Pope Francis denounced the mafia’s “blasphemous” existence on Saturday during a visit to Palermo, Sicily to honour a priest murdered by the mob 25 years ago while trying to save youngsters in poor neighbourhoods from falling into their hands.
The brief visit, which will see the 81-year-old pontiff stay on the Italian island until evening, is part of a wider campaign he has been waging against organised crime.
“You can’t believe in God and belong to the mafia. Those who belong to the mafia don’t lead a Christian existence because their lives are blasphemous,” he said at an open-air mass near Palermo’s port, where some 100,000 had gathered according to official estimates.
“Change! Stop thinking about yourselves and your money, convert!”
His impassioned plea echoed the words of Jean Paul II who during a May 1993 trip to the island had also called on mobsters to abandon crime and urged Sicilians to revolt against the mafia.
The mobsters responded two months later with attacks on two Catholic churches.
Saturday’s homily was held in honour of Father Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi, who served as parish priest in the rough Palermo neighbourhood of Brancaccio for two years, trying to engage local youngsters and keep them away from drugs and the mafia suppliers.
Around 100,000 people gathered in Palmero on Saturday to hear the pope’s mass, according to officials
But on September 15, 1993 — his 56th birthday — he was shot dead at point-blank range.
“I was waiting for you,” he reportedly said with a smile before dying on the doorstep of his modest home in Brancaccio, a neighbourhood Francis will visit after celebrating mass.
His murder came as Italy was still reeling from the killings of two anti-mafia judges.
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI officially recognised Puglisi as a martyr, “killed by hatred of the faith”.
The following year he was beatified, in the first step on the path to sainthood within the Roman Catholic church.
Since becoming pope in 2013, Francis has openly confronted the mafia and called on the faithful to stop all collaboration with them.
Mafiosi are often practising members and benefactors of Catholic parishes.
Prior to arriving in Palermo, Francis stopped in Piazza Armerina, a small impoverished town in central Sicily.
“The wounds which afflict you are many, and they have a name: social and cultural under-development, the exploitation of workers and a lack of decent work for young people,” he said to widespread applause.