The Threat of Hell for Those who Make Hell on Earth, The Anchor, March 28, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
The Anchor
March 28, 2014

Last Friday night, Pope Francis went to St. Gregory VII Parish near the Vatican to participate in a prayer service dedicated to supporting those who have family members murdered by the mafia. Since 1995, the prayer service has been held on the first day of Spring as a means of comforting members and strengthening Italian citizens to rise up in unison to oppose the evil of the mafia. The annual event begins with a Prayer Vigil, followed the next day by a demonstration in a place that has been the scene of yet another recent mafia hit.

Since this year’s prayer service was being held just outside the Vatican walls, Pope Francis responded to the invitation of the organizing group Libera — an association of over 1,600 anti-mafia organizations with a name, “Free,” symbolizing its hope for a society free of the mafia evil — to come to pray with them and enter into public solidarity with their cause.

During the Prayer Vigil, the names of 842 innocent people murdered in the cross fire of mafia violence in Italy were somberly read, one-by-one.

Among the names were those three-year old Nicolo “Coco” Campolongo, whose charred body was found in January next his grandfather’s scorched remains in a car to avenge a family member’s unpaid drug debt; three-year old Domenico Petruzzelli, who was shot dead with his mother and her friend by mafia gunmen on March 17; 11-year-old Domenico Gabriele, gunned to death while playing soccer in 2009; mafia critic Fr. Giuseppe Diana, murdered by the Camorra in Calabria in 1994 while he was preparing to celebrate Mass and whose stole Pope Francis used to bless those assembled; and Blessed martyr Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi, the anti-Cosa Nostra crusader, murdered by the Mafia in 1993 in front of his Church in Sicily as parishioners were celebrating his 56th  birthday.

At the end of the Prayer Vigil, Pope Francis gave some brief prepared remarks in which he expressed his solidarity with all those who have lost family members. But then speaking extemporaneously, very softly, and slowly — as if he were hearing the words from Someone else before he was echoing them to the crowds — he addressed some of the most powerful words of his pontificate to those whose iniquity had caused the pain that brought all of the people together in prayer.

“I feel that I cannot finish without saying a word to those who are absent today, to the absent protagonists: to the men and women of the mafia,” he said. “Please, change your lives. Convert. Stop what you are doing. Stop doing harm. And we pray for you. Convert, I ask you this on my knees. It is for your own good. This life you are living now will not bring you pleasure. It will not bring you joy. It will not bring you happiness. Power, the money you have now from your many dirty dealings, from your many mafia crimes, is blood money. It is power that is stained with blood, and you will not be able to take it with you to the next life. Repent! There is still time, so as not to end up in hell. This is what awaits you if you continue on this path.”

For a man whose words aboard Shepherd One in July, “Who am I to judge?,” have led some to misinterpret that there is no judgment any longer for sin, Pope Francis reminded the Mafiosi — and everyone else — that there is a Judge and that we will be adjudicated on the basis of our deeds. Just as he has often spoken to us of the reality of the devil, so he reminded us of the reality of hell for those who choose to make hell rain down on others on earth.

It’s an important Lenten message for all for those who don’t want to “covert” or “stop doing harm.”

Pope Francis finished his remarks by reminding those involved in the Neapolitan Camorra, the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Calabrian Ndrangheta crime syndicates of simple humanity. “You have a father and a mother: think of them,” he said softly. “Cry a little, and repent!” He challenged them not only to think about how they would feel if someone killed their own family members, including kids and grandkids, but to consider their lifestyle from the perspective of their parents, who are doubtless filled with shame in this world and in the next.

One leading anti-mafia magistrate in Calabria, Nicola Gratteri, last November publicly warned the Pope that the mafia are “very nervous” and displeased at the way he’s cleaning up the Vatican bank and financial structures, which in the past were susceptible to mafia manipulation. He speculated that the Pope was already in their cross-hairs as a risk to their $150 billion annual revenues from prostitution, drugs, intimidation, and corrupt contracts and businesses.

Gratteri well knows that there’s a precedent for the mafia to respond with characteristic violence when a Pope calls them forcefully to conversion.

In May 1993 John Paul II went to Agrigento, Sicily, and said, “Those who have the weight on their conscience of so many human victims must understand that it’s not permitted to kill the innocent! God once said, ‘Thou shalt not kill!,” and no one, no human organization, no mafia, can change or trample on this most right divine right! … In the name of the Crucified and Risen Christ who is the way, the truth and the life, I say to those responsible: Convert! The judgment of God will come one day!”

The mafia responded by bombing two Churches in Rome, including the Pope’s cathedral of St. John Lateran, and by assassinating Fr. Puglisi.

So it’s a good time for us to pray for the Pope, and with the Pope for all those who with him are courageously fighting against the evil of the mafia. Let’s pray that his message of the possibility of mercy may reach the hearts of those in the Mafia — before it’s too late for other innocent victims existentially or too late for Mafiosi eschatologically.