Pope Francis has praised a new initiative aimed at countering the abuse of Marian devotions by mafia organizations, who use her figure to wield power and exert control.

"Freeing Mary from the mafia and from criminal powers" is an ad hoc department of the Pontifical International Marian Academy (PAMI). The academy's president, Fr. Stefano Cecchin, OFM, told CNA Aug. 20 that the Blessed Virgin Mary does not teach submission to evil, but freedom from it.

Cecchin explained that terminology used in the history of the Church to explain Mary's "submission" to the will of God had become distorted to imply not servanthood, but "slavery" characterized by "absolute obedience to superiors."

"In the mafia framework, this is what the figure of Mary has become," he said, "the figure of a human being who must be submissive, therefore a slave, accepting the will of God, the will of the bosses, the will of the mafia leader…"

It becomes "a way the population, the people are subjected to this domination," he said.

He told CNA that the working group, which will officially start in October, includes around 40 Church and civil leaders, including Italian judges, for "study, research, and teaching" to "restore the purity of the image of Jesus and Mary which comes from the Gospels."

It is a laity-driven initiative, he stressed, and while it will begin in Italy, he said that participants hope in future to address other manifestations of this Marian exploitation, such as by drug lords in South America.

Pope Francis, in his Aug. 15 letter to Cecchin, said he "learned with pleasure" of the project and wished "to express my appreciation for the important initiative."

"Marian devotion is a religious-cultural heritage to be safeguarded in its original purity, freeing it from superstructures, powers or conditioning that do not meet the evangelical criteria of justice, freedom, honesty and solidarity," the pope wrote.

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Cecchin explained that another common way Marian devotion is abused by criminal organizations is through "inchini," which means "bows."

During Marian processions in some towns and villages in southern Italy, an image of the Virgin Mary will be stopped at the houses of mafia bosses and made to "greet" the boss with a "bow."

"This is a way of saying to the population, and in a symbolism which uses the religion of the people, that this mafia boss is blessed by God -- in fact, directed by the Mother of God, who stops to recognize that he is the leader, and therefore we all must obey him, as if [he has] a divine mandate," Cecchin said.

Mary is an image of God's beauty, the priest and former exorcist explained. "We know that the evil one, evil, wants to ruin the beauty God has created. In Mary, for us, is the image of absolutely the enemy of evil. With her, by her birth, the head of the serpent is crushed."

"Therefore, evil also uses the figure of Mary to go against God," he noted. "So, we must rediscover the beauty of the religious cultural heritage of every people and, furthermore, safeguard it in its original purity."

The new working group of the Pontifical International Marian Academy wants to use formation to teach children and families a true theology of Mary, Cecchin said.

In an interview with CNA's Italian partner agency, ACI Stampa, Cecchin acknowledged that the project was "ambitious," but said it was "a duty given the times."

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He said the supporters of the project were motivated by the common good: "For us it represents a challenge that we have courageously accepted."

In his letter, Pope Francis said "it is necessary that the style of Marian displays conform to the message of the Gospel and the teachings of the Church."

"May the Lord speak again to humanity in need of rediscovering the path of peace and fraternity through the message of faith and spiritual consolation that emanates from the various Marian initiatives, which characterize the territories of many parts of the world," he continued.

"And may the numerous devotees of the Virgin assume attitudes that exclude a misguided religiosity and respond instead to a religiosity correctly understood and lived," the pope said.