Articles

Bl. "Pino" Puglisi

October 21 is the commemoration of Blessed Giuseppe "Pino" Puglisi, an Sicilian martyr murdered murdered by the Mafia in 1993 for his opposition to their criminal activities. His last words when confronted by his Mafia assassins were, "I've been expecting you." Pino was a priest in the rough Palermo neighborhood of Brancaccio. He openly challenged the Mafia who controlled the neighborhood, and was subsequently killed by them on his 56th birthday. His life story has been retold in a book, Pino Puglisi, il prete che fece tremare la mafia con un sorriso (2013), and portrayed in a film, In the Sunlight (2005).

Ordination to the Priesthood

Giuseppe "Pino" Puglisi was born in Brancaccio, a working-class neighborhood in Palermo (Sicily), into a family of modest means. His father was a shoemaker and his mother a dressmaker. He entered the seminary at age sixteen. Following ordination, he worked in various parishes, including a country parish afflicted by a bloody vendetta. Family feuding, often bound up with the territorial disputes of the Mafia, were endemic in this part of Sicily.

Unfortunately, because of the ubiquitous influence of the Mafia, the local clergy sometimes turned a blind eye to their activities. Puglisi was ordained as a priest on 2 July 1960 by Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini from Palermo. Ruffini had once questioned the Mafia's very existence. To a journalist's question of "What is the Mafia?" he responded: "So far as I know, it could be a brand of detergent." This denial persuaded Puglisi of the need to challenge the conventional wisdom on the local clergy's approach to the Mafia. "We can, we must criticize the church when we feel it doesn't respond to our expectations, because it's absolutely right to seek to improve it," he said. With his trademark humor, Puglisi added: "But we should always criticize it like a mother, never a mother-in-law!"

An Opponent of the Mafia

In 1990, Puglisi returned to his old quarter Brancaccio and became the priest of San Gaetano's Parish. Puglisi had been offered other parishes by the local curia, in less troublesome Palermo neighborhoods, but he opted for San Gaetano. He spoke out against the Mafia who controlled the area and opened a shelter for underprivileged children, free of Mafia control. This was a direct affront to the Mafia, as most charitable institutions in the neighborhood were bound up with the Mafia in some way or needed Mafia "protection" to operate without being harassed.

With little support from the Palermo archdiocese, Puglisi tried to change his parishioners' mentality, which was conditioned by fear, passivity and omerta – an imposed code of silence and refusal to give information to the authorities about Mafia activity. In his sermons, he pleaded to give leads to authorities about the Mafia's illicit activities in Brancaccio, even if they could not actually name names. He refused Mafia gifts when offered for the traditional feast day celebrations, and would not allow the Mafia "men of honor" to march at the head of religious processions, as was customary in Palermo.

To underscore his anti-Mafia conviction, Puglisi composed a parody of the Our Father in the Sicilian language:

"O godfather to me and my family, You are a man of honor and worth. Your name must be respected. Everyone must obey you. Everyone must do what you say for this is the law of those who do not wish to die. You give us bread, work; who wrongs you, pays. Do not pardon; it is an infamy. Those who speak are spies. I put my trust in you, godfather. Free me from the police and the law."

The mock prayer was meant to contrast the manner of behavior of the Mafia with the precepts of Christ.

Fr. Puglisi tried to discourage the children from dropping out of school, robbing, drug dealing and selling contraband cigarettes. Despite serious warnings from friends and other clergy, he declined to award a contract to a construction firm which had been "indicated" to him by the Mafia for the restoration of the church, where the roof was collapsing. Those parishioners who supported Fr. Puglisi faced intimidation. A small group who organized for social improvement found the doors of their houses torched, their phones receiving threats, and their families put on notice that worse things lay in store.

Martyrdom

On September 15, 1993—Puglisi's 56th birthday—he was killed in front of his parish church by a single bullet shot at point-blank range. He was taken unconscious to a local hospital, where surgeons were unable to revive him. The murder was ordered by the local Mafia bosses, the brothers Filippo and Giuseppe Graviano. One of the hitmen who killed Puglisi, Salvatore Grigoli, later confessed and revealed the priest’s last words as his killers approached: "I've been expecting you."

Puglisi's murder shocked Italy. There was an immediate call by eight priests in Palermo for Pope John Paul II to travel to Palermo to be present at his funeral. The pope, however, was scheduled to be in Tuscany on that date and did not attend the memorial service. At the funeral Mass the archbishop of Palermo, Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo, carefully avoided indicating the Mafia as the suspects in Puglisi's murder, although many had no doubt about their involvement. On April 14, 1998, the Mafiosi Gaspare Spatuzza, Nino Mangano, Cosimo Lo Nigro and Luigi Giacalone received life sentences for the killing of Puglisi. The Graviano brothers also received life sentences for ordering the killing.

During his visit to Sicily in November 1994, Pope St. John Paul II praised Puglisi as a "courageous exponent of the Gospel." He urged Sicilians not to allow the priest’s death to have been in vain and warned that silence and passivity about the Mafia was tantamount to complicity.

Puglisi's favorite rhetorical stance—"Se ognuno fa qualcosa, allora si può fare molto" (If everyone does something, then we can do a lot)—is scrawled on walls in Brancaccio. In 1999, the Cardinal of Palermo started his beatification process, proclaiming Puglisi a Servant of God.

On June 28, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI allowed the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints to designate Puglisi a martyr in a first step to beatify the slain priest. The Pope signed a decree acknowledging that Father Puglisi had been killed "in hatred of the faith", meaning that he can be beatified without a miracle being attributed to his intercession with God.

Beatification of Pino Puglisi

The Beatification of Pino Puglisi took place on May 25, 2013, in the early days of the Franciscan pontificate. The Mass took place at the Foro Italico 'Umberto I', a large green area that forms one of the promenades of Palermo. The Mass was presided over by Paolo Cardinal Romeo, Metropolitan Archbishop of Palermo, with Salvatore Cardinal de Giorgi, Metropolitan Archbishop Emeritus of Palermo, as the Papal Legate who performed the Rite of Beatification. Estimates state that 50,000 people attended the Mass. During his Angelus address, the following Sunday, May 26, Pope Francis stated that the newly beatified Puglisi was first and foremost 'an exemplary priest and a martyr', as well as condemning Mafia groups, one of Pope Francis' favorite targets of criticism.