ROME – For many Americans, hearing a pope denounce the mafia may seem obvious and hardly newsworthy, akin to someone taking on the Nazis or the KKK. In Italy, however, where mafias still loom large, especially in the southern part of the country, and where mafia dons have long appropriated both the symbols of Catholicism and ties to ecclesiastical elites to reinforce their grip on power, a pope breaking with that history still makes a splash.
So on Thursday, when Pope Francis met with the Italian Parliamentary Commission against Mafias, the first meeting of its kind, it made national headlines.
“First of all, I wish to turn my thoughts to all those people in Italy who have paid for their fight against mafias with their lives,” the pontiff said.
Those words had a special poignancy, since the purpose of the audience was in part to remember three judges, all assassinated by the mafia, who are now regarded as Italian heroes: Rosario Livatino, Giovanni Falcone, and Paolo Borsellino.
The pope used the words “Servant of God” to describe Livatino, a baby-faced magistrate mercilessly shot by the mafia while trying to escape through a field on September 21, 1990. The strength of Livatino’s Catholic faith was such that in a speech on May 9, 1993, Pope John Paul II referred to him as “a martyr to justice and indirectly to the faith.”
The “Kid Judge,” as he’s known in Italy, is not only the youngest magistrate to be killed by the mafia, but he might soon become the first Italian magistrate ever to be beatified.
Francis recently overhauled the rules for Catholic sainthood, creating a new pathway called the “offer of life,” for cases in which people freely give up their lives for others.
He lived his “entire life in the light of the Gospel,” Valentina Garlandi, president of the association “Friends of the Judge Rosario Livatino,” told Crux in an email, adding that he “did his job while uniting the logic of justice with that of the Christian faith.”
Garlandi pointed to the “great importance” of the message behind the audience at the Vatican, which occurred on the 27th anniversary of Livatino’s murder. If the kid-judge were to be beatified, “it would send a very strong message” – because, she added, “it could offer a further encouragement to those who fight the mafia.”
Francis has been outspoken against the blight of mafia organizations in Italy and around the world. He has declared mafiosi to be excommunicated, and underscored the importance that they be barred from religious roles such as serving as godfathers for baptisms.
According to Garlandi, the pope’s crusade is having an effect, adding that, “it definitely depends on the reaction of the community and the response of young people, who are the present and the future of our country.”
Francis addressed politicians at the audience by speaking of the dangers that lurk within the heart of all people.
“We will never be vigilant enough over this abyss, where the human person is exposed to the temptation of opportunism, deceit and fraud, made more dangerous by the refusal to put oneself up for discussion,” he said.
“When one closes himself in self-sufficiency, it is very easy to become self-complacent and to think oneself above everything and everyone,” Francis said.
Maria Rosaria Bindi, a politician of the Italian Democratic Party and president of the bicameral commission against mafias since 2013, told local reporters that the pope’s statement came from the heart of man, because “it’s there that the rotten plant of the mafia’s evil is born.”
In his speech, Francis presented what can be defined as a “program” at three levels to fight mafia groups and their roots in corruption.
The first step was combating politics “bent toward party interests and unclear agreements,” leading to “suffocating the call of conscience, to trivialize evil, to confuse truth with lies and to take advantage of the role of public responsibility that one holds.”
The pope illustrated an alternative political system, which works to “ensure a future of hope and to promote the dignity of everyone,” and makes the fight against mafias its main concern.
“For this purpose, it becomes decisive to oppose in every way the grave problem of corruption, which with contempt toward general interest, represents the fertile ground where mafias take root and develop,” he said. Corruption always finds a way to justify itself, presenting itself as the ‘normal’ condition, the solution of the ‘clever,’ the road toward achieving one’s goals,” Francis said in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican.
The pontiff went on to attempt to “scientifically” describe corruption, which, he said, has a “contagious and parasitic nature because it does not feed off the good things it creates, but what it deprives and steals.”
The pope defined corruption as a habit, “built on the idolatry of money and the commodification of human dignity,” that must be fought by all means, and with the same impetus that defines the fight against mafias.
The pope’s program continued at the economic level, where Francis called politicians to correct and eliminate the mechanisms that foster inequality and poverty.
“Today we can no longer talk of the fight against the mafias without addressing the enormous problem of finance that now dominates over democratic rules, and thanks to which those criminal realities invest and multiply the already substantial profits earned by their trafficking: drugs, weapons, human beings, toxic waste,” the pope said.
Finally the pope pointed to a “new civil conscience,” which he said is the only way to achieve “ a true freedom from mafias.”
This threefold program reflects the thought and commitment that Francis has applied to trying to find a solution to organized crime, which is tied to many other concerns dear to the pontiff, such as the environment and the migrant crisis.
“The speech by the Holy Father is a real program against mafias, not only in our country,” Bindi told Italian media outlets. “I believe that his line is very sharp and clear: in order to fight mafias today we must fight corruption, we must give new rules to the financial market, we must fight poverty, and we must assure fundamental rights to all people.”
Going full circle, the last words of the pope were aimed at ensuring the safety and protection of the witnesses who risk their lives to denounce the mafia. Francis called on politicians to facilitate a way of allowing those who want to denounce or escape a mafia setting without fear of repercussion or vendetta.
“What have I done to you?” were the last words of Livatino to his assassins before dying at the age of 38. On July 19, 2011, the then-Archbishop of Agrigento in Sicily, Carmelo Ferraro, signed the decree necessary to officially begin the diocesan process for the canonization of Livatino.
Today that dream seems to be a step closer.
Father Giuseppe Livatino, a cousin of the judge and postulant for the canonization cause, specified that the process “is not yet closed,” and that the material will have to be reviewed by the Sacred Congregation of Causes for Saints at the Vatican, and only then will its prefect, Italian Cardinal Angelo Amato, present the documents for final approval by the pope.
All elements lead to the belief that when that moment comes and Livatino’s case is dropped on Francis’s desk, the pope’s signature will almost certainly follow.