ROME – Pope Francis has praised the life and testimony of Italian Father Pino Puglisi thirty years after he was gunned down by mafia hitmen, a result of his vocal opposition to the mafia and his efforts to save youth from organized crime.

In a letter dated July 31 and addressed to Archbishop Corrado Lorefice of Palermo, the heart of Italian mob territory, Francis called Puglisi a “good priest and merciful witness of the Father,” and he thanked God for “the gift of the Blessed Martyr Don Pino Puglisi, son and pastor of the beloved Palermitan church and the whole of Sicily.”

Puglisi, he said, served the church with sacrifice and never grew tired of meeting and drawing close to people, offering them “the regenerating water of the Gospel” to help them go forward amid “the harshness of a life which has not always been forgiving.”

Born in 1937, Puglisi served as pastor of San Gaetano parish in the troubled Palermo neighborhood of Brancaccio. As a pastor, he became famous for his firm anti-Mafia stance, refusing to take their money for feast day celebrations and not allowing dons to march at the head of processions, as they usually do in mafia country.

He also made great efforts to keep youth out of their reach, encouraging them to stay in school and discouraging them from stealing, drug-dealing and selling contraband cigarettes. He also refused to award a contract to a construction firm backed by the mafia for the restoration of his church.

Puglisi received multiple death threats and was eventually gunned down in the middle of the street outside his Palermo parish on his birthday, Sept. 15, 1993.

According to the testimony of one of his hit men, who later confessed, his last words were: “I’ve been expecting you.”

He was beatified in 2013, becoming the first mafia victim to be recognized officially by the Catholic Church as a martyr.

In his letter, Pope Francis noted how Puglisi when he met his assassin smiled and said he’d been expecting him. That smile, the pope said, “reaches us as a gentile light which digs inside and illuminates the heart.”

“In the example of Jesus, Don Pino went all the way in love,” he said. “He had the same traits as the meek and humble ‘good shepherd’: his boys, whom he knew one by one, are the witness of a man of God who loved the little ones and the defenseless, educated them to freedom, to love life, and to respect it.”

Francis noted that Puglisi would often preach with “evangelic simplicity” in defense of the family, the many children “destined to become adults too soon,” and in condemnation of suffering, underlining the urgency of conveying “the values of a more dignified existence, thus rescuing them from the slavery of evil.”

Speaking directly to pastors in the area, the pope urged them to never stop when faced with the many human and social wounds afflicting the area, “which still bleed and need to be healed with the oil of consolation and the balm of compassion.”

“The preferential option for the poor is urgent,” Pope Francis said, saying, “they are faces which question us and guide us to prophecy.”

As an ecclesial community “on the move, all of this challenges your synodal discernment to launch a renewed pastoral care that concretely corresponds to the needs of today,” the pope said, urging pastors to help “the beauty and the difference” of the Gospel emerge through their words and actions, finding the right language to convey to people God’s tenderness, justice, and mercy.

These, he said, are signs that Christians are called to display in order to help build “a new humanity.”

He noted how Puglisi would often say, “if each one of us does something, then we can do a lot,” saying these words are an invitation for each person to overcome personal fears and reservations and to work together in building “a more just and fraternal society.”

“We know well how Don Pino fought so that no one would feel alone in the face of the challenge of degradation and the hidden powers of crime,” he said, saying isolation and “closed and conspiratorial individualism” are the weapons used by those who want to bend other to their own interests.

The response to these things, Pope Francis said, is communion and walking together as members of one body “united with the head, the shepherd and guide of our souls.”

Francis told pastors to first of all be in communion with their bishop and with their fellow priests, voicing hope that as pastors, they would “always and everywhere be an image of the welcoming Good Shepherd.”

“Have the courage to dare without fear and instill hope in those you meet, especially the weakest, the sick, the suffering, migrants, those who have fallen and want to be helped up again,” the pope said, saying young people must be “the center of your concern,” because they are the future.

Returning to the image of Puglisi’s “disarming smile,” the pope voiced hope that this smile would encourage priests to be “happy and audacious disciples,” available to undergo personal conversion in order to better serve the people around them.

His letter comes after the bishop of Cefalù recently announced plans to establish a new parish dedicated to Puglisi and another patron saint of the area’s anti-mafia efforts, Rosario Livatino, a magistrate who prosecuted mob members and who was shot to death on a Sicilian highway in 1990.

Livatino became the second mafia victim after Puglisi to be recognized as a martyr when he was beatified in 2021.

Bishop Giuseppe Marciante of Cefalù, located on the island of Sicily near Palermo, announced the plan for the parish in an Aug. 5 interview with his diocesan news outlet, saying the parish will be built on land seized from the mob by Italian authorities in a neighborhood called Campofelice di Roccella.

Earlier this summer Italian authorities dealt what many have said is a major blow to organized crime with the arrest of mobster Matteo Messina Denaro, widely considered the last ‘godfather’ of the Sicilian mafia.

Pope Francis closed his letter entrusting everyone in the area to the protection of the Virgin Mary and to Puglisi, offering his blessing, and asking for prayers.

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