In Sicily, if you open your mouth and say something about the Mafia, if you just pronounce the word Mafia in public, the reaction will be sharp intakes of breath all around you and horrified silence. It is a social gaffe even more hideous than meeting your new mother-in-law with your flies undone whilst going commando.
Padre Puglisi was the priest in Brancaccio, Palermo, when my husband was a little boy.
Brancaccio was, and still is, one of the poorest and most dangerous neighbourhoods in Palermo, and one of Sicily’s richest recruiting grounds for new Mafia members. My husband remembers once, when he was a little boy, having to step over a dead body in the street on his way to school – someone who had been shot by the Mafia the night before.
If you look at the facades of the shops along Brancaccio high street, they are peppered all over with bullet holes. These date from the 1980’s, when there were Mafia shoot-outs in the streets night after night. At this time, the law-abiding families of the neighbourhood lived under a self-imposed curfew. My husband’s family would all be inside by 6pm and my mother-in-law, The Godmother, would lower the metal shutters over every window to protect her children from stray bullets. All the good mothers of Brancaccio made their children do their homework by electric light.
Whilst I have a lot to criticise in The Godmother as a mother-in-law, I deeply admire the woman for the way she brought up her kids in that environment. She insisted they must all have two hobbies and they could only leave the house to go to school or engage in their hobby. Her three boys did cycling races and piano lessons, and her daughter did ballet. She made absolutely sure they had no free time in the streets to mix with bad elements.
Not all the mothers of Brancaccio were like her. There are countless kids there whose mothers let them roam the streets freely and hang out with whomever they choose. These kids grow up knowing there’s nobody who cares about them. They do badly at school because nobody helps them with their homework. They stop even going to school because nobody notices. Their parents may be arguing at home or taking drugs. Once they leave school, they have no chance of a job and nothing to do.
These are the ideal recruits for the Mafia. The Mafia knows how to make them feel wanted, valued and part of something. At last, someone cares where they are and what they do! And if they do as they’re told, for the first time in their life, there’s someone to say “well done”. So the youth of Brancaccio was siphoned off into a life of crime and violence, prison and often, a premature death.
Padre Puglisi was born and brought up in Brancaccio so he knew the problems well. When he became priest at the local church, he decided to offer these kids an alternative by doing something revolutionary in Sicily. He opened a Youth Centre.
The kids of the neighbourhood were welcomed into the church hall, involved in constructive activities, and always found loving adults to listen to them and help them with their problems. He gave them food if they were going hungry at home. He taught them about religion and about morals and he taught them right from wrong. Their parents may never take them to a church service, but he took the church to them by performing mass out in the street. And he told them, he always told them, that the Mafia were bad.
In his sermons he tried to change people’s mentality. Back in those days, fear of the Mafia was so great that nobody reported anything to the police.
Not only that, but the Mafia demanded – and got – total respect from the people. On Sundays, after church in Sicily, people usually go for a walk and chat to their friends in the street. The Mafia bosses would be out, and everyone had to kiss the gold ring they had on their little finger. It was a mockery of the kissing-the-pope’s-ring ritual that goes back centuries. Anyone who refused to do so risked being found dead later. This was one of the many perversions of religious ritual the Mafia employed to make its psychological hold over the people absolute. The Mafia long ago mastered the art of generating Stockholm Syndrome in the population as a whole.
The Mafia bosses always walked at the head of religious processions as if they were more important than the priests. It was yet another way to show who was really in charge of the neighbourhood. Padre Puglisi refused to allow them this honour.
Padre Puglisi constantly urged people, in his sermons, to report anything they knew to the police. His catch phrase, “And what if somebody did something?”, is still sprayed on the wall in Brancaccio.
With Padre Puglisi’s youth cente, the steady stream of new recruits to the Mafia dried up. They told Padre Puglisi he was “a pain in the arse” and he was stopping them from “doing their things”. They torched the houses of everyone who helped him do anything to improve the lot of deprived kids in the neighbourhood, and made constant threatening phone calls to Padre Puglisi.
He carried on, so they shot him. They shot him in the back, on the steps of the church, at point blank range. The year was 1993 and finally, yesterday, he was beatified.
100,000 people from all over Italy attended the beatification ceremony in Palermo yesterday.
It saddens me a great deal that so few priests in Sicily speak out against the Mafia, even today. At Padre Puglisi’s funeral, the cardinal of Palermo, Salvatore Pappalardo, did not mention the Mafia at all. I have never heard a priest in Sicily ever mention it, no matter what happens in the news.
How can they be considered relevant as teachers of morality, when they steer clear of the single biggest focus of immorality in Sicily today? When they never speak of that most towering, pervasive, overwhelming rot that corrupts Sicily’s youth and goes from the highest and richest to the lowest of the low?
Maybe I just cannot fully understand, because I never saw Sicily when people used to get shot in the streets. Maybe I just see things too black and white. Maybe I forget how much progress has been made. But to me, the Mafia in Sicily today still feels like the elephant in the room. It’s all around us, but nobody says a word.