In An Historical First, Roman Catholic Church Moves To Excommunicate Mafiosi

In the centuries since the various Mafia entities emerged in Italy—Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, and the Camorra in Campania, to name three—the Vatican never used the power of excommunication against members of organized crime.

September 1990 along Sicily's Agrigento highway
Judge Rosario Livatino was killed in September 1990 near Agrigento.

Until now. The Vatican News reports that the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development—a department of the Roman Curia, the central body through which the Pope directs the Roman Catholic Church—has created a workgroup specifically tasked with excommunicating members of organized crime.

The Dicastery was formed earlier this month on May 9, which also is the date when the Catholic Church marked the first ever beatification--the last step in the canonization process before sainthood-- of Rosario Livatino, a judge who was slain decades back by members of a Cosa Nostra offshoot group.

The judge will become the first martyr slain by the Mafia.

Behind the church’s newly reinvigorated stance against the mob is one man.

Elected to the papacy in 2013, Pope Francis is taking the most aggressive stance in history against Italy's Mafias.

He has strongly supported the case for beatification of Livatino, calling him “an example, not only for the magistrates but for all those who work in the field of law – for the consistency between his faith, his commitment to work and for the relevance of his reflections.”

In a decree of martyrdom, Pope Francis wrote that Livatino had been murdered for his faith. He likened his killing to a hate crime against the Catholic faith.

The decree of martyrdom proposed by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints and approved by the Pope means no miracle has to be attributed to Livatino for him to be sainted.

Pope Francis became the first Pope to commence the excommunication of Mafiosi. He also was the first to publicly say it. He did so in 2014 during a daylong visit to Calabria in southern Italy, where the ferocious ’Ndrangheta—the Calabrian Mafia—was born and holds sway.

“Those who in their life have gone along the evil ways, as in the case of the mafia, they are not with God,” Francis told a crowd of over 100,000 gathered for the outdoor mass. The mobsters "are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated. They must be told No!”

When signing the Fratelli tutti—or the third encyclical, "on fraternity and social friendship"—on October 3, 2020, at the tomb of Francis of Assisi, the Pope wrote that the "loneliness, fears and insecurity of so many people, who feel abandoned by the system, mean that a fertile ground for mafias is being created.”

Livatino was killed at age 30.

The bosses of la Stidda (the Star), a Mafia group operating in the central-southern part of Sicily, ordered Livatino’s death.

In September 1990, Livatino was driving along the Agrigento highway to court in his Ford Fiesta when another car rammed into him, blocking him. Livatino tried to escape on foot, but four individuals exited the other car and chased him, shooting him in the head.

Witnesses testified during a later trial that the mobsters "mocked" Livatino because he was a churchgoer and a fervent believer.

After his death, John Paul II described Livatino as “a martyr of justice and faith.”

A Vatican news press release said the judge had “courageously carried out his profession as a form of lay mission.”

Livatino's blood-stained shirt was displayed as a relic in the cathedral in Agrigento during the beatification ceremony, which was led by Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

During the ceremony, Pope Francis said the magistrate was "a martyr of justice and faith" whose work "placed him firmly under the protection of God."

John Dickie authoritative book on Sicilian Mafia

At a 1993 mass for him, Pope John Paul II famously denounced the Mafia. "In his service to the common good, as an exemplary judge who never succumbed to corruption, he sought to judge not to condemn but to redeem."

His killers were later convicted and sent away with life sentences for the murder.

Professor John Dickie, author of the authoritative Cosa Nostra and other books on the Mafia, told the BBC that the Catholic church has "a bit of a guilty conscience" when it comes to the Mafia.

Pope John Paul II's words only came after "decades and decades of silence and collusion," he said.

"With the Cold War over and with this upsurge in Sicilian mafia violence, finally the church began to take the mafia threat seriously, and not regard it as a sort of much, much more minor issue compared to the threat of Communism," he said.

Rosario Livatino
Rosario Livatino, martyr slain by Mafia.

Members of Stidda allegedly wear the same star-shaped tattoo. (So much for this being a “secret” society.’)

The organization is strongest in the rural parts of southern Sicily in towns such as Agrigento and Gela.

La Stidda rose in prominence when Cosa Nostra pentito Francesco Marino Mannoia spoke about it in 1989.

Later, Mafia member Leonardo Messina also discussed it. According to their testimonies, Stidda was founded by former members of the Cosa Nostra during the Second Mafia War of the early 1980s.

The original leaders of the Stidda were Giuseppe Croce Benvenuto and Salvatore Calafato. Later Stidda boss Calogero Lauria was killed in a bomb blast, which led to another more direct war with the Mafia in the early 1990s that resulted in more than 300 deaths, including the martyred judge.

Today, Stidda gangs operate relatively independently. They ally with each other or even the local chapter of Cosa Nostra. They have similar rituals and rules.