Cardinal calls for Marian devotion to be protected from mafia exploitation

CNA 59020021aad47 129347 Cardinal Pietro Parolin at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome April 27, 2017. | Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

During a visit to a Marian shrine in southern Italy this week, the Vatican Secretary of State issued a warning that Marian devotion must be safeguarded from mafia exploitation.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin offered Mass for the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary -- a date associated with the Italian Marian devotion to Madonna delle Grazie, or Our Lady of Grace -- at the Shrine of Torre Ruggiero in Calabria, the region that is home to the 'Ndrangheta organized crime syndicate, one of the most powerful mafia groups in Italy.

Italian media reported that during a procession of the Madonna delle Grazie in Reggio Calabria in 2014 the procession stopped in front of the house of a mafia boss under house arrest as a sign of respect. This is one example of how Marian devotion can become entangled with mafia culture in southern Italy.

"Popular piety is a great treasure that the Church cannot do without precisely because it supports faith in all situations. But it also needs to be purified from some elements that are not appropriate, all the more so if they are underworld or criminal elements," Parolin said Sept. 8, according to L'Osservatore Romano.

At the Mass, Archbishop Vincenzo Bertolone of Catanzaro-Squillace in Calabria told the cardinal: "Old and new mafia forces try to pollute popular faith with malignant weeds, passing off a pseudo religion as devout. From this sanctuary, your presence recalls the duty to free the devotion of the Madonna from any risk of exploitation."

Parolin said: "There is a lot of work to be done to which pastors dedicate themselves with great attention ... We must be careful not to throw away the baby with the bathwater." 

With these statements, the Vatican Secretary of State echoed Pope Francis' approval of an initiative of the Pontifical International Marian Academy (PAMI) to counter mafia organizations' use of the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary to promote submission to the will of the mafia boss. 

A working group starting in October will bring together about 40 Church and civil leaders to address this issue, to "restore the purity of the image of Jesus and Mary which comes from the Gospels," Fr. Stefano Cecchin told CNA in an interview on Aug. 20.

"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," Pope Francis wrote in a letter to Cecchin Aug. 15.

In the interview, Cecchin described how criminal organizations exploit Marian devotion in some towns and villages in southern Italy. 

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.

Cardinal Parolin said in his homily on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary: "God loves humility supremely and rejects ostentation and pride."

"The history of salvation does not pass on the golden roads of the 'sensational', but takes place through the humble and demanding paths of reality, in the ordinary heartbeat in which the life of every man passes ... The mission of the Son of God is made concrete through the generous availability of Mary, a humble creature on whom God lays his admiring gaze," he said.

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