Pope Francis' statement Saturday that mafiosi are “excommunicated” was a reflection of theology rather than canon law, and acted as a call to conversion for those in organized crime, priests have said.
Pope Francis visited the Diocese of Cassano all'Jonio, in the southern Italian region of Calabria, June 21. The diocese has been profoundly affected by the its local organized crime group, the 'Ndrangheta; Cassano all'Jonio was the scene of a feud between mafia clans in the 1990s and 2000s.
The Pope preached during a Mass in Sibari, saying that “when adoration of the Lord is substituted by adoration of money, the road to sin opens up to personal interest. When one does not adore the Lord, one becomes an adorer of evil … those who in their lives have taken this evil road, this road of evil, such as the mafiosi, they are not in communion with God: they are excommunicated!”
Fr. Davide Cito, a professor of canon and penal law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, told CNA June 23 that “Pope Francis wanted to stress the practical apostasy of mafiosi – he compared it to idolatry: mafiosi are as apostates in their adoration of evil.”
“Speaking those words, Pope Francis shocked consciences, since many mafiosi claim to be devout Christians.”
The Pope “did something 'more' than the canonical punishment. He wanted to bind the 'excommunication' to the personal life of mafiosi, and this is why he added after that he slammed them as adorers of evil: because he does not want to condemn the isolated crime of a single person. He wants to address those who behave stubbornly against God.”
Similarly, Fr. Ciro Benedettini, vice director of the Holy See press office, explained that Pope Francis' words were not a formal legal decree, but more a message to mafiosi that they cannot receive the sacraments because of their activities, Reuters reported.
Fr. Ennio Stamile, a parish priest in the Calabrian town of Cetraro, has been targeted by the 'Ndrangheta several times for his commitment against organized crime. He reflected that “when the Church does excommunicate, it is not to condemn. It is rather to help people understand that their behavior, their choice, has put them outside of ecclesial communion, so as to give them a reason to convert their life.”
He noted that Pope Francis' words were “the first time a Pope has spoken so directly about the issue.”
While “the Pope's explicit words are unprecedented,” he said, “yet there is a strong continuity” between Pope Francis' words, and what St. John Paul II said in Sicily in 1993.
After having met the parents of the young Italian magistrate Rosario Livatino, who had been assassinated by mafiosi in 1990, the Pope addressed mafiosi directly, in Agrigento on May 9.
"God said: Thou shalt not kill. It is not possible for a man … to change or override this most holy law of God … I address those responsible: repent! One day there will be the righteousness of God.”
As a result of his words, the mafia set off bombs in front of St. John Lateran and San Giorgio al Velabro in Rome on July 28. There were no victims, but the attacks were a clear signal of war.
“Both John Paul II and Francis spoke toughly after having felt the damage the mafia could do in a personal meeting: John Paul II with the parents of Livatino, Pope Francis after his visit to the prison of Castrovillari … where he met the grandmothers of little Coco.”
“Coco” is Nicola Campolongo, a three-year-old child who was shot to death in a car together with his grandfather Jan. 20. The Campolongos are involved in the 'Ndrangheta, and Nicola was living with his grandfather, who was the target of the hit.
Bishop Nunzio Galantino of Cassano all'Jonio said the Pope's meeting with Nicolo's grandmothers was “a moving moment.”
“Pope Francis felt this suffering, and it led him to speak those words,” said Fr. Stamile.
“In the end, we priests are not magistrates sentencing. We are shepherds, we look for the salvation of every human being.”