Against the ‘Religion’ of the Mafia: A Conversation With a Sicilian Professor

Papal trip to Palermo this weekend will highlight martyrdom of Blessed Pino Puglisi, who fought such evil.

Above, the beatification of Blessed Pino Puglisi; inset: Giuseppe Savagnone
Above, the beatification of Blessed Pino Puglisi; inset: Giuseppe Savagnone (photo: via; Giuseppe Savagnone photo courtesy of subject)

On the 25th anniversary of the martyrdom of a priest, Blessed Pino Puglisi, Sept. 15, Pope Francis will visit Palermo, Sicily. There, he is expected to visit the “Brancaccio” neighborhood, notably St. Gaetano’s Church, where Father Pino was a parish priest, and Anita Garibaldi Square, where he was brutally shot by a mafia assassin.

After a quarter of a century, professor Giuseppe Savagnone from Palermo says that “those dark forces still dominate not only Brancaccio, but all of Sicily.” The mafia, he says, “is the religion of unlimited power of man over man.” And the problem for the Church in facing the mafia, he says, is that the everyday pastoral approach does not effectively touch on the local culture and mentality.

Giuseppe Savagnone, 74, taught history and philosophy in secondary schools for 41 years. He is a journalist, essayist, director since 1990 of the Pastoral Care of Culture Department of the Archdiocese of Palermo, and is a professor of social doctrine of the Church at the LUMSA University in Palermo. Looking ahead to the Pope's visit, he explained to the Register the significance of this papal visit and the complex issue of the relationship, in Sicily, between the Catholic Church and the mafia. 


On Sept. 15, Pope Francis will visit the parish and residence of Father Pino Puglisi in Palermo, on the 25th anniversary of his assassination by the mafia. What is the purpose?

Father Puglisi is the martyr of a faith that does not entrench itself in devotionalism and ritualism, but becomes a concrete commitment to renew social relationships, lifestyles and ways of thinking. In Palermo, unlike in some regions of northern Italy, the churches are still full; the confraternities have very crowded processions. ... Francis comes to Palermo to remind us that Christians must leave the comfortable walls of the church, as Father Pino did, challenging the dark forces that still dominate not only Brancaccio, the parish of Father Puglisi, but all Sicily.


The mafia has killed investigators, politicians and even priests over the years, but only Father Pino Puglisi has been proclaimed a martyr and then “Blessed.” Why?

Because martyrdom is a fruit not only of a human commitment or enthusiasm, but of participating in the gift that Christ has made of himself to his brothers. Father Puglisi never wanted to be considered a simple social worker, much less an “anti-mafia priest,” but only a priest, a poor Christian who was committed to proclaiming the Gospel of love to the worshippers of a rather different and opposite religion, the mafia, whose god is the unlimited power of man over man.


There are Mafiosi (mafia leaders) famous for flaunting religious symbols. ... They often use, as reported in the news, religious events such as processions or feasts of popular devotion to make themselves appear as good Christians.

The mafia, as I just said, is not the same form of delinquency as are many others. It’s a religion. Therefore, it needs a symbolism and a ritualism that draws on the Christian tradition, but profoundly changing its meaning, up to overturning it.


It is without a doubt that, in the relationship between the Church and the mafia there have been — and perhaps there are still — ambiguities. Does the Church have to say mea culpa?

The Church and the mafia lived together for many decades, after the unification of Italy, having in common the same enemy — the recently born and masonic Italian state — in the context of a strongly religious popular culture and deeply hostile to the conquerors of the north. Only after the Second World War, with the Catholic party in power, the Church could finally recognize itself in the new democratic order. Nevertheless, the ordinary pastoral care of our parishes does not have yet the cultural and spiritual strength necessary to change mentality and customs. It stagnates in ritualism that lends itself very easily to being exploited by the mafia.


When Pope Francis, during his visit to the southern Italian region of Calabria in 2014, a zone where the mafia has much influence, said that Mafiosi are excommunicated, it sparked much reaction. Why?

Because most people had believed it a novelty, ignoring the countless condemnations of popes, bishops and ecclesial conventions that since the 1970s have expressly declared incompatible the mafia and Christianity. The real problem is not the condemnations, however necessary, but an ordinary pastoral approach that doesn’t affect the reality, mentality and culture. And the excommunications are, unfortunately, not enough to change it. Here we need a turning point to rediscover the cultural and educational value of the evangelization with respect to ritualism.


And what is the relationship between the mafia — criminals capable of committing heinous crimes — and phenomena such as widespread corruption, the lack of a sense of legality and the tolerance or complicity toward forms of illegality?

There is a mafia culture that does not coincide with the actual criminal organization, but it is the breeding ground for it. At the heart of this culture, there is the lack of the sense of the state and common good, which is replaced by the trust in bonds of “friendship” and a “patronizing” logic of clientelism. If the only way to do something necessary at the municipality, to have a permit or financing, etc., is to look for a “friend” within the public administration, it is clear that a network of links and dependencies is created, with a relative exchange of favors, which nullifies the rules and promotes illegality. The mafia grows thanks to the inefficiency of the state and its administration.


The mafia and complicity with it are part of one of the worst stereotypes associated with Italy and Sicily. As a Sicilian, how would you respond?

I would reply that Sicily, like all regions of Italy and all nations, has a history that reveals its perverse tendencies, but also its positivity and resources. Identifying it with the former is silly and one-sided. The fact remains that it is the responsibility of the Sicilians to change their history so as to enhance the light, if you will, and thin out the shadows.

Register correspondent Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.