Pope Francis, Money, the Mafia and the Man With No Face

Pope Francis, Money, the Mafia and the Man With No Face

Even for a pope, following the money can lead to some very unsafe places.

In an interview with CNN last week, Italian anti-Mafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri warned that Pope Francis’ efforts to reform the scandal-plagued Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR), aka the “Vatican bank”–including the Nov. 18 release of a Motu Proprio outlining new regulations for the Vatican’s Financial Intelligence Authority–may put him in peril from mobsters.

“The strong will of Pope Francis,” said Gratteri, “aiming to disrupt the gangrene power centers, puts him at risk. He disturbs the Mafia very much.”

He continued, “I don’t have precise information about a plan of the Mafia against Pope Francis. But if I did, I wouldn’t say.” 

Gratteri is a deputy prosecutor in the city of Reggio Calabria in the toe of Italy’s “boot,” adjacent to Sicily. He’s gained a reputation as the foe of Calabria’s branch of the Mafia, called Ndrangheta. Fueled with money from extortion and cocaine trafficking, it has constructed networks of tunnels to keep leaders hidden from increased police efforts.

Apparently the harm the mobsters do in Italy goes beyond drugs and violence. Last Thursday, at about the same time the reports of Mafia threats began to surface, Pope Francis called Sister Teresa, superior of the Daughters of St. Anne in Casal di Principe near Naples.

In a Zenit news report, Sister Teresa reported that the pontiff said, “I pray for all of you and especially bless the children.”

The sisters operate a kindergarten and primary school in an area called the “land of fire,” which refers to the burning of illegally dumped toxic waste by local mafioso called the Camorra. Industrial, toxic, and nuclear waste from northern reaches of Italy and Europe lands in the local countryside, and incinerating it is believed to cause a high rate of cancers in nearby children and women.

Said Sister Teresa, “Together with the children, we sent the pope postcards with pictures of children who have died of cancer and their moms.”

She also included the school’s phone number, which Pope Francis used at a time that Sister Teresa was in a classroom full of children, whose happy chatter almost kept the sister from hearing everything the pope said.

Of course, as soon as news of the call spread, the local criminals also learned of Francis’ interest.

Fans of the “Godfather” movies and other depictions of Mafia activity know of the crime organization’s cultural ties to the Roman Catholic Church, which has too often averted its gaze in exchange for the public piety and financial support of crime bosses, both in Italy and the U.S.

As reported by Mafia expert John Dickie (Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia), this don’t-ask-don’t-tell relationship continued during the Church’s opposition to Communism during the Cold War, when the Mafia took an anti-Communist stance to endear itself to Italian politicians.

Ironically, that relationship ended when the pontiff who presided over the end of the Cold War, Poland-born John Paul II, denounced the Mafia while on a visit to Agrigento, Sicily, in May 1993.

Visibly angry, fist clenched, he made this impromptus pronouncement at the end of a Mass: “God once said, ‘Do not kill.’ No human group, Mafia or whatever, can trample on this most sacred law of God. The Sicilian people cannot always live under the pressure of a civilization of death.”

Two months later, bombs exploded in Rome, damaging St. John Lateran Basilica and the San Giorgio in Velabro church, causing Florence prosecutor Pierluigi Vigna to suspect they were prompted by John Paul II’s words. 

In response to the current claims of an organized-crime threat on Pope Francis, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told ABC News, “There is no concrete reason that would lead us to worry. There is no reason to feed alarmism. We are very calm.”

Along with the letter to Sister Teresa, Pope Francis in May beatified Father Giuseppe Puglisi in a process begun by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, marking the last step before potential sainthood. Puglisi was a Sicilian priest shot in the back of the head in the crime-ridden Brancaccio district of the Sicilian capital of Palmero in Sept. 1993.

After praying the Angelus with the crowd in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on May 26, Pope Francis talked about Puglisi, saying he was “an exemplary priest, especially dedicated to the pastoral care of youth. In teaching boys in accordance with the Gospel, he saved them from the criminal underworld, and thus the latter sought to get the better of him by killing him.

However, in fact it is he who won, with the Risen Christ. I think of all the suffering of men and women, and also of children, who are exploited by so many forms of mafia, which exploit them by forcing them to do a job that enslaves them, with prostitution, with so many social pressures. Behind this exploitation, behind this slavery, there are “mafias.”

Let us pray to the Lord to convert the heart of these people. They cannot do this! They cannot make slaves of us, brothers and sisters! We must pray to the Lord! Let us pry that these members of the Mafia be converted to God, and let us praise God for the luminous witness borne by Father Giuseppe Puglisi, and let us set store by his example!

Whether or not the Mafia is targeting Francis, history has shown that popes are as vulnerable to attack as any leader. On May 13, 1981 — the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima — in St. Peter’s Square, Turkish national Mehmet Ali Agca shot and wounded John Paul II.

John Paul II always believed that Mary, to whom he had a deep devotion, was instrumental in helping him survive the shooting, but the memory of the event has long haunted Vatican security. The familiar enclosed “popemobile,” with it panels of bulletproof glass, came into use after the Agca shooting. When traveling abroad, Benedict XVI used a modified Mercedes-Benz SUV with a bulletproof-glass-enclosed compartment that had its own oxygen supply.

As anyone who’s followed Pope Francis knows, the Benz has been retired, along with any vehicle with bulletproof glass. Francis regularly rides standing up in an open car around St. Peter’s Square–all the better to kiss innumerable babies, grasp extended hands and embrace handicapped children lifted up to him–and also used an open-air popemobile in both visits in Italy and abroad, such as at World Youth Day in Rio.

Francis’ security team could be forgiven for still having nightmares about the pope’s first ride through Rio, in a silver Fiat (very visible in a line of black ones). Francis was waving with the window down much of the time, even when a wrong turn sent the motorcade into a tight squeeze between buses and a center divider and the crowds surged against the small car.

Francis is also a very hands-on pope out of the car–often wading into crowds, shaking hands, taking gifts and embracing many people who stir his sympathies. Early in the month, following the end of his weekly General Audience, Francis hugged, kissed, and prayed over a man originally described as having “boils” on his face, head, and hands who was standing with other ailing and handicapped people near the dais in St. Peter’s Square.

The man was later identified as 53-year old Italian Vinicio Riva, who has the genetic disease neurofibromatosis (reminding some of the story of how St. Francis kissed a leper he encountered while on horseback). In an interview with a U.K. news Website, Riva said, “I’m not contagious, but he [Francis] didn’t know that. But he just did it; he caressed me all over my face and as he did I felt only love.”

Two weeks later, following another weekly audience, Francis was photographed having an animated chat with, and them embracing, a man with a severely disfigured face, with his nose and other features missing either through illness or injury. This man’s medical history and identity have yet to be reported.

The pontiff, who turns 77 on Dec. 17, appears vigorous, despite needing sturdy, comfortable shoes for his flat feet. Although he canceled several audiences last Friday owing to a viral illness–alternately described as a cold or the flu–Father Lombardi said, “There is no reason for worry.”