Sept. 15, 1993, was the birthday of Father Puglisi, parish priest of San Gaetano in the Brancaccio district of Palermo, Sicily. He spent that Sunday like so many others until that evening, when, under the door of his residence, he found himself face to face with the most ruthless murderer of Brancaccio. Salvatore Grigoli had committed up to that time 45 murders, including dissolving a child in an acid bath. He was there to kill Father Puglisi, shooting him in the back of his head with a pistol.
The murder was ordered by the mafia boss Leoluca Bagarella, who also rebuked Brancaccio’s mafia bosses for having waited too long to kill the priest.
Father Puglisi was beatified as a martyr in Palermo on May 25, 2013, two months after the election of Pope Francis. Now Francis is preparing to go to the Sicilian city on Sept. 15 to visit Puglisi’s residence and parish church on the 25th anniversary of his martyrdom.
Marco Pappalardo, 42, from Catania, Sicily, is a teacher, journalist and author whose last book is titled “3P. Father Pino Puglisi, Supereroe Rompiscatole” (an Italian popular expression for “superhero troublemaker”). As shown in this interview with Our Sunday Visitor, it is impossible to talk about Father Puglisi without facing, as Pappalardo does and the pope in Palermo will too, the contentious issue of the relationship between Sicily, the Church and the mafia.
Our Sunday Visitor: To summarize, who was the Blessed Father Pino Puglisi?
Marco Pappalardo: A priest who gave his last breath to the young, teaching them to work for the good, not to give up, to do something to make society better. He was killed because the mafia was afraid of the change he was making with the disruptive power of the Gospel.
OSV: And the mafia?
Pappalardo: A criminal organization at a local, national and world level, which does all that provides power and wealth in the pockets of mafia families. ... This includes selling drugs, tightening ties with corrupt politics, exploiting ignorance and misery of the people, eliminating those who fight or betray it, controlling companies and industries, stealing the future from young people, extortion, murder and more.
OSV: Father Pino Puglisi is not the only priest killed by the mafia, but he is the only one proclaimed a martyr. Why?
Pappalardo: Professor Giuseppe Savagnone in my book says: “He firmly believed in the Gospel. Therefore, he was not only concerned with the rites within the walls of the temple, but he also tried to interpret life in the streets, among the people, like a great liturgy that must celebrate the Lord, [....] because man is the glory of God.”
OSV: According to Church law, martyrs are killed out of hatred for their Christian faith. Does the mafia really hate the Church?
Pappalardo: The religiosity of the mafia is false, made of external symbols, appearances, superstition. I do not think they hate the Church. They do not really understand it because of ignorance. But they hate those in the Church who denounce mafia actions and are committed to educating for legality.
OSV: In addition to flaunting religious symbols, the “mafiosi” often has manipulated religious events such as feasts or processions. What relationship does the Church have with the mafia?
Pappalardo: Let us speak not of the Church in general but of those in the Church who have had relations with the mafia, protecting it or being conniving, or remaining silent for fear even if being able to act, which is no better. The Church cannot and must not have relations with the mafia, apart from fighting it.
OSV: In 2014, the pope went to another southern region, Calabria, oppressed by the mafia. When there he said “mafiosi” are excommunicated. Why do you think there was so much clamor?
Pappalardo: It is a truth! Without true repentance, those who steal, kill, hate, disfigure creation, create poverty, ruin the hearts of young people cannot participate in the communion of the Church. It is the Gospel. The pope can only shout it. It made a fuss because usually we do not even speak, instead of shouting.
OSV: What legacy did Father Puglisi leave?
Pappalardo: Here I quote directly his words: “It is important to talk about the mafia, especially in schools, to combat the mafia mentality, which is then any ideology willing to sell off the dignity of man for money. But do not stop at parades, complaints, protests, otherwise they are just words.”
OSV: We speak of one of the worst stereotypes associated with Italy and Sicily. As a Sicilian man, how do you react?
Pappalardo: Sicilians that are “mafiosi” are a very small percentage. Many Sicilians, famous or not, died fighting the mafia. But we must ask ourselves what we every day — not just magistrates, police, some “crazy” priests — can do to overcome this bad reputation.
OSV: Some say the mafia has more to do with a mentality than a criminal system. What do you think?
Pappalardo: The mafia is both a system and a mentality. Even the tendency at times of asking favors feed into it, such as when we make others put in a good word for us, closing a blind eye, or when we think: “They all do it, why should I not do it?”
OSV: How do young people consider the mafia today? Has something changed in perception over time?
Pappalardo: Certainly, today there is more awareness, but to be true and concrete, it is no longer enough to write on the banners of the demonstrations, “The mafia is a mountain of merda (Italian curse word for human excrements).” We must write: “I will no longer do drugs, because drugs are pushed by the mafia, which gets rich off them,” or, “If they steal my scooter, I will not look for my friend’s friend to return it to me by ‘paying’; instead, I will denounce the theft, my so-called friend and his friend.”
Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.