by Bluto Ray
“Don Puglisi would not be proud of the Sicily of today, a Sicily that doesn't show more indignation,” declared a conservative politician last week at a gathering to commemorate a much loved priest. “The truth is that the Sicily of today isn’t worthy of the martyrs who fought the Mafia.” He berated the island’s young people as “dormant” and “embarrassing.”
But the politico’s words rang hollow later that evening as hundreds of teens took to the streets—along with parents, grandparents and teachers—in a torchlight procession to the spot where the cleric was murdered for his opposition to the Mafia.
The name of Father Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi will forever be associated with Brancaccio, a beat-up fringe of Palermo whose impoverished denizens are doubly cursed by urban decay and Cosa Nostra crossfire. Wedged between cliff and sea, railroad and freeway, the smoggy Brancaccio quarter sits in a historic battle zone of mafiosi.
Fearsome hoods like Michele “The Pope” Greco, Pietro “Little Mister” Aglieri and Stefano “The Falcon” Bontate trafficked and killed from Ciaculli to the south to Santa Maria del Gesù to the west. The atmosphere of violence and crime led the Sicilian-born Puglisi to take over the godforsaken parish in 1990, turning down plum assignments in richer neighborhoods despite his illustrious thirty-year career.
Don Puglisi knew the Mafia. Twenty years earlier he had taught elementary school in a Sicilian village riven by a bloody vendetta. His proactive role as pastoral peacemaker brought the two sides together.
Though the bosses in and around Brancaccio were more dangerous than those feuding rural families, Don Puglisi turned the church he inherited, the dilapidated San Gaetano, into a literal bully pulpit to fight back. His sermons were laced with denunciations of the “so-called Men of Honor.”
“He who uses violence isn’t a man! He’s a beast!” cried the the self-described “ball breaker.” He exhorted his congregation to report crimes to the police, a shocking demand in the land of omertà. The sign on his door read, “The Mafia is strong but God is omnipotent.”
The new priest’s sense of humor, affability and fearless stance quickly endeared him to the parishioners of Brancaccio. He made enemies just as fast. The threats started after he denied a Mafia-connected contractor the restoration job on his eighteenth-century church. For this impertinence, its door was torched and the winning contractor’s truck was bombed.
But Don Puglisi never stopped. He refused the local bosses’ donations of money to the religious festivals of Brancaccio and barred them from marching in the processions. He informed the police of a drug market operating in a basement near the church.
Don Puglisi doubled down, refusing the bosses’ donations of money for religious festivals and barring them from marching in the processions. He informed the police of a drug market operating in a basement near the church. To those worried for his life, he responded, “I have neither wife nor children, and if they kill me, I don’t care.”
Puglisi showed more concern for the miserable youth he had met as a teacher of religion and math. In Brancaccio, he facilitated school activities and social events and, at every turn, vilified the underworld to a generation of kids ripe for Mafia exploitation.
In 1993, the priest founded the Centro Padre Nostro, a charitable organization for poor families and children that is still active today despite frequent attacks of vandalism and theft. The “Our Father Center” heeds the words of its founder:
”It’s important to speak about the Mafia—especially in the schools—to combat the Mafia mentality or any ideology that sells the dignity of man for cheap. You don’t stop at marching, denouncing, protesting. All of these things have value, but, if you stop at this this level, they’re only words. The words have to be supported by acts.”
The months that followed the opening of the Centro proved to be a pivotal period in the Mafia’s war on the Italian government. From May to July, a series of explosions rocked strategic locations in major cities of the north. The first car bomb, in Rome, coincided with a meeting of the Anti-Mafia Commission on the first anniversary of Judge Giovanni Falcone’s assassination.
A week later, a bomb went off near the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, killing four and destroying part of the Georgofili Academy. Another one at the Palazzo Chigi in Rome was defused on the birthday of the Italian Republic. Yet another, near Milan’s Gallery of Modern Art, killed three firemen and a police officer. Then two more ripped apart sections of the centuries-old walls of two Roman churches: St. John Lateran, where ten were killed, and St. George in Velabro.
A sophisticated investigation of the terror campaign led to the identification of two mafiosi seen in Florence that May: Giuseppe and Filippo Graviano, allies of the ultra-vengeful Corleonese faction of the Mafia. The Graviano brothers were also the bosses of Brancaccio. Don Puglisi couldn't have picked a fight with more formidable characters.
The Corleonese honcho Leoluca Bagarella suggested to the brothers that their frocked do-gooder had gone too far. An easy decision was made. Knocking off a priest would be child’s play to the guys who had just helped bomb treasured landmarks in the great cities of Italy.
September 15, 1993, was likely a very satisfying day for Don Puglisi. He married two couples at San Gaetano, made baptismal arrangements with parents, and enjoyed a birthday dinner with a small group of friends to celebrate his fifty-sixth year. After the party, he drove to his apartment around the corner from the church.
As he inserted a key into the door, a man stepped up from behind. Don Puglisi smiled and said, “I’ve been expecting you.” The man fired a single bullet into the back of his neck. The priest dropped to the ground where the blood from his wound welled into a puddle. He died later that night in the hospital.
The news of Don Puglisi’s death—he was the first clergyman killed for preaching against the Mafia—rippled across Italy. The Church, officially opposed to “left-wing” activism, was typically tone-deaf. Pope John Paul II would not break a speaking engagement to attend the funeral and Palermo’s Archbishop Salvatore Pappalardo skirted mention of the Mafia, saying only that “Puglisi was a priest who disturbed people.”*
The Gravianos were rounded up a few months after Puglisi’s death. In 2001, they were given life sentences for ordering his murder and for their involvement in the mainland bombings. Five Graviano henchmen also went to prison for the Puglisi conspiracy.
Two of them, Salvatore Grigoli and Gaspare Spatuzza, have repented and become valuable state collaborators. Triggerman Grigoli described his religious conversion in a letter to the mayor of Palermo, professing his hope that Don Puglisi be celebrated every year because he “died for the good of others and the price was very high.”
Likewise Spatuzza, Grigoli’s backup at the crime scene, who now claims to see the light. According to his prison chaplain, it is Don Puglisi’s smile in the face of death that stays with the assassin, apparently like the Cheshire Cat’s: “Not the grimace of pain but a smile that said so many things, the mercy of God.”
The Gravianos, meanwhile, have embarked on their own self-improvement regimen. Giuseppe has earned a degree in mathematics and Filippo has received one in economics. The brothers landed back in court recently to fight off Spatuzza’s claim that they once had secret dealings with a future prime minister by the name of Silvio Berlusconi.
Life in Brancaccio today is still in the shadow of the Mafia; only the names have changed. Last week, police captured Antonino “Shiny Guy” Lauricella in downtown Palermo, sought for six years for extortion and murder. He is known to have spent periods of hiding in the apartments of two nephews, both on Via Brancaccio, down the street from Don Puglisi’s old church.
The next day, extortioners set fire to a Brancaccio bakery. And this week saw the murder of the Corleonese-connected Giuseppe Calascibetta, an affiliate of the nearby Santa Maria del Gesù clan. His death at the wheel of his car has officials wringing their hands at the prospect of a new Mafia war.
One fears for next week.
* Pappalardo’s predecessor, Ernesto Ruffini, the Archbishop who ordained Puglisi into the priesthood in 1960, was a notorious Mafia denier: “As far as I know, it’s a brand of detergent." Pappalardo, it should be noted, was an outspoken critic of the Mafia at various times in his career.
Il Fatto Quotidiano
National Catholic Reporter
Times of London
Bosco, Un colpo alla nuca per Pino Puglisi
Brockman, Romero: A Life
Deliziosi, Don Puglisi
Jamieson, The Antimafia
Orlando, Fighting the Mafia
Savatteri, I siciliani
Archdiocese of Palermo
Centro Culturale l’Areopago
Centro Padre Nostro