PALERMO, Italy — No one expected the murder of Father Giuseppi “Pino” Puglisi, the Sicilian priest killed in 1993 by Mafia hitmen. So said three Sicilian bishops, who shared part of their life with the blessed, as they recalled his life and his surprising death during the week before their friend’s beatification.
The beatification of Father Puglisi took place May 25 in the Sicilian city of Palermo, Italy. The event, which drew a crowd of more than 80,000 people, according to Vatican Radio, comes only 20 years after the priest’s death. Cardinal Paolo Romeo, the current archbishop of Palermo presided over the beatification Mass.
Cardinal Salvatore De Giorgi, archbishop emeritus of Palermo, who brought forward Father Pulgisi’s cause in 1999, was the representative of Pope Francis at the beatification ceremony. The new blessed’s feast day is Oct. 21. He is being called “the first martyr of the Mafia.”
Father Puglisi was killed by a gunshot in front of his parish church on Sept. 15, 1993. Almost five years later, four Mafia members received life sentences for participating in the murder. The two Mafia bosses who ordered his execution, Filippo and Guiseppe Graviano, were also sentenced to life in prison for their role in the crime.
In a May 23 interview with the Register, Bishop Salvatore Cuttitta, auxiliary archbishop of Palermo, described the impending beatification as an emotional time for him. He was one of Father Puglisi’s altar boys in the 1970s, when the priest was in the small Sicilian town of Godrano.
“Father Puglisi had the great ability to spend his time with us kids, making special the ordinary places of our lives. He fascinated us, projected us outside the borders of our small town; he revolutionized the way people of Godrano lived interpersonal relations,” recounted Bishop Cuttitta.
A Town Transformed
Yet the priest’s time in Godrano was not always easy.
Archbishop Salvatore Di Cristina, archbishop emeritus of Monreale, another town in the Palermo province, explained, “When Father Puglisi arrived in Godrano, the town was in the midst of a blood feud, something deeper than a simple Mafia war.”
He described the situation in an interview with the Register. The church was often empty; families did not trust one another; the people of Godrano submitted to an unofficial curfew to prevent the risks of violence, he said.
Father Puglisi and then-Father Di Cristina were good friends, according to the archbishop. “We had been ordained together, and we attended to seminary together. So I often went to Godrano to give my support,” he recalled.
“Over time, things changed there. Father Puglisi won over the kids of the town, and after the kids, he won over the families. After his departure, Godrano was completely transformed,” said the archbishop emeritus.
The peculiarity of his pastoral action baffled some people, who “would define him as a social-action priest or some kind of ‘anti-Mafia’ professional.” But, according to Archbishop Di Cristina, he was neither: “He just deeply lived his vocation.”
Archbishop Michele Pennisi, who is the current archbishop of Monreale and who formerly was rector of the major seminary in Sicily, agreed with his predecessor’s view of Father Puglisi. He recalled in an interview with the Register that, while he was rector, he used to have dinner once a week with Father Puglisi, who at the time was responsible for vocations of the region.
“Father Puglisi thought that pastoral work for vocations was central and insisted a lot on it,” said Archbishop Pennisi.
Assignment to Palermo
In 1990, Father Puglisi was assigned as parish priest in Brancaccio, a block in Palermo dominated by the Gravianos Mafia family. He spent his time touring the block in his car, a red Fiat Uno, and he gathered a lot of kids around him. His actions were considered a breach in the Mafia mentality. But he continued in his mission, which, for him, was simply being a priest — 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,” said Archbishop Pennisi. “Mafia does not see that kind of priest as dangerous.”
But for the Mafia, Father Puglisi was dangerous, the archbishop explained, “because he educated young people, and youth did not align to Mafia rules anymore because they found a brand-new world.”
Father Puglisi was threatened several times by the Mafia. “After his passing, we found out that Mafia called him during the night. He got several warnings from them,” said Archbishop Di Cristina.
But Father Puglisi kept everything in his heart. According to his friends, none of them knew he was in danger.
On Sept. 15, 1993, Father Puglisi was killed at the doorway of his home. “I was waiting for you,” he said to his killers.
He may have been ready, but none of his friends expected it.
Bishop Cuttitta recalled, “When the news reached me, I was confused. I did not think it could be possible.”
The killing of Father Puglisi came at the climax of the conflict between the Mafia and the Italian state. In 1992, prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino — who made several strikes in the government’s fight with the Mafia — had been killed. In 1993, after John Paul II’s off-the-cuff speech against the Mafia during a pastoral trip to Agrigento in Sicily, two bombs were place outside the Roman churches of Sts. John Lateran and George in Velabro.
Yet Father Puglisi was one of those silent martyrs that change history. In the homily during his beatification ceremony, Cardinal Romeo proclaimed, “The Church recognizes in his life, sealed by martyrdom out of hatred for the faith, a model for imitation.”
In the years following Father Puglisi’s death, there was a change in the way the Church in Sicily reacted to the Mafia.
Bishop Cuttitta said, “Until 30 years ago, the Church had a sort of confused approach to the Mafia issues. 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.”
Father Pennisi recalled that after “scrolling the prosecutor’s questionings to Puglisi’s killers, it emerges that Father Pino was not dangerous for the good he did, but because his job undermined the power of the Mafia.”
Bishop Cuttitta concluded, “Father Puglisi had been killed because he promoted the Gospel with his life.”
Cardinal Romeo said in his homily, in front of tens of thousands of people gathered from all over Sicily, “The more we look at Father Puglisi’s face, the more we feel that his smile brings joy to all of us. Father Pino still smiles and instills in us communion with God and saints.”
Said Cardinal Romeo, “The Gospel reminds us that the grain must die to harvest new life. Puglisi taught young people how to make life-giving choices. This implies commitment and sacrifice in order to gain true joy.”
After he recited the Angelus on Sunday, May 26, Pope Francis noted that Father Puglisi had been beatified in Palermo on Saturday.
“Don Puglisi was an exemplary priest, devoted especially to youth ministry,” the Pope told the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. “He was teaching children according to the Gospel and taking them out of the Mob, and so they tried to defeat him and killed him. In reality, though, it is he who won, with Christ risen.”
These gangs “cause so much pain to men, women and even to children,” he said, mentioning prostitution as one type of slavery or social pressure used by the mafia.
Pope Francis urged the faithful in the square to “pray for these gangsters, so that they convert.”
Said the Holy Father about Blessed Giuseppe Puglisi, “We praise God for his luminous testimony, and we treasure his example!”
Andrea Gagliarducci writes from Rome.
Catholic News Agency and Register staff contributed to this report.