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Memory of anti-Mafia priest pervades summit

Fr. Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi, a tough yet beloved anti-Mafia priest in Palermo who was gunned down in 1993 after a party marking his 56th birthday, is in many ways the Oscar Romero of Sicily.

References to Puglisi were a constant refrain at the Sept. 1-3 Sant’Egidio conference in Palermo.

As with the slain archbishop in El Salvador, whom popular opinion has already judged a saint, images of Puglisi’s smiling face are ubiquitous here. His favorite rhetorical question -- “And what if somebody did something?” -- is scrawled on walls in Brancaccio, the mob-infested neighborhood where he grew up, served as pastor and was killed. For his battles against la cosa nostra, he was even the subject of one of the highest-rated programs on Italy’s state-run RAI television last year.

Puglisi may soon be a saint in the formal sense, since the diocesan phase of the beatification process is concluded and Vatican action is expected soon. (His hit show on RAI is a good sign, since dramatized versions of the lives of Padre Pio and Pope John XXIII recently drew similarly high ratings, and one is now canonized and the other beatified.)

Palermo has long been synonymous with the Mafia. One infamous clan, for example, hails from the small town of Corleone in the nearby hills. Sicilian oral tradition is rich with stories about bosses such as Giovanni “The Pig” Brusca, who supposedly dispatched of a rival by dunking him in a vat of acid.

Life with the mob has been anything but romantic for most people in Palermo. Unemployment runs as high as 40 percent, and underdevelopment is chronic. Recently the Mafia is rumored to have aggravated shortages of fresh water in order to profit from illicit sales of what Sicilians now call “blue gold.”

Palermo’s mayor, Diego Cammarata, made reference to this legacy at the Sant’Egidio conference during an opening session Sept. 1.

“Our city … has been afflicted by an organized criminality that has devastated, humiliated and killed us,” Cammarata said. Yet he also took pride in the anti-Mafia struggle to make Palermo a “free city,” citing Puglisi among other fallen heroes.

Recent years have brought major breakthroughs. Following the spectacular slayings of two judges in 1992, plus Puligisi’s murder in 1993, the age-old Sicilian practice of omerta, or silence, gave way to the pentiti -- more than 2,000 ex-Mafia members who broke ranks to testify against their erstwhile colleagues.

Puglisi was ordained in 1960 by Palermo’s then-Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini. Ironically, Ruffini regarded Sicily’s Communist Party as the greater threat, and questioned the Mafia’s very existence. To a journalist’s question of “What is the Mafia?” he once responded: “So far as I know, it could be a brand of detergent.”

This denial convinced Puglisi of the need to confront church authorities.

“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 once said. Then, with his trademark humor, Puglisi added: “But we should always criticize it like a mother, never a mother-in-law!”

Puglisi used to describe himself as a “ball-breaker,” and he shrugged off death threats with the comment that everyone had to die. 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.”

It was no surprise that Puglisi’s memory was part of the subtext at the Sant’Egidio conference.

“Puglisi was a martyr to obscure powers, and we live in a world where obscure powers can start wars. In that regard, he’s almost prophetic,” Mario Marazziti, a spokesperson for Sant’Egidio, told NCR Sept. 1.

Would he be a good patron saint?

“We’d like to have a patron like him,” Marazziti said. “I think he’d like it, too.”

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, September 13, 2002