship that exists between the Vatican and the mafia, two essentially sovereign states nestled in the complex realities of one boot-shaped peninsula.

When speaking of “Mafia” in Italy, one is referring to an extremely multifaceted reality that seeps into every aspect of everyday life. There are three main branches of organized crime: The Camorra crime syndicate in Naples, the ‘Ndrangheta in the Calabria region, and Italy’s most successful export after pizza, the Sicilian Mafia.

Of course, defining the mafia as a “sovereign state” is not entirely correct. It exercises power over well-defined territories and has influence over less-than clear areas. Its operations have a widespread effect on the economy, society and culture, assuming more of a parasitical relationship with the hosting country.

If you add in the common use of violence to infuse terror against those who oppose them, one could say that mafias are as much of a state as ISIS, for example. You can’t see’em, but you definitely feel them, and it’s darn hard to fight’em.

Pope Francis has decided to engage in the battle against the mafia, following and building upon the efforts made by previous popes. But defining the relations between these two institutions can often be misleading, as the mafia adopts Catholic rites and traditions to enforce its influence.

Even Saints Kneel To The “Boss”

In June 2016, in the Sicilian town of Corleone, a procession carrying a statue of St. John the Evangelist took a detour to the house of Salvatore Riina, a former mafia lord also know as u capu di ‘i capi (the boss of bosses) and la bestia (the beast), due to his murderous rampage in the 1990s.

Even though Riiva was not home, since he has been serving a life sentence in prison since 1993, the procession stopped and made the saint “kneel” before his home in a dramatic show of respect.

Outcry followed, with Father Domenico Mancuso, who led the procession, saying “we have all decided that the procession of St. John will never again walk by via Scorsone,” the street where Riina used to live.

This is not the first time Christian rituals have been used by mafias to promote their culture and “values.” Giovanni Falcone, an Italian judge who was killed while trying to fight criminal organizations, defined the mafia as a religion, an inverted religion that inserts people in a diabolical circle and makes them slaves.

“Mafias have dedicated a particular attention to the symbols and practices of the Catholic religion, without any concerns regarding the obvious contrast between these symbols and the everyday lives of the mafiosi,” said Michele Pennisi, archbishop of the Sicilian town of Monreale, in a recent interview with Vatican Radio.

“This way, the holiest symbols such as participating in a procession or being a godfather, are bent and made into a means to obtaining social approval and ecclesiastical status,” Pennisi said. “These pseudo-religious manifestations cannot be interpreted as the expression of a distorted religion, but as a brutal and devastating form of refusing God and misinterpreting the real religion.”

Pope Francis’s Crusade Against Mafias

Pope Francis took on the mafia head-on early in his pontificate. In 2013, when Bergoglio had been pope for only two months, he declared Don Pino Puglisi, recognized by Benedict XVI, the first martyr who died at the hands of the Mafia.

Puglisi was a pastor in the rough-and-tumble Brancaccio neighborhood of Palermo in Sicily, where he was renowned for his efforts to keep young people out of the mob. One of the mafia assassins who later confessed to the murder said Puglisi’s last words were, “I’ve been expecting you.”

Puglisi’s story was told in a 2005 film called Alla Luce del Sole, released in English as “Come Into the Light.”

In 2014, Pope Francis launched an invectio against organized crime, a reality he understood well from his days in Argentina. “When one doesn’t adore God he becomes a worshipper of evil,” the pope told 250 people gathered in the valley of Sibari, in Calabria the bastion of ‘Ndrangheta.

“Evil must be fought, you have to say no,” the pope said. “The Church must always work so that good might prevail. Mafiosi are excommunicated, they are not in communion with God.”

The speech, said during his homily, was given in the smallest diocese in Calabria, which in the previous months had witnessed several brutal murders. One in particular, the killing and burning of three-year-old Cocò Campolongo by the ‘Ndrangheta, shook the conscience of the entire country.

Building on a Legacy

The pope’s words resonated far and wide, and gave those who fight the Mafia every day hope for the future. But the new zeal with which the Catholic Church has declared war on organized crime builds upon the work of previous popes.

In 1993, following some of the bloodiest years in mafia-related crimes, Pope John Paul II spoke in the Sicilian town of Agrigento against the “social sin” of organized crime and calling mob bosses to convert.

“God said ‘do not kill’: No human association, mafia, can overrun this holy law from God,” the pope said. “This Sicilian people that is so attached to life, that loves life and gives life, cannot live oppressed under the dominion of a contrary society, the society of death.”

Benedict XVI took the torch in 2010, reiterating the importance of standing up against the evil of Mafias. “The Mafia is a road of death, incompatible with the Gospel,” the German pope told youth gathered in Palermo, Sicily. “I am among you to give you a strong encouragement to not be afraid to clearly testify the human and Christian values, so deeply rooted in the faith and history of this land and its people.”

Pope Francis pushed forward the agenda using the same language of John Paul II, if not with stronger nuances, to express the horrors of the mafia. “Convert!” the pope said in 2014 in the church of Gregorio VII in Rome. “There is still time to not end up in hell: That is what awaits you if you continue down that road.”

And again when visiting Calabria Francis said: “The mafia is radically opposed to the faith and the Gospels,” this time echoing Benedict XVI. “The mafia phenomenon, an expression of a culture of death, must be opposed and fought.”

New rites to fight old rituals

In an recent interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Bishop Francesco Oliva, the bishop in the land of ‘Ndrangheta, said that the organization “wishes to have its power felt in the field of religion” and that the Mafia mentality “influenced the exercise of the holy ministry very much.

“Everything is clogged by old, anachronistic traditions that foment criminality,” Oliva added.

The Church is trying to take those rites back and separate its long-standing traditions from the Mafia influence: Starting with Godfathers.

The Riina family was once again in the eye of the hurricane last December, when the mobster son of the “beast” was given permission to serve as the godfather at his nephew’s baptism in the northern Italian diocese of Padua after receiving the sacrament of confirmation himself only one week before.

In response, the diocese of Monreale recently issued a decree barring mob bosses from serving either as godfathers for baptisms or sponsors for confirmations.

“We have to be clear,” said the Archbishop Michele Pennisi. “A Christian godfather should be a guarantee of raising a child in the faith. How can he be that, if he lives in opposition to the Gospel, in violence and total obedience to the god of money?”

Pope Francis’s decision to visit the prison where inmates are willing to testify against the mafia is yet another demonstration of the Church’s determination to fight the evil that plagues Italy and the world.

As the pope performs the ritual of washing the feet of inmates on Holy Thursday, in remembrance of Christ washing the feet of the apostles, he will also vindicate the sanctity of Christian rites against their farcical and deviant use by the Mafia.