Pope Francis is backing efforts to stop the Mafia from exploiting the image of the Virgin Mary for their own criminal ends.
Mobsters are known for ‘hijacking’ Catholic tradition, for example by taking part in religious processions, to win support by ‘presenting themselves as having God on their side’.
But the Vatican is trying to change that with a new think-tank, set up by its Pontifical Marian Academy, which launched today at a conference called Liberating Mary from the Mafia.
In a message from the Pope read out at the start of the conference, held at Rome’s Museum of Civilisations, Francis said the religious and cultural image of the Madonna ‘must be preserved in its original purity.’
Pope Francis, pictured meeting worshippers at the Vatican on Wednesday, is backing efforts to ‘liberate’ the image of the Virgin Mary from inappropriate use by Mafia mobsters
The Catholic Church in Italy has long been associated with the Mafia, thanks in part to their post-war common cause against Communism.
The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project says that the use of the Virgin Mary by gangsters is ‘rampant’ in Italy.
The ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate is known to use a Catholic shrine in southern Italy to host its meetings, it says.
Elsewhere, religious processions devoted to the Virgin Mary will take detours to salute the home of a local mafia don.
The ‘Ndrangheta and other mafia groups use the trappings of Catholicism to ‘teach the people that God is with them’, Father Stefano Cecchin told Vatican News.
Some Catholic priests have courageously opposed the mob – and paid for it with their lives.
But others have been called to explain their celebration of funerals, weddings and other sacraments for mafia dons, acceptance of their donations and participation in their religious processions.
Pope Francis looks at a Nativity image of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus after presiding over a service in St Peter’s Basilica in 2019
Pope John Paul II demanded in 1993 that Mafiosi should convert, change their ways or face the wrath of God’s final judgment.
He made the demand on a historic visit to Sicily after the mob slayings of two leading anti-Mafia prosecutors.
Francis has followed in that tradition, declaring that mobsters were ‘excommunicated’ and saying they cannot live Christian lives because their lifestyle ‘blasphemes’ God.
He said any popular displays of devotion to Mary must ‘conform to the message of the Gospel and the teachings of the church,’ and that people participating in them must be true Christians who look out for others, and especially the poor.
Marian devotion is particularly important to Francis, the first ever Pope from Latin America, where displays of such popular piety are common.
Organised crime groups in Brazil and Mexico are also known for using Catholic symbolism to shore up support.
The new think tank includes clergymen as well as law enforcement experts involved in the fight against organised crime.
Francis’ message to the new think tank was dated August 15, a major Catholic feast day devoted to Mary.
Pope sets out to protect the Virgin Mary from the Mafia – Daily Mail