Pope Francis called on the mafia to “stop doing evil” as he met relatives of their victims on Friday to demonstrate the Catholic Church’s opposition to organized crime.
More than 1,000 people attended prayers with the pope at a church near the Vatican, where the names of 842 victims of mob violence were read out. The list included butchered toddlers and renowned anti-mafia Judge Giovanni Falcone, who was blown up in his car in 1992.
The meeting was a bid to draw a line under the church’s historic ties with dons claiming to be God-fearing Catholics.
“Men and women of the mafia ... change your way of life. Stop doing evil, convert,” Francis said. “There is still time to avoid ending up in hell, which is where you are going if you continue down this path.”
Francis “wants to make it known that the gospel and the mafia, the gospel and corruption, the gospel and illegality, cannot go hand-in-hand,” Father Marcello Cozzi, deputy president of the anti-mafia Libera group, said before the ceremony.
Numerous priests fight against the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the ’Ndrangheta in Calabria and the Camorra in Naples, but the church also has a darker side.
Mafia dons have historically attended Mass, often receiving lavish funerals, presenting themselves as good Catholic benefactors and stepping in to serve locals where the state has failed, while claiming to live by a “code of honor.”
Cozzi said the murder of a three-year-old this week in alleged mob retaliation was the latest proof that such a code has never existed.
“In the list of victims’ names there are at least 80 minors. A mafia which does not kill children does not exist, they have always killed children,” he said.
The church has long been marred by reports of financial corruption, with the Vatican Bank embroiled in claims of mafia money laundering.
Since his election last year, Francis has moved fast to clean up the Vatican’s scandal-plagued finances, setting up a commission tasked with reform and inviting in external auditors, with suspect accounts closed or flagged up for deeper inspection.
The accounts “are an open wound” and if the church wants to fight organized crime, full transparency is the first step, Cozzi said.
The task has become more urgent than ever as the mafia increasingly swaps risky markets like arms or drugs for economic crimes.
Usury has become big business in the wake of the economic crisis, with criminal groups “the only ones in possession of much-needed liquidity,” Cozzi added.
As well as casting light on its murky books, the Vatican has made efforts to honor religious leaders who stood up to the mafia.
Last year, murdered priest Giuseppe Puglisi was beatified for his tireless attempts to help young people in Palermo escape the mafia.
The pontiff has also made a point of speaking out loudly against human trafficking, “one of the mafia’s big businesses,” Cozzi said.
Francis’s bid to root out corruption has sparked warnings that he could become a target for the mob.
“Those who up to now have fed off the power and wealth coming directly from the church are nervous, upset,” he said. “The pope is dismantling the Vatican’s economic centers. If the mafia bosses can trip him up, they won’t hesitate,” Calabria prosecutor Nicola Gratteri said.
The Vatican took the warning in stride, saying there was “no reason for concern.”