Who can forget the scene at the end of the Godfather movie where Michael Corleone makes promises to reject the world, the flesh and the devil while his thugs are brutally killing his mob rivals. With shady stories about the Vatican bank and the criminal underworld, and with its Italian roots the Catholic Church has too often had to deal with charges of being in the pocket of gangsters.
So it is with solid joy that we praise the recent beatification of Fr Guiseppe Puglisi--a priest in Palermo who was assassinated in 1993 by mobsters after he preached against the Mafia in a parish where the mob was in control.
On Sunday, Pope Francis told a crowd in St. Peter's Square the Mafia killed Fr Puglisi because he tried to keep youths from being recruited by mobsters. The Pope said it pains him when he thinks of all the people exploited by organized crime. Mobsters control rackets for prostitution, trafficking in illegal immigration and other forms of slavery.
Pope Francis’ denouncing of organized crime and gang violence reminds us that organized crime is not limited to Sicily. Italian mobsters might be the most famous, but organized crime is a global epidemic. The sprawling cities of Central and South America, where the pope has spent his whole ministry, are riddled with poverty, gang warfare, prostitution, illegal immigration, drugs, alcohol and violent crime of the worst sort. The pope speaks from experience.
Not only did Fr Puglisi confront the crime lords in Sicily, but Pope Francis himself speaks from experience--living close to the poor in cities where similar problems are rife. Fr. Puglisi is not the only priest who stands up to gangsters. When I was visiting church projects in El Salvador a few years ago a courageous Salesian priest named Padre Pepe told us of his work with the gang members in San Salvador. To join the gang at the age of twelve a boy has to commit a murder. The girls are initiated into the gang through group sex and then prostitution. Padre Pepe started a school and vocational programs for the young men and women and risked his life numerous times to confront the gang lords personally.
Pope Francis’ recognition of Fr Puglisi is also a reminder of the church’s stance against organized intimidation, violence, bullying and murder wherever it occurs. We remember the heroic stance of the Polish priest Fr Jerzy Popieluszko who was beatified in 2010. Bl. Jerzy stood up to the “organized crime” of the Communist regime in Poland, and was hauled off and murdered by communist thugs in 1984.
When we consider the broader issues we can see that “organized crime” is woven in and through they worldly system. Fr Puglisi was murdered by mafia hit men. Fr Popieluszko was murdered by communist thugs. Four years earlier, in El Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down by right wing assassins. Wherever the church stands up for the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable and the downtrodden she can be sure that attack will come.
These noble examples of martyrdom in the cause of Christ remind all Catholics that we are called to “fight the good fight”--to defend all that is beautiful, good and true. We may not face the knock on the door in the middle of the night, the assassin’s bullet or the brutal beating, torture and imprisonment, but if we stand up for the truth of the Catholic faith and stand against oppression, violence and injustice we must be prepared to face the opposition.
Pope Francis is well aware of the battles to be fought in the name of Christ. He is still enjoying a honeymoon period as Pope, but before too long he too will take a stand against the violence, hatred and injustice in our world, and when that time comes there is no doubt that he will be as resolute and joyfully determined to stand against the violent men of this world as Fr Puglisi, Fr Popieluszko and Archbishop Romero were.
As he does so, he will not only be imitating them, but he will also be imitating Christ the Lord--who from the time of his infancy faced the threat of violent death at the hand of Herod’s thugs, and in the end was tortured and died at the hands of Pilate’s henchmen and the “Godfathers” that ran the religious system of his day.
Fr Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com