Murder in Palermo: Who Killed Father Puglisi?

Article excerpt

September 15, 1993, was Father Giuseppe Puglisi's fifty-sixth birthday. The parish priest of San Gaetano in the poor Brancaccio section of Palermo, Sicily, spent the day in a round of pastoral duties. Known to everyone as "Pino," he performed two weddings, sat in at a meeting, had a conference with parents who were to have their babies baptized, and then attended a small birthday celebration in his honor with friends. Returning home at 8:20 p.m., he had just gotten out of his car when a man stepped from the shadows, put a gun with a silencer to the priest's head, and shot him to death. Four years later, the hit man was arrested. A low-level Mafioso, he told the police that Puglisi had seen him approaching and said, "I was expecting you."

For years, Puglisi had been an outspoken critic of the Mafia. He organized groups in his parish to combat them, and he aided those who fought them in other parts of the city. He refused their monies when offered for the traditional feast day celebrations, and would not allow the "men of honor" to march at the head of religious processions. He instructed young children to hold the Mafia in contempt. When bribes were required to hasten civic improvements, he would denounce those who demanded them, and he railed against their influence on a city government that seemed incapable of providing a middle school or of putting in sewers, although a quarter of Brancaccio's residents had high levels of viral hepatitis.

Born to a working-class family (his father was a shoemaker and his mother a seamstress), Puglisi entered the seminary at age sixteen. Following ordination, he worked in various parishes, including a country parish afflicted by a bloody vendetta. He taught religion in a Palermo high school, an assignment he continued to fill even after he was made pastor of San Gaetano. When he arrived there in 1990, the parish's eighteenth-century church held only 115 persons for a population of 8,000, and its roof was collapsing.

Don Pino well understood that the Mafia was poisonous. It not only sold drugs, fenced stolen goods, and had its hand in the construction industry and politics, but, as Puglisi wrote, it fostered a mentality that eroded both the civic and social life of Sicily. People were cynical about the political structures of both town and region, and apathy ran deep and for generations. Those who made attempts to reform matters were sent a strong message. A small group of householders in Don Pino's parish who organized for social improvement found the doors of their houses torched, their phones receiving threats, and their families put on notice that worse things lay in store.

It was the children and young people whom Don Pino most wanted to change. He organized camping trips for classes at the high school, and at San Gaetano he hammered away at the same themes: take responsibility for your life and for society; resist the values of the Mafia; refuse to collaborate in their criminality; say no to contraband goods, to discounted (that is, stolen) motorbikes, and to drugs. He encouraged all to participate in such events as the Stations of the Cross, made through the streets of Brancaccio, as an alternative to the traditional religious celebrations, largely paid for by local politicos and men of honor (often the same people).

Don Pino's basic intuition was that the ideology of the Mafia was radically pagan and profoundly anti-Christian. His struggle was a kind of exorcism in the name of the gospel. To underscore this conviction, he composed a parody of the Our Father in the Sicilian dialect. …