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Anti-Mafia priest's death raises questions: Pope did not travel to Palermo for funeral.

Pope did not travel to Palermo for funeral

GENOA, Italy -- On Sept. 15, his 56th birthday, Fr. Guiseppe Puglisi, the pastor of San Gaetano Parish on the out-skirts of Palermo, was murdered in front of his home with a single bullet at point-blank range.

His parish in Brancaccio, one of the poorest districts of the city, has long been under the firm control of organized-crime bosses. When Puglisi arrived at the parish three years ago he started organizing its inhabitants to resist the Mafia's influence.

Puglisi had been offered other parishes by the local curia, in wealthy, comfortable neighborhoods of Palermo, Sicily's capital and largest city. Instead, he opted for San Gaetano's. He knew that the city's authorities had abandoned the people of Brancaccio, then (and now) controlled by Mafia boss Pietro Aglieri, formally a "fugitive from justice," seen, however, by many parishioners as he roams the streets of Palermo, a free man.

In the past three years Puglisi, with little support from the Palermo archidiocese, began to change his parishioners' mentality, which was conditioned by fear, passivity and imposed silence. In his sermons, Puglisi pleaded with parishioners to give some leads to authorities about the Mafia's illicit activities in Brancacio, even if they could not actually name names -- a revolutionary initiative in a Palermo parish.

For the first time they began to realize that life could be more than violence, humiliation and brutality. Puglisi's social work, conscience-building and courage instilled in the people of Brancaccio life options that did not include those offered by the Mafia's "value system."

Observers of the Sicilian church, however, note that there are relatively few anti-Mafia priests in the archdiocese, "in word and deed." Those who continue in Puglisi's footsteps now know they risk their lives.

Puglisi's murder shocked the church throughout Italy. There was an immediate call by eight priests in Palermo for the pope to travel to Palermo -- a short flight from Rome -- to be present at his funeral. The pope, however, was scheduled to be in Tuscany on that date. The archbishop of Palermo, Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo, before the funeral Mass, carefully avoided indicating the Mafia by name as the probable suspects in Puglisi's murder, although most in the Sicilian church had no doubt about Cosa Nostra's involvement. In one interview, when pronouncing its name, he qualified his statement by saying, "the Mafia, or however you would like to name it." On another occasion (a few hours after the murder) the cardinal said that "Father Puglisi was a priest who disturbed people. It is difficult for me to say how these people who he disturbed should be called. One thing is certain though, Father Puglisi really bothered some people."

Everyone in Palermo could only wonder if Puglisi's murder was being denounced in its true context by his own archbishop.

Many Italians ask why, then, was the Vatican not officially represented at Puglisi's funeral. Couldn't the pope have attended himself? He had in the past condemned Italian organized crime.

In an open letter sent by eight Sicilian priests to John Paul II after Puglisi's murder, they requested the pope's presence at his funeral as a prophetic act. "Our brother, Guisseppe Puglisi, was surely not one of the priests and bishops you warned, in Agrigento in May, about being weak and overcautious in the fight against the Mafia," they wrote. "... Many of us here in Palermo are discouraged and feel lost, and we wonder if it is worth our efforts to continue our battle (against the Mafia), also because there are still bishops and priests here who are not true witnesses of the liberation Christ desires for this island of ours." Among those who signed the letter were embattled parish priests of Mafia-infested slums of Palermo and an outspoken Jesuit intellectual, Fr. Ennio Pintacuda.

Another priest who signed the letter, Fr. Paolo Turturro of the parish in the rundown Borgo Vecchio district of Palermo, is convinced that the church must assume a more radical stance. "Cosa Nostra, for much too long, has had ties to politics and the church," he said. "Now, after the pope's words, which encourage us all, we must break with any temptations of collusion, even in the form of favors or offers of assistance from politicians or bosses of local city districts. Puglisi, in my opinion, was also abandoned by local city authorities, which in Brancaccio are totally absent."

In the aftermath of Puglisi's murder, one important factor, which remains to be examined, is how, and to what extent the Mafia and its political allies are to be effectively challenged.

The current political scandals rocking the country, known as Mani Pulite (Clean Hands), are revealing beyond doubt that leading political figures (some in power for the past 40 years) have maintained some degree of direct contact with organized crime in many parts of the country, including Sicily.

One political party alleged by Italian magistrates to be heavily involved, especially in southern Italy, is the Christian Democratic establishment, which in recent elections has been openly supported by the Italian bishops' conference and the Vatican itself. (Pope John Paul II intervened on several occasions with direct appeals for votes in favor of the Christian Democrats, who in the hierarchy's words "maintain the presence of Catholic values and ethics in Italian society.")

As many parish priests in Palermo feel, and a handful of Italian bishops uphold, the Catholic church could represent a symbol of resistance to the Mafia, poor government and widespread political corruption, which are bleeding the country in many ways. However, since the 1950s, the Italian church and the Vatican have not supported minority positions and groups (laity, priests, bishops, members of religious orders) within the church that held these views.

To the contrary, these groups were pressured to maintain a low profile and, in many cases, reduced to silence. There are numerous accounts of those who left the priesthood, left Italy to work as missionaries abroad, or simply succumbed to pressure and rejoined the mainstream.

If this were to continue, if the political order of the past and church indifference and immobility in effect were to remain unchanged -- notwithstanding the warnings of John Paul II in Agrigento -- Fr. Puglisi's martyrdom will have been in vain.

This appeal is embodied in parts of an open letter by a group of Catholic associations and poor parishes of the city. It was sent to the parishes of Palermo, their pastors and Pappalardo. The letter called on all the parishes of this city "to open their doors to the poor." It urged Pappalardo "to take a strong and unquestionable position against the perverse logic of the Mafia, to stimulate the church with more vigor and to be in solidarity, always, with the poor."

The letter also included an appeal to all pastors to "join with the oppressed and destitute who daily decry their situation, so that they may claim their rights, so that they may become promoters of peace, justice, and civil and Christian courage."

This latest call to action is precisely what the Mafia feared. It is also what some Italian Catholics pray will become the vocation of their church.
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Title Annotation:Fr. Giuseppe Puglisi
Author:Giannantonio, Alfred
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 8, 1993
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