“And I feel that I cannot conclude without saying a word to the absent bosses today, to those absent but central figures: the men and women of the mafia. Please change your lives, convert, stop, cease to do evil. We are praying for you. Convert! I ask it on my knees: it is for your own good.” — Pope Francis, to the Libera Association, March 21, 2014
On Holy Saturday, the San Jose Mercury News reported the killing in Belfast of an IRA leader, evidently by another faction of the same organization. The same day, the escape of some Nigerian school girls from Islamic terrorist abductors was reported. Since 1980, the number of abortions in the world stands at one billion, three hundred and thirty plus million. Many of the world’s most dangerous cities are in Latin America. In Mexico, drug wars have in recent years accounted for over 34,000 deaths. The number of murders in the United States varies from fifteen to twenty thousand per year, and cities including Chicago and Washington, DC, vie for the most murders per year.
Amid all this, the Catholic Church has begun to keep a careful record of those Catholics who have been martyred for the faith each year.
On March 21, Pope Francis met with members of the Libera Association. This organization is designed to help victims of mafia violence in Italy. The name of each victim is commemorated. Some eight hundred have been killed by the mafia in recent years. Eighty-two of those deaths were of children. The question of how to deal with the mafia has long vexed many sectors of Italian and world societies. The mafia’s ability to corrupt many of the legal, political, and law enforcement offices designed to control them is well-known. For a Pope who sees himself as a man of peace and witness to the poor, this is an especially difficult issue to deal with; it is easy for clerics to appear to be naïve when suggesting spiritual solutions to mafia-caused problems.
Francis wants to see “hope” for a solution and wishes to instill a sense of “responsibility” in the hearts of citizens. He hopes to overcome “little by little the corruption” in society. This change must begin “within.” Hence the Pope does not talk of the role of police, army, and law courts. This change of heart and ways of living will take a long time, evidently. The Pope has “solidarity” with those who have suffered from mafia violence. He congratulates those who have the courage to “tell their stories” about what happened. Often, Italian courts cannot convict mafia members because the jurors fear reprisals—and this is a real fear. Courts depend on honest testimony and judgment, but if the citizens are afraid of death for giving names and accounts, it will be very difficult to convict anyone.
The Pope wishes to “pray for all the victims of the mafia.” He recalls a killing in Taranto a few days before that involved the death of a child. We are to pray for the courage to face the reality of this unjust system. It is at this point that the Pope addresses the mafia members, who naturally are not present. But he names the mafia leaders. He does not threaten jail or execution. He tells them that he is praying for them. In a dramatic passage, Pope Francis tells them: “Convert, I ask you on my knees; it is for your own good.”
Just what a mafia “godfather” or his lieutenants would make of these words makes no doubt an interesting reflection. The Italian mafia has grown up midst pious talk; they look upon the Church as something for women. They understand power and violence, and how to use them for their own ends.
Francis then becomes rather philosophical. “This life you are leading now; it won’t bring you pleasure; it won’t give you joy; it won’t bring you happiness.” They have probably heard all this before as well. Next, Francis adds: “The power, the money that you possess now from so many dirty transactions, from many mafia crimes, is blood-stained money.” These men know that the Pope, another Italian, understands them. This money is “power soaked in blood, and you cannot take it with you to the next life.” The Pope knows that some Mafiosi do repent in the end. He still assumes that “the next life” is a reality for them, an assumption that is not so common in much of western culture any longer.
“Convert, so there is time that you do not end up in hell”, the Pope repeats, “That is what awaits you if you continue on this path.” One hopes that he addresses the same strong words to the abortionists and those who assist them, to those who undermine marriage, and to those politicians who make these things possible. We do not hear the word “convert” much any more. The mafia are probably all baptized Catholics, so they do not need so much to “convert” as to “repent”, but the point is the same.
Finally, Pope Francis, imbued as he is with memories of a real family, tells these bosses: “You had a father and a mother. Think of them. Cry a little and convert.” So this is what the Pope had to say to the mafia. He warned them of hell. He appealed to them as men capable of changing their lives. He prayed for them. He told them that their kind of life was not worth living. He met the victims of their violence.
He treated mafiosi leaders, in short, as what they are, namely, sinners in need of conversion and repentance. Probably no one else on earth would tell them this, and it is doubtful if many will listen. What is not in doubt is their future if they continue along the present path.