John Paul Back on Road Again: Pontiff Carries Anti-Mafia Crusade to Sicily

By Hebblethwaite, Peter | National Catholic Reporter, November 18, 1994 | Go to article overview

John Paul Back on Road Again: Pontiff Carries Anti-Mafia Crusade to Sicily


Hebblethwaite, Peter, National Catholic Reporter


What's all this talk about the Pope being ill? Put it in the past tense. Beyond any doubt, John Paul was back in top form as he went for the fourth time to the Mafia-infested island of Sicily. If Zagreb in September was his 62nd international trip, the visit to the industrial town of Catania Saturday, Nov. 5, was his 117th visit within Italy.

In Catania he said that Sicily "stands in need of rescue and liberation from the Mafia and from other occult forces." While he was speaking, a dead sheep with its throat cut was laid at the door of Don Gino Sachetti, a prison chaplain. An attached note said: "This is the way you will end." These people are not joking.

In September 1993, Don Giuseppe Puglisi was killed in Brancaccio, a district of Palermo, Sicily's capital. John Paul hailed Puglisi as "a courageous minister of the truth of the gospel." The pope thundered away not only against the Mafia but against "political groups who aim exclusively at power rather than service." In the present circumstances that could mean just about everyone.

He thundered some more against "corruption." And again "against the temptation of apathy, which leads to the fatalistic acceptance of evil," He thundered against the shrug of indifference. John Paul's message to Sicily has become clearer with each successive visit. He has pronounced veritable anathemas. The first came May 10, 1993, at Agrigento: "The Mafia offends against God! Those guilty of disturbing the peace will carry on their consciences the burden of so many innocent victims. They should understand that the killing of the innocent is not allowed. In the name of Christ slain and risen, I say to those responsible: Be converted! You will one day have to undergo God's judgment." Some of this had important political repercussions.

John Paul let the local bishops have their say, too. Luigi Bommarito, archbishop of Catania, denounced the Lega, which wants a federal Italy. Southern or mezzogiorno bishops see this as a way of consigning them to the Third World. In Sicily they already feel halfway to Africa.

But Bommarito also spoke of extortion, money-lending, unemployment and underemployment that provided the fertile breeding ground for the Mafia.

John Paul picked up this point. The aim is not only to lick the Mafia, but to lick the problems that give rise to the Mafia. Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo, archbishop of Palermo, joined the pope in a televised meeting with some young criminals. With the throat-slit sheep in mind, Pappalardo was asked whether the Mafia is now targeting the church. …

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