In September Pope Francis will visit the neighborhood and parish connected with a Sicilian priest killed by the Mafia in 1993, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of the “First Martyr of the Mafia.”
After quietly fighting the Mafia through the education of young people, Bl. Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi was assassinated by hitmen on Sept. 15, 1993, his 53rd birthday.
Pope Francis will fly Sept. 15 to Piazza Armerina where he will greet authorities and the local bishop and meet with the faithful.
Transferring to Palermo by helicopter, he will celebrate Mass in memory of Puglisi and visit the Mission of Hope and Charity to eat lunch with guests of the mission and a group of prisoners and immigrants.
Francis will also make private stops at Bl. Puglisi's home and parish, San Gaetano, in the Brancaccio neighborhood of Palermo. He will then meet with priests, religious, and seminarians and later with youth, before returning to Rome.
Puglisi was born Sept. 15, 1937 to a modest, working-class family in Palermo. He entered the seminary at the age of 16 and was ordained a priest in 1960 at the age of 22.
Throughout his priesthood, he was known for being outspoken against injustices - including communism, the Mafia, and problems within the Church.
He was also passionately involved in youth ministry and in promoting vocations. In 1990, Puglisi was transferred to the parish of San Gaetano, in a mob-ridden neighborhood. His approach was the same: to win over the youth and be a pastor to his flock.
“Father Puglisi was not a typical anti-Mafia priest. He did not organize rallies or make public condemnation of Mafia,” Archbishop Michele Pennisi of Monreale told the National Catholic Register in 2013. “[The] Mafia does not see that kind of priest as dangerous.”
Puglisi was considered more dangerous “because he educated young people,” Archbishop Pennisi said. He would convince youth not to steal or quit school, and encouraged them away from the Mafia, who would often use children to help them traffic drugs and other illicit materials.
Puglisi preached against the Mafia, ignored their threats, banned them from leading religious processions and even stealthily gave clues to the authorities about their latest activities in his homilies. Consequently, his life was threatened by the mob numerous times, unbeknownst even to those closest to him until after his death.
He would also urge parishioners to give the police leads on the Mafia’s criminal activity, his frequent catchphrase: “And what if somebody did something?”
On September 15, 1993, having received numerous warnings and death threats, Fr. Puglisi was shot in the neck at point-blank range by hitmen under the direction of local Mafia bosses, Filippo and Giuseppe Graviano.
Although he was taken to the hospital, Puglisi was unable to be revived and died of his injuries.
“This is a Mafia crime,” Lorenzo Matassa, an investigating magistrate with broad anti-Mafia experience, told the New York Times in 1993. “Cosa Nostra could not stand that priest’s teaching the kids in the neighborhood about an anti-Mafia culture.”
One of Puglisi’s hitmen, Salvatore Grigoli, later confessed, revealing that the martyr’s final words were “I’ve been expecting you.”
His martyrdom further galvanized the Catholic Church in Sicily to act and speak out against the mob and five years after his death four Mafia members received life sentences for their involvement in the murder.
Declared a martyr by Benedict XVI in 2012 and beatified in 2013, he is buried in the cemetery of Sant’Orsola in Palermo.
Pope Francis spoke about Puglisi the day after his beatification during his Angelus address, calling him a “martyr” and an “exemplary priest.”
By teaching boys about the Gospel of Christ, Puglisi saved them from the “criminal underworld,” which retaliated by killing him, Francis said. Though in fact, it was Puglisi “who won, with the Risen Christ.”
Francis criticized the Mafia for its exploitation of men, women, and children through prostitution, social pressure, and forced jobs. “Let us pray to the Lord to convert the heart of these people,” he said. “They cannot do this! They cannot make slaves of us, brothers and sisters!”
“We must pray that these members of the Mafia be converted to God and let us praise God for the luminous witness borne by Fr. Giuseppe Puglisi.”