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Italian church is dissolving its link with the mob (

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TO ALL appearances, this was a final disentangling of the disreputable connections between the church in southern Italy and organised crime. When a Sicilian mobster known as the "boss of bosses" died in prison last month, a spokesman for the Italian conference of bishops said it would be "unthinkable" to give him a public funeral. 

Ultimately, said the spokesman, Salvatore "Totò" Riina would be judged by God, but the church had a clear duty to set a proper public example, and colluding with lavish obsequies for this multiple killer would have amounted to the very opposite. In the end Riina was given a private funeral in his home village of Corleone, which gave its name to the central family of "The Godfather", a classic novel and film.  A local priest gave a blessing.

So is this a final rupture? It is true that the hierarchs of the church, including Pope Francis, have made a serious effort to disengage their institution from Italy's notorious organised crime syndicates: Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the 'Ndrangheta  in the Calabria region and the Camorra in Naples.

In 2014 the pope went to a town in Calabria where a three-year-old boy had been killed along with his grandfather, in a case apparently linked with drugs, and declared that he was excommunicating the Mafia. He also attended a service in Rome where the names of over 800 people killed by Mafia groups were read out. The pontiff declared that the mobsters would end up in hell unless they repented.

All this seems a long way from the world of 1970s or 1980s, when Mafia power was almost uncontrolled and there was a strange pact of mutual tolerance that was regarded, in certain quarters, as a necessary price for keeping Italy in the Western, anti-Soviet camp during the cold war. Italy's Catholic-inspired Christian Democratic party, the Catholic church and organised crime had the common purpose of keeping communism at bay—and they seemed to avoid picking fights with one another.

During this period, says Isaia Sales, a historian from Naples, the church was much too quick to offer Christian "forgiveness" to perpetrators of violence who showed no sign of contrition. "In certain cases in Sicily the clergy were either silent on violence or openly praised the bosses...they offered spiritual services to people on the run, by marrying them and baptising their children..."

Even today, to anyone visiting Sicily, it feels as though the disentangling of the church and the mob, while impressive enough, is a recent, precarious and perhaps not entirely complete process. 

In March, the bishop of Monreale in Palermo province decreed that members of the Mafia could not act as "godfathers" in the literal sense. In other words they could not be spiritual protectors of children at their baptism. Such decrees would not be issued if they were unnecessary. A couple of months later there was an outcry after a religious procession in Corleone seemed to make a gesture of homage to the Riina family, though organisers denied this.

Gianni Di Gennaro, a Jesuit priest from Naples who moved to Sicily, says things have changed a lot for the better over the past 30 years. "When I arrived, I wasn't even allowed to say the word Mafia out loud," he recalls. Now he offers welfare services to vulnerable locals and migrants, including victims of Mafia abuses, on land that was confiscated from the mob.

In his view, the shift in the church's stance owes a lot to the self-sacrifice of a number of brave individual priests who spoke out against the mob when it was still highly dangerous to do so, and were killed as a result. One such cleric was Pino Puglisi, slain in Palermo on his 56th birthday in 1993 after challenging the Mafia's hold over his rough neighbourhood (his tomb is pictured). He fought hard to weaken the mob's control over children. 

Some of those pioneering clerical foes of the Mafia survived to tell the tale, and are pleased that the church as a whole has changed its position. An example is  Giacomo Ribaudo, who wrote an open letter of denunciation to Riina, long before bishops were active in that cause. He now says:

"The church woke up late to this fight but what's important is that it eventually took a side. With Riina's death, the peak of the Cosa Nostra is past but this doesn't mean the Mafia has been eradicated. Acts of fierce, public violence have decreased [but] we should not let down our guard."

As for the feelings of ordinary, faithful Catholics in Sicily, a statue in the town hall of Zafferana, a small, conservative village on the slopes of Mount Etna, may provide a clue. As locals explain, it is a likeness of Archbishop Salvatore Pappalordo, who as archbishop of Palermo in the 1970s was one of the few senior clerics to admit the existence of the Mafia and denounce it. Villagers are proud of the fact that this brave prelate spent his summers and retirement years enjoying the cool weather and winding streets of their little hamlet. This is a part of the world where gestures, symbols and images speak louder than words.



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