“It is a truth universally acknowledged that anyone who blesses with the Mafia is likely to end up dead – or, at least, considerably the worse for wear.”
Sadly, the misquoted opening line of Pride and Prejudice is frighteningly true. During my time in Rome, I knew an Italian accountant whose English was as bad as my Italian. We saw each other almost daily, exchanging our limited greetings and pleasantries. Our conversation never progressed beyond one or two sentences. My impression, however, was of a friendly man who knew his business and would probably not have suffered fools lightly. To my surprise, I discovered that he was influential in the Mafia, or, to be precise, the Camorra, since he came from Naples.
Working in Vatican Radio and being a keen walker, I also daily encountered street vendors as they sold their fake Gucci handbags along the banks of the River Tiber. Tourists thought they were buying a bargain, probably knew that the handbags were probably not genuine, but did notice the extent of their shoddy workmanship. An Indian Jesuit who had some contact with some of the Bangladeshi vendors explained. “They come over to Italy and look for accommodation. They are directed to a landlord who offers them room in his property. The men sleep in bunk beds, perhaps as many as ten to a room. They take it in turns to stay behind for the day in order to cook for their companions. The landlord charges exorbitant rents, but the men have no choice because they are often illegal immigrants. In order to have even a small space on the roadside where they can spread a sheet and display their wares, up to forty percent of their income is paid as protection money to the Mafia. If they do not pay, they have no way of earning a living, have little or nothing for their own survival and earn nothing to send back to Bangladesh for their families. As it is, many cannot afford to pay rent to the landlords and end up sleeping, homeless, under a bridge along the Tiber. They dare not tell their families back home that they are destitute. Some of the police are also in the pay of the Mafia.”
Pope Francis recently visited the town of Castrovillari in southern Italy and denounced the Mafia in strong terms. His words were picked up and broadcast by the world’s media. The general feeling was that the Pope was either extremely brave or extremely foolhardy. Few seemed to doubt that he had put his life on the line. Before his journey to the town where a three-year-old boy was killed in the crossfire between rival gangs of mafiosi, he had declared, “At my age, what have I to lose?”
Those who stand up to Mafia violence and extortion become victims. In March, a kindly parish priest whose Bishop described him as a "discreet martyr of charity", was murdered with an iron bar for refusing to pay extortion money. The body of Fr Lazzaro Longobardi was discovered alongside the murder weapon, presumably as a warning to those who might also think of not paying the “pizzo”, as the Mafia call their “tax”.
The trouble is that mobsters who call themselves Catholics, possibly object to having a Pope tell them that they are involved in “adoration of evil and contempt for the common good.” They might also dislike being informed that “Those who in their lives have taken this evil road, this road of evil, such as the mobsters, they are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated.” During his recent visit to the Holy Land, Francis did not speak so bluntly to the members of Hamas and Hezbollah. Perhaps, as a result of his experience with Buenos Aires gangsters, he felt that he could speak as someone for whom the Mafia have at least some respect.
More than 200,000 people attended the Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in the small Calabrian town of Sibari. Although his words received applause from the majority, there is no doubt that some of the crowd were sufficiently angered so as to consider some form of retaliation. Only time will tell whether or not the courageous stance taken by the Pope will have earned their respect and, perhaps, a change of heart.
The Mafia is particularly associated with Italy, but because of the massive Italian diaspora, they are also represented within Italian communities around the world. An American commented, “My brother works in the construction industry in New York. If he does not pay protection money to the Mafia, that is the end of his business and, possibly, his life.”
Pope Francis is the son of Italian migrants to Argentina. In his years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was no stranger to gangs and to the violence and extortion which he denounced whenever he could. Has his past experience with mobsters who call themselves Catholics shown him how far he can go in standing up to their evil? Is he just someone who is so appalled by gratuitous brutality that he is completely forgetful of his own safety in his desire to protect others? The same Jesuit who spoke of the Bangladeshi vendors in Rome, also commented that, “Our Jesuit training is such that, if necessary, we can stand alone.” Certainly, Pope Francis has shown himself to be “a man for others” of the calibre of whom St Ignatius of Loyola would feel justifiably proud.
There is growing rejection of the mafiosi in some parts of Italy. Even in Sicily, some individuals take their lives in their hands and refuse their demands. What has been needed has been somebody “at the top” to speak out on behalf of the many who are often both powerless and voiceless.
We have just witnessed yet another example of the exemplary leadership of Pope Francis. In denouncing the Mafia, he has done something that many people across the world and the years have longed to do, but have not felt sufficiently brave. A Catholic group called Libera, founded by a priest by the name of Don Luigi Ciotti, is one of many anti-mafia organisations active in Italy. Yet real effectiveness in confronting such a powerful and evil an organisation as the Mafia, requires an extraordinarily inspirational style of leadership; one which unites these small, courageous groups in a global renunciation of their power and violence.
In March 2014, Pope Francis met with a group of victims of Mafia violence. At the time, he declared of the Mafia, “This life you have now, it will not give you pleasure, it will not give you joy, it will not give you happiness. The power, the money you have now from so many dirty deals, from so many Mafia crimes, blood-stained money, blood-stained power – you will not be able to take that with you to the other life.”
“There is still time not to end up in hell, which awaits you if you continue on this road,” Pope Francis said. “You had a papa and a mamma. Think of them, weep a little and convert.”