The First Martyr of the Mafia

Father Giuseppe Puglisi of Sicily, who was killed by Mafia hitmen in 1993, was beatified May 25.


Blessed Giuseppe Puglisi. –

PALERMO, Italy — No one expected the murder of Father Giuseppi “Pino” Puglisi, the Sicilian priest killed in 1993 by Mafia hitmen. So said three Sicilian bishops, who shared part of their life with the blessed as they recalled his life and his surprising death during the week before their friend’s beatification.

The beatification of Father Puglisi took place May 25 in the Sicilian city of Palermo, Italy. The event, which drew a crowd of more than 80,000 people according to Vatican Radio, comes only 20 years after the priest’s death. Cardinal Paolo Romeo, the current archbishop of Palermo presided over the beatification Mass.

Cardinal Salvatore De Giorgi, archbishop emeritus of Palermo, who brought forward Father Pulgisi’s cause in 1999, was the representative of Pope Francis at the beatification ceremony. The new blessed’s feast day is Oct. 21. He is being called “the first martyr of the Mafia.”

Father Puglisi was killed by a gunshot in front of his parish church on Sept. 15, 1993. Almost five years later, four Mafia members received life sentences for participating in the murder. The two Mafia bosses who ordered his execution, Filippo and Guiseppe Graviano, were also sentenced to life in prison for their role in the crime.

In a May 23 interview with the Register, Bishop Salvatore Cuttitta, auxiliary archbishop of Palermo, described the impending beatification as an emotional time for him. He was one of Father Puglisi’s altar boys in the 1970s, when the priest was in the small Sicilian town of Godrano.

“Father Puglisi had the great ability to spend his time with us kids, making special the ordinary places of our lives. He fascinated us, projected us outside the borders of our small town, he revolutionized the way people of Godrano lived interpersonal relations,” recounted Bishop Cuttitta.

A Town Transformed

Yet, the priest’s time in Godrano was not always easy.

Archbishop Salvatore Di Cristina, archbishop emeritus of Monreale, another town in the Palermo province, explained, “When Father Puglisi arrived in Godrano, the town was in the midst of a blood feud, something deeper than a simple Mafia war.”

He described the situation in an interview with the Register. The church was often empty; families did not trust one another; the people of Godrano submitted to an unofficial curfew to prevent the risks of violence, he said.

Father Puglisi and then-Father Di Cristina were good friends, according to the archbishop. “We had been ordained together, and we attended to seminary together. So I often went to Godrano to give my support,” he recalled.

“Over time, things changed there. Father Puglisi won over the kids of the town, and after the kids he won over the families. After his departure, Godrano was completely transformed,” said the archbishop emeritus.

The peculiarity of his pastoral action baffled some people, who “would define him as a social action priest, or some kind of ‘anti-Mafia’ professional.” But, according to Archbishop Di Cristina, he was neither, “He just deeply lived his vocation.”

Archbishop Michele Pennisi, who is the current archbishop of Monreale and who formerly was rector of the major seminary in Sicily, agreed with his predecessor’s view of Father Puglisi. He recalled in an interview with the Register that while he was rector, he used to have dinner once a week with Father Puglisi, who at the time was responsible for vocations of the region.

“Father Puglisi thought that pastoral work for vocations was central, and insisted a lot on it,” said Archbishop Pennisi.

Assignment to Palermo

In 1990, Father Puglisi was assigned as parish priest in Brancaccio, a block in Palermo dominated by the Gravianos Mafia family. He spent his time touring the block in his car, a red Fiat Uno, and gathered a lot of kids around him. His actions were considered a breach in the Mafia mentality. But he continued in his mission, which for him was simply being a priest — 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,” said Archbishop Pennisi. “Mafia does not see that kind of priest is dangerous.”

But for the Mafia, Father Puglisi was dangerous, the archbishop explained, “because he educated youth people, and youth did not align to Mafia rules anymore because they found a brand new world.”

Father Puglisi was threatened several times by the Mafia. “After his passing we found out that Mafia called him during the night. He got several warnings from them,” said Archbishop Di Cristina.

But Father Puglisi kept everything in his heart. According to his friends, none of them new he was in danger.

On Sept. 15, 1993, Father Puglisi was killed at the doorway of his home. “I was waiting for you,” he said to his killers.

He may have been ready, but none of his friends expected it.

Bishop Cuttitta recalled, “When the news reached me, I was confused, I did not think it could be possible.”

Silent Martyr

The killing of Father Puglisi came at the climax of the conflict between the Mafia and the Italian State. In 1992, prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino — who made several strikes in the government’s fight with the Mafia — had been killed. In 1993, after John Paul II’s off-the-cuff speech against the Mafia during a pastoral trip to Agrigento in Sicily, two bombs were place outside the Roman churches of St. John Lateran and St. George in Velabro.

Yet, Father Puglisi was one of those silent martyrs that change history. In the homily during his beatification ceremony, Cardinal Romeo proclaimed, “The Church recognizes in his life, sealed by martyrdom out of hatred for the faith, a model for imitation.”

In the years following Father Puglisi’s death, there was a change in the way the Church in Sicily reacted to the Mafia. Bishop Cuttitta said, “Until 30 years ago, the Church had a sort of confused approach to the Mafia issues. After [Father Puglisi’s] murder, bishops made a public condemnation of the Mafia, and they maintained that whoever is part of this criminal organization cannot consider himself a Christian.”

Father Pennisi recalled that after “scrolling the prosecutor’s questionings to Puglisi’s killers, it emerges that Father Pino was not dangerous for the good he did, but because his job undermined the power of Mafia.”

Bishop Cuttitta concluded, “Father Puglisi had been killed because he promoted the Gospel with his life.”

Cardinal Romeo said in his homily, in front of tens of thousands people gathered from all over Sicily, “The more we look at Father Puglisi’s face, the more we feel that his smile brings joy to all of us. Father Pino still smiles, and instills in us communion with God and saints.”

Said Cardinal Romeo, “The Gospel reminds us that the grain must die to harvest new life. Puglisi taught young people how to make life-giving choices. This implies commitment and sacrifice in order to gain the true joy.”

‘Luminous Testimony’

After he recited the Angelus on Sunday, May 26, Pope Francis noted that Father Puglisi had been beatified in Palermo on Saturday.

“Don Puglisi was an exemplary priest, devoted especially to youth ministry,” the Pope told the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. “He was teaching children according to the Gospel and taking them out of the Mob, and so they tried to defeat him and killed him. In reality, though, it is he that won, with Christ Risen.”

These gangs “cause so much pain to men, women and even to children,” he said, mentioning prostitution as one type of slavery or social pressure used by the mafia.

Pope Francis urged the faithful in the square to “pray for these gangsters so that they convert.”

Said the Holy Father about Blessed Giuseppe Puglisi, “We praise God for his luminous testimony, and we treasure his example!”

Andrea Gagliarducci writes from Rome.

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7 Responses to The First Martyr of the Mafia

  1. kathleen says:

    I would suggest there have been many more than this brave priest, who have been martyrs of the Mafia, killed whilst trying to discover the workings of this evil, sinister criminal organisation.

    What I find hard to comprehend is how these members of the Mafia can blatantly go around boasting and pretending to be good ‘Catholics’, making great shows of some of the holy Catholic Sacraments (e.g. Marriage, First Holy Communion, etc.), whilst at the same time planning their atrocious crimes!! Such hypocrites…. and we all know what Our Blessed Lord had to say about hypocrisy!
    This also causes terrible scandal to many ‘would-be’ Catholics, in spite of the Catholic Church’s continual condemnation of the Mafia.

    Let us pray to Blessed Giuseppe Puglisi in his heavenly home to intercede for the conversion of these sinners.


  2. Grandpa Ed says:

    Dear Kathleen, your comments about mafioso pretending to be good Catholics are “spot on” and they put me in mind of others such as Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius.


  3. @Kathleen, @ Grandpa Ed,

    I’ve been thinking about your comments for a couple of days, now and I hope you will consider what I have to say in response.

    It seems to me that we’re treading on dangerous ground whenever we’re critical of another Catholic’s discipleship. Sure, I get it: a Mafia gangster or a Pro-Choice liberal are committing sins that are obvious to everyone; they’re certainly obvious to me! Maybe I can be discrete about my own moral shortcomings. Maybe most folks are unaware of my sins, but I shouldn’t be. I well know that I am not worthy “that you should come under my roof” and I know a hundred reasons WHY I’m not worthy.

    Non-Catholics, and ex-Catholics, and anti-Catholics think they’ve got a good excuse for declining the Lord’s invitation to contribute to the work of the Church. They’re always quick to point out the ghastly things that practicing Catholics do all the time. It’s as if they’re waiting for us to become good enough to merit their endorsement. They’re fooling themselves, but they shouldn’t fool us. An awareness of your brother’s sin won’t drive you away from God as long as the awareness of your own sin draws you forward.

    Whenever I feel the urge to criticize the woman, or the man, kneeling next to me in the pew I take it as a “red light” warning me that I still have a distance to go on the road to repentance.

    “Take care to cloak yourselves with heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, and always bear with one another and forgive each other. Whenever one has a grievance against another, be quick to remit the offense; for as the Lord has shown mercy to you, so must you also be merciful.” Col. 3, 12-13




  4. Gertrude says:

    captaincatholic: Very well said. If we were not all sinners there would be no Church and no sacrifice would have been needed. Thank you for reminding this sinner of the need for mercy – sought and freely given.


  5. kathleen says:

    @ captaincatholic

    Thank you for your comment.
    I have “considered” what you had to say, and yet I’m still surprised that my criticising the flagrantly criminal activities of the Mafiosa gangs (who have caused so much terrible suffering over the years) should upset anyone!

    I mentioned no names, and did not point my finger at any individual. But if these people in the Mafia, who choose to delve in such evil whilst at the same time making fine shows of being “good” Catholics, are not causing scandal and harm by such hypocrisy, I don’t know how you would describe it.
    This has nothing to do with mercy, compassion, humility… virtues I strive towards too, and wholeheartedly agree with, and which I have often mentioned on this blog.

    “By their fruits, thou shalt know them“. Of course no one should use Catholics’ sins as an ‘excuse’ to shun the Faith, but it is a sad fact that negative and hypocritical behaviour give a very bad example. As we all know, it was precisely the Christlike witness of the Apostles and many great saints of the Church, that has drawn countless millions to learn about, and then embrace, the Catholic Faith.

    Most certainly my own sins are between me and my confessor…. just as your sins are indeed between you and your own confessor….. and yes, without a doubt we are all sinners. (I have often heard liberals try to shut up those who stand up for Church teaching by using this argument… that “we are all sinners, so say nothing”!!)
    No, that does not mean we should stand by and see innocent people murdered, or subjected to distortion and bribery…. or babies killed by abortion, or do and say nothing when this anti-christian same-sex “marriage” bill is promoted etc. In fact I think we have a duty to speak out against them if we call ourselves Catholics! They are evil things, and we should say so.

    That anyway is my opinion, and I’m sorry if you disagree.


  6. @kathleen

    Believe me, the fact that I know how badly I need God’s mercy doesn’t inhibit me from speaking out against evil — whether it’s gang violence, or abortion or any aspect if the Culture of Death. You and I are in complete agreement that the line of thinking that goes, “we’re all sinners so no one should say anything about anybody” only leads to darkness, frustration and misery.

    I don’t say, “It’s OK to sin”; I say, “It’s OK for sinners to worship and receive the sacraments and hear the word of God and be embraced by the Church.”

    Accept my apology if I misunderstood what you said, but I got the idea that you went beyond a criticism of gang behavior and criticized gangsters for going to church. I want the doors to be open. I want you to repent, but I’m not insisting that you be denied fellowship with Our Savior before you do.




  7. kathleen says:

    @ captaincatholic

    Thank you Paul – you make your point much clearer in your second comment.

    It would have to be a very serious issue for the Church to formally excommunicate anyone… and history has shown us that this seldom renders good results anyway.
    However, there are those who “excommunicate” themselves by their wrongdoings. Anyone who knowingly lives in mortal sin, and yet still receives Holy Communion, is also committing the sin of blasphemy: “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 11:29) So on this point I disagree with you.
    This disregard for Church teaching is particularly scandalous if the person is a public figure; the negative consequences naturally reach much further.

    Leaving aside the Church’s clear teaching that one should first seek God’s forgiveness in Confession before receiving the Holy Sacraments (which of course means the Holy Eucharist if one is an already baptised Catholic), I think you are absolutely correct in saying that “the doors” of the Church should always be open to welcome grave sinners back into the fold. Rather than simply condemning the sin, one should never give up hope and prayer for the conversion of the sinner…. (As I ended up saying in my first comment above.)
    On that we totally agree! 🙂


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