The Catholic Church and the Mafia

Pope Francis arrives for a meeting with relatives of innocent mafia victims, in Rome's St. Gregorio VII church, just outside the Vatican, Friday, March 21, 2014. AP Photographer Andrew Medichini for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis arrives for a meeting with relatives of mafia victims, in Rome’s St. Gregorio VII church, just outside the Vatican, Friday, March 21, 2014. AP Photographer Andrew Medichini for Mozzarella Mamma

The relationship between the Catholic Church and the Mafia is so convoluted, fraught with stereo-types, and misperceptions that it is hard to figure out what is the truth.  Films like “The Godfather” reinforce the image of a Catholic Church that has provided collaboration and support for the Mafia, Mafia bosses who baptize their children in church, attend Mass, wear crosses and pray to the Madonna, their acts of violence intertwined with acts of faith.  This image would be offensive to families of heroic priests assassinated by the Mafia, but there is an element of truth to it.

Mafia Boss Michael Corleone makes his confession to a Cardinal in "The Godfather- Part III" Credit: "The Godfather- Part III

Mafia Boss Michael Corleone makes his confession to a Cardinal in “The Godfather- Part III” Credit: “The Godfather- Part III

On Friday, Pope Francis met at a church in Rome with nearly 1000 relatives of victims of the various Italian Mafia groups — the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the Naples’ area Camorra Mafia and the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta Mafia. For 40 minutes during the encounter the Pope sat and listened as the names of 842 people massacred by the Mafia were read out loud.  The Pope then had some powerful words of his own directed at members of the Mafia. He said, “The life that you are living now will not give you pleasure or joy.  The power and money you have now from dirty business, and from mafia crimes, is blood-stained money, it is blood-stained power, and you won’t be able to take it to the after world. Repent. There’s still time to not end up in Hell, which is what awaits you if you continue on this path.” Powerful stuff.   In 1993, Pope John Paul II also delivered an impassioned call for members of the Mafia to convert on a visit to Agrigento, Sicily.  From the pulpit he intoned:  “I say this to those responsible- Convert!!  One day the judgment of God will arrive.” Friday’s meeting with Pope Francis was organized by an Italian non-profit organization called Libera run by a priest named Don Luigi Ciotti.  Ciotti began the group in 1995 to get more civilians involved in the fight against the Mafia. Libera (check out their website) gets properties  confiscated by the government from the Mafia and turns them into profitable enterprises.  Mafia land is used to grow tomatoes, eggplants, chickpeas, wheat and grapes, to produce tomato sauce, pasta, wine and other food items; the villas of Mafia bosses are turned into stores to sell the products.  Earnings from the sales of these products goes to help victims of Mafia violence. Libera runs summer camps allowing young people to work on these properties, teaching them about the fight against the Mafia. In 2010, I went to Corleone in Sicily (yes, there really is a Corleone) to cover the inauguration of a new store for Libera products in a home once belonging to Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano,  now serving a life sentence in a high-security prison.  In Corleone I had the opportunity to interview Don Ciotti and was impressed by his simplicity, sincerity, humility and determination. (Unfortunately back then I didn’t have a blog so I don’t have as detailed a recounting of my trip and reporting).

Don Luigi Ciotti places a stole belonging to assassinated priest Don Peppino Diana around the neck of Pope Francis. March 21, 2014. AP photographer Andrew Medichini for Mozzarella Mamma

Don Luigi Ciotti places a stole belonging to assassinated priest Don Peppino Diana around the neck of Pope Francis. March 21, 2014. AP photographer Andrew Medichini for Mozzarella Mamma

For the prayer vigil on Friday Don Ciotti placed around the Pope’s neck the stole worn by Don Peppino Diana, a priest from Casal Del Principe, near Naples, who, on March 19, 1994, was peppered with bullets by Camorra hit men as he prepared for Mass in his church.  Don Peppino Diana was famous for his phrase, “for the love of my people I will not remain silent.”  His fight against the Camorra was detailed in Italian author Roberto Saviano’s brilliant book “Gomorrah, Italy’s Other Mafia.”  What I find particularly fascinating is the way Saviano describes how the Camorra felt they needed to remove Don Peppino Diana because he questioned their use of the Catholic church and its traditions to serve their goals.

A crowd gathers around the coffin of Don Peppino Diana at his funeral in March 1994. Credit: Don Peppino Diana Fan Page

A crowd gathers around the coffin of Don Peppino Diana at his funeral in March 1994. Credit: Don Peppino Diana Fan Page

Let me quote Saviano: “Don Peppino started to question the bosses’ religious beliefs, to deny explicitly that there could be any harmony between the Christian creed and the business, political and military power of the clans.  In the land of the Camorra, the Christian message is not considered contradictory to Camorra activities: if the clan acts for the good of all its affiliates, the organization is seen as respecting and pursing the Christian good. The killing of enemies and traitors is seen as a necessary, legitimate transgression; by the bosses’ reasoning, the command “Thou Shalt Not Kill” inscribed on Moses’ tablets may be suspended if the homicide occurs for a higher motive, namely the safeguarding of the clan, the interests of its managers, or the good of the group, and therefore of everyone. Killing is a sin that Christ will understand and forgive in the name of necessity.” “Religion is a constant point of reference for the Camorra, not merely as a propitiatory gesture of a cultural relic, but a spiritual force that determines the most intimate decisions. Camorra families, especially the most charismatic bosses, often consider their own actions as Calvary, their own conscience bearing the pain and weight of sin for the well-being of the group and men they rule.”

Italian author Roberto Saviano. Credit: www.palazzotenta39.it

Italian author Roberto Saviano. Credit: www.palazzotenta39.it

“When Vincenzo Lubrano (a Camorra boss) was acquitted, he organized a pilgrimage –several busloads of faithful– to San Giovanni Rotondo to give thanks to Padre Pio, who, he believed, was responsible for his absolution.  Life-size statues of Padre Pio and terracotta or bronze copies of the open-armed Christ on Pao de Acucar in Rio de Janeiro can be found in the villa of many a Camorra boss.  In the drug-warehouse laboratories in Scampia, bricks of hashish are often cut thirty-three at a time–like Christ’s age.  Then they halt work for thirty-three minutes, make the sign of the cross, and start up again.  A way to propitiate Christ and receive earnings and tranquility.  The same happens with packets of cocaine, often before they are distributed to pushers, the neighborhood capo blesses them with holy water from Lourdes in the hopes that they don’t kill anyone, especially because he would have to answer personally for the poor quality of the stuff.” “Camorra power does not involve only the flesh, nor does it merely own everyone’s life.  It also lays claim to souls. Don Peppino wanted to bring some clarity to words, meanings and values.”  from “Gomorrah: Italy’s Other Mafia” by Roberto Saviano.  Note: Saviano now lives under police protection because of the death threats he has received from the Camorra. These images of the Camorra, described so well by Saviano, match “The Godfather” film’s scenes showing Mafia boss Michael Corleone baptizing his child, or confessing to a priest.  Again, acts of violence intertwined with acts of faith. Just as at the bottom level where the workers are preparing the 33 packets of hashish, the Catholic church has allegedly also been used at the top level to launder Mafia money.  According to Maria Antoinetta Calabro’ in her book “Le Mani Della Mafia”  (The Hands of the Mafia), for decades the  Sicilian Mafia and its American counterparts used the Vatican bank, known as IOR (Institute for Religious Works) to launder its money.

The Cover of "Le Mani Della Mafia" (The Hands of the Mafia) by Maria Antoinetta Calabro'

The Cover of “Le Mani Della Mafia” (The Hands of the Mafia) by Maria Antoinetta Calabro’

Her book begins with her investigation into the death of Roberto Calvi, a banker known as “God’s Banker” for his close ties to the Vatican bank – found handing under the Blackfriar’s Bridge in London in 1982, and moves through the investigations leading from that death to the conclusion that the Corleone Clan of the Sicilian Mafia was laundering its money through the Vatican bank. Her book is so detailed, flush with legal documents, citations from prosecutors and investigators that it impossible for me to find a quote that sums it up simply for this post. In 2011, the Vatican bank, under Benedict XVI began the process of joining Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s organization that monitors money laundering and terrorist financing.  The bank has closed down suspicious accounts and in July 2012 passed its first “transparency” test for Moneyval.  Under Pope Francis, it is assumed, that the clean-up of the Vatican bank will be completed. Last fall anti-Mafia prosecutor, Nicola Gratteri, from the Calabria region in Southern Italy said that Pope Francis’ reforms of the church were making the ‘Ndrangheta Mafia “nervous,” Gratteri made these comments in an interview with an Italian newspaper in which he said that the Pope was “breaking down the center of economic power in the Vatican.” “Those who have been nourished by the power and wealth that is directly derived from the church are nervous and agitated,” Gratteri told the paper adding, that he was not aware about a specific plan to target the Pope “but certainly they’re thinking about it. He could be a threat.” Gratteri made those comments at the time he was releasing a new book,  “Holy Water”, written with Italian journalist Nicola Nicaso.  The two recounted the practices of the powerful ‘Ndrangheta Mafia based in Calabria, the toe of the boot of Italy.  According to the authors, many of the local priests and bishops over the years have accepted the presence and the influence of the ‘Ndrangheta and few have had the courage to stand up to organized crime.  The authors noted the ‘Ndrangheta copies Catholic liturgical tradition in their initiation ceremonies, and use religious holidays and Catholic symbols to reinforce their power.

Tens of thousands of people take part in demonstration in memory of those killed by the Mafia. March 22, 2014. Credit: Libera

Tens of thousands of people take part in demonstration in memory of those killed by the Mafia. March 22, 2014. Credit: Libera

Following the meeting with the Pope on Friday,  Don Luigi Ciotti of Libera and the relatives of the nearly 900 victims of the Mafia took part in a demonstration with tens of thousands of people demanding justice and truth for those killed by the Mafia.  On the words of Pope Francis, Ciotti said, “They were very clear, decisive, and determined.  With these words we can see an historic cultural passage, a clear cut between the mafia and the Church.”  But he also added “We have to go beyond our barriers and Pope Francis has indicated the way.  For example, the fight against the mafia cannot be a rhetorical exercise.”

Pope Francis took the hand of Don Luigi Ciotti as he arrived at the Rome Church St. Gregorio VII, just outside the Vatican Friday, March 21. Photo by AP photographer Andrew Medichini

Pope Francis took the hand of Don Luigi Ciotti as he arrived at the Rome Church St. Gregorio VII, just outside the Vatican Friday, March 21. Photo by AP photographer Andrew Medichini

NOTE: A big thank you to my AP photographer colleague Andrew Medichini who gave me some of his excellent leftover photos after he filed for AP.

14 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Nancy Rockwell
    2014/03/24

    A stunning piece, Trisha, with wonderful photos, chilling facts and fascinating details. My respect for the Pope increases, as he takes what seems to be the strongest papal position yet in relation to the Mafia and the Vatican bank. I hope he has good personal security. But it may be that he hasn’t yet made the moves that would really upset that system. The film American Hustle, nominated for Oscars this year, purports to be the story of the interplay in America between the Mafia, politicians, the FBI and local hustlers. And the FBI gets the pols, but not the Mafia. I think you would enjoy the film – and might find some connections in it to what you have learned – thanks for your writing.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/03/24

      Thank you Nancy. I actually did manage to catch “American Hustle” in Rome at the one movie theater that has films in their original version and not dubbed over. I loved it. Mostly I just laughed at the absurdity of it all– the ambitious FBI agent with the curlers in his hair, the hustler who runs a dry-cleaning business and pulls his hair over the top of his bald spot, the dumb ex-wife with her obsession with fingernail polish. And yes, the intermingling of politicians, mafia and small-time hustlers is fascinating. I did not even touch the whole question of decades of Italian political complicity of with the Mafia. It is a long and fascinating chapter in Italian history with the United States military playing a key role when it invaded Sicily in WWII and made allies with Mafia bosses to help them counter the fascists. But I guess that will have to be another post.

      Reply
  2. Avatar
    Adri
    2014/03/24

    What an interesting subject! As an American I am always amazed at how younger Americans are fascinated by the Mafia. I say younger Americans because those who are older, greater than eighty years of age, actually remember the bad old days when organized crime ruled the streets and wielded enormous power both politically and in the unions.

    Younger folks have a notion forged by Hollywood, of neat murders, committed in a relatively bloodless fashion, and dapper dons. It is not a true image, yet that does not make it any less compelling. Many people have no real grasp of the evil these lawless people perpetrate and remain enthralled by the Mafia. Maybe it is the notion of power. As an Italian-American I am both amazed and insulted each time someone asks me “Is your family in the Mafia?” as though just because I am Italian-American I must be “connected.” What a stereotype! But stereotype or not, the Mafia is real, and it is most certainly evil.

    I applaud all the brave people who stand up against them. I had not heard of the group Libera, but it sounds like a great idea. I really do worry about the safety and security of Pope Francis. He appears to have no fear of rocking the proverbial boat. I certainly hope that there will be no retaliation for his remarks about the Mafia.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/03/24

      Thank you for your fascinating comment Adri. How awful that people would ask you if you were connected to the Mafia just because you are Italian-American. I agree that Hollywood has glamorized the Mafia in a way that can be dangerous. If you have a chance read Roberto Saviano’s book on the Camorra (it has been translated into English) and see the movie of the same name “Gomorrah”. Saviano does the exact opposite, he shows the Camorra Mafia in all its cruel, ruthless, brutality.

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    Alan
    2014/03/24

    . . he’ll have job on his hands with this den of rogues – bit like the never ending War On A Noun! Great read, though!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/03/24

      Alan, you just introduced me to a new concept — the never-ending “War on the Noun” — I like that. The War on Drugs, The War on Terrorism, The War on the Mafia. I think Don Luigi Ciotti must have been thinking along those lines because he said to the crowd that they need to get rid of the concept “anti-mafia” which means nothing and focus on seeking truth and justice and demanding legality and a struggle against corruption in Italy at all levels including the political class.

      Reply
  4. Avatar
    Joan Schmelzle
    2014/03/24

    Very interesting to read. I had read news of the Pope’s words, but not info on the demonstrations. I have also read Saviano’s book and knew some of this. And just recently somewhere on line, possibly in “Italian Chronicles” or “Italian Reflections Daily,” I read quite a sad article about the “garbage dumps” in the Naples area which are fouling land that needs to be used for food and still is for locals. This is sad commentary for sure on my favorite country to visit. And I can only hope that my life-long church can pull away from this.
    Thanks for your reporting!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/03/24

      Thank you Joan — Yes, the Camorra toxic garbage dumping is horrible– it will probably be decades before anyone realizes the full extent of the damage to all the people living there.

      Reply
  5. Avatar
    Tiffany Parks
    2014/03/25

    Great post, and such a fascinating subject! What Adri has to say is spot on. A lot of people outside Italy think the mafia is a joke (and apparently even some inside Italy)–when I saw souvenir magnets with little “gangsters” on them in Sicily, it made my stomach turn. It is so not a joke, and it’s great to see that demonstrations and other events like the ones you mention are taking place. Hopefully, slowly, things will change. I was sad to learn that Gratteri was passed over as Minister of Justice, but at least we have a pope who seems like he won’t look the other way. Here’s hoping

    Claudio actually interviewed Don Ciotti just a few days ago–I will send it to you the article.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/03/25

      I agree — Adri is totally right. The Mafia is not glamorous, and it is not a joke. Please do send me Claudio’s interview with Don Ciotti — as you can tell I am a huge fan.

      Reply
  6. Avatar
    Wendy White
    2014/03/26

    Excellent post, Trisha, really well done. I follow you with interest always but this one is truly outstanding; thanks so much.

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    Tom Lansner
    2014/03/26

    A fascinating piece, thanks, Trisha… Sicilian mafia rose in part in resistance to the state and imposition of central authority, but modern mafioso today are clearly much more intertwined with the state than resisting it. “[S]ouvenir magnets with little ‘gangsters’ on them in Sicily” mentioned by Tiffany seem to reflect this long-ago folk-heroic status… something thoroughly squandered, if ever truly deserved. Today’s anti-mafia/corruption campaigners are true folks heroes!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/03/26

      Thank you Tom — You are right — there is so much to say about political cooperation with the modern Mafia. And people like Don Ciotti really are the true heroes.

      Reply
  8. Avatar
    Frank Pray
    2016/06/12

    This article expands my understanding of the psychology behind evil. Evil from its own view does not see itself as evil. Evil simply redefines the concept of “good.” Of course, it takes chutzpah and power to make up your own definitions. The mafia has both.

    Reply

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