Pope Francis journeyed to the Calabria region of Italy, Saturday, June 21, 2014, the power base of global drug-trafficking syndicate the Ndrangheta Mafia, according to reports from USA Today. The Pontiff stunned a gathering when he condemned the Ndrangheta Mafia, which is centered in Cassano all'Ionio, warning all Mafioso will automatically be excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. After hearing of an attack during a drug turf war in January where a young boy, his grandfather and the grandfather’s friend were shot to death and then torched in a car, the Pope, it seems, had enough. Expressing his horror following the attack, Francis promised to visit the town.
Traveling by helicopter to Cassano all'Ionio, a town 275 miles southeast of Rome, Francis visited the family of 3-year-old Nicola "Coco" Campolongo and his grandfather. The charred remains of the toddler his grandfather and another person were discovered in a scorched car in Cassano all'Ionio. All three victims were shot in the head execution style. The vendetta killing was over a dispute the boy's mother had with the local Ndrangheta.
The Ndrangheta is a Mafia organized crime organization that exercises considerable influence in Calabria. The Ndrangheta is not as well-known as the Sicilian Mafia, but it is Italy's most entrenched organized crime organization. Rather than relying on friendships and ceremonial rites, they rely on family ties, making it difficult for police or any outsider to infiltrate.
Organizers of the Pope's visit said the Pontiff spoke to about 200 people at the prison in the town of Castrovillari. Francis said to the inmates, "The Lord always forgives, always accompanies, always includes. Let us understand it, let us forgive, let us accompany." Afterwards he spoke privately with the imprisoned father of Nicola Campolongo in the courtyard of a prison. Both the boy’s father and mother were in jail at the time of the shooting on drug trafficking charges. Embracing the Pope, the man asked the Francis to pray for the boy’s mother. She was permitted to leave prison after her son’s death and remains under house arrest.
While celebrating Holy Mass in Piana di Sibari, following a visit to a hospital for the terminally ill, Francis condemned the Ndrangheta for adoring evil and their contempt for the common good. Warning, "Those who go down the evil path, as the Mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated.” The Pope also met the two grandmothers of "Coco" Campolongo. Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, said, “"The two grandmothers were weeping like fountains," adding that Pope Francis told the jailed father earlier in the day, "May children never again have to suffer in this way."
In the Catholic faith, when a person is excommunicated they are cut off from the Church. They are no longer allowed to receive Holy Communion, a sacrament, and removed from the community and fellowship of the Church as well. The intention of excommunication is to invite the person to change their behavior or attitude, repent, and return to full communion. It is not a vindictive penalty solely designed to punish an individual.
Calabria has been a source of alleged mob threats against the Pope. Prosecutor Nicola Gratteri has said the Pope's reform agenda is making the Ndrangheta very nervous. He is concerned Francis could become a target of the group. Gratteri said, "For many years, the mob has laundered money and made investments with the complicity of the church.” He noted these activities have become more difficult due to the recent reforms Francis made to Vatican bank practices.
Father James M. Weiss, a professor of church history at Boston College told NBC News, “There is worry in some quarters that Francis' reforms in Vatican's finances are a threat to Mafia interests,” implying there are Mafia sympathizers inside the Vatican. The Pope’s threat of excommunication will resonate strongly throughout the region. The Ndrangheta are a highly religious group. Local priests will change plans on short notice to officiate at mob weddings, funerals and baptisms. Religious processions stop in front of Ndrangheta leader’s homes in order to bless the inhabitants of the household.
A Venezuelan nun living in Rome, Sister Maria Theresa Nuñez, expressed her concern for Francis’ safety, "He is a holy man who knows what he is doing and who is surrounded by smart people, but I still pray for him and his mission.” Pope Francis does not seem to be worried. In a recent interview with the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia the Pope reiterated his loathing for riding in a bulletproof vehicle, dismissing concerns for his safety saying, “It’s true that anything could happen, but let’s face it, at my age I don’t have much to lose.”
Father Weiss says of the Pope, “He is a security nightmare, frankly. But that ranks lower with him than loving contact with real people.” This is not the first time the Pontiff has taken on the Mafia. In March the Pope called directly on Mafia bosses to repent, saying, "Hell awaits you if you continue on this road."