VATICAN CITY – “I’ve been expecting you.”
These were reportedly the foreboding last words of Blessed Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi, an Italian priest who was shot and killed by the Italian mafia in 1993.
Declared a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and beatified in 2013, the priest is being honored once again by the Vatican, which has just released a commemorative stamp in his honor on the 25th anniversary of his martyrdom.
Blessed Puglisi was born on Sept. 15, 1937 to a modest working-class family in Palermo, Italy. He entered the seminary at the age of 16, and was ordained a priest in 1960 at the age of 22.
Throughout his priesthood, he was known for being outspoken against injustices – including Communism, the Mafia, and problems within the Church.
He was also passionately involved in youth ministry and in promoting vocations.
Archbishop Salvatore Di Cristina, a fellow priest and friend of Puglisi, recalled to the National Catholic Register in 2013 the transformative effect that Puglisi had on the whole town of Godrano.
Once an entangled mob town with an unspoken curfew and neighbors that were afraid of each other, Puglisi’s pastoral approach “won over the kids of the town, and after the kids, he won over the families. After his departure, Godrano was completely transformed,” he said.
While there are some who “would define him as a social-action priest or some kind of ‘anti-Mafia’ professional,” Archbishop Di Cristina said that was not really the case.
“He just deeply lived his vocation,” he said.
In 1990, Puglisi was transferred to San Gaetano’s parish in Brancaccio, another mob-ridden town in Palermo. His approach was the same – to win over the youth and be a pastor to his flock.
“Father Puglisi was not a typical anti-Mafia priest. He did not organize rallies or make public condemnation of Mafia,” Archbishop Michele Pennisi told the National Catholic Register in 2013. “[The] Mafia does not see that kind of priest as dangerous.”
Puglisi was actually considered more dangerous “because he educated young people,” Pennisi said. He would convince youth not to steal or quit school and encouraged them away from the Mafia, who would often use children to help them traffic drugs and other illicit materials.
Puglisi preached against the Mafia, ignored their threats, banned them from leading religious processions and even stealthily gave clues to the authorities about their latest activities in his homilies. Consequently, his life was threatened by the mob numerous times, unbeknownst to even those closest to him until after his death.
Just months prior to his murder, while the Italian state was in peak conflict against the mob, Pope John Paul II blasted the Mafia in an impromptu speech during a visit to Sicily in May 1993.
“You must understand that you cannot kill the innocent. God once said, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ No man, no human organization, no mafia can kill or stamp out this most holy right of God!” John Paul II declared. In later comments to EWTN, Archbishop Giancarlo Maria Bregantini said the powerful speech was one of the rare times he saw the Holy Father truly angry. The fiery speech, coupled with government crackdowns, prompted the Mafia to plant several car bombs throughout Italy that spring, leaving at least 10 people dead.
On September 15, 1993, having received numerous warnings and death threats, Puglisi was shot in the neck at point-blank range by Mafia hitmen under the direction of local Mafia bosses, the brothers Filippo and Giuseppe Graviano. It was the priest’s 56th birthday.
Although he was taken to the hospital, Puglisi was unable to be revived and died of his injuries.
“This is a Mafia crime,” Lorenzo Matassa, an investigating magistrate with broad anti-Mafia experience, told the New York Times in 1993. “Cosa Nostra could not stand that priest’s teaching the kids in the neighborhood about an anti-Mafia culture.”
The uproar in Italy was strong – it was the first time the Mafia had dared to kill a man of the cloth since 1979. His martyrdom also further galvanized the Church to act and speak out against the mob in Italy.
“After [Father Puglisi’s] murder, bishops made a public condemnation of the Mafia, and they maintained that whoever is part of this criminal organization cannot consider himself a Christian,” Bishop Salvatore Cuttitta, who had been an altar boy serving under Puglisi, told the National Catholic Register in 2013.
Puglisi was beatified on May 25, 2013. The following Sunday, Francis called Puglisi “an exemplary priest, especially dedicated to the pastoral care of youth.”
He also condemned the continuation of Mafia activities and prayed for the conversion of those involved.
“Let us pray the Lord to convert the heart of these people. They cannot do this! They cannot make slaves of us, brothers and sisters! We must pray (to) the Lord! Let us pray that these members of the Mafia be converted to God and let us praise God for the luminous witness borne by Fr. Giuseppe Puglisi, and let us set store by his example!”