After Pope Francis backed a push to “free” the figure of the Virgin Mary from mob devotion, a Vatican official has denounced the mafia manipulation of religion to enslave people.

“There is a weak religiosity that is manipulated by those who know how to play on people’s hearts and feelings: not only from the point of view of crime, but also in other ways, including by quacks and healers”, denounced the president of the Pontifical International Marian Academy, Father Stefano Cecchin.

“All the ways in which people take advantage of others’ difficulties by giving them ‘magic answers’ just for a financial reward”, the Franciscan friar lamented.

The top Mariologist gave an interview to Vatican News August 20 in which he welcomed the Pope’s call in an August 15 letter to purify the “religious-cultural heritage” of authentic Marian devotion from the influence of Italian organised crime syndicates.

In that letter, Francis said it was necessary to “free” the Marian cult in Italy “from superstructures, powers or conditioning that do not meet the evangelical criteria of justice, freedom, honesty and solidarity”.

Q: There are serious distortions of the figure of Mary…

A: The figure of Mary is used precisely to keep people enslaved by exaggerating the figure of “a woman, a slave of God, submissive” who resigns herself to the fate of her Son who dies at the hand of power.

And so there is this whole reality of enslaving and not helping people to live a true religiosity. There is a religiosity linked to superstitions, magic and powers that scares people.

In his letter, the Pope also recalls that an ad hoc department has been created within the Pontifical International Marian Academy to study the phenomena of the criminal mafia and “free the figure of Mary from the influence of criminal organizations”…

This is precisely the message the Pope sent mainly to congratulate us and also to encourage us to continue along this path begun from the “Mary, the way of peace between cultures” chair.

We have deepened this aspect and therefore we have created this new department which involves a great number of magistrates, criminologists, people from the army, the state and the Church precisely to work together for the good of the human person and of society, of the “common home”, as Pope Francis says.

For several criminal group, and in particular the ‘Ndrangheta, ritual forms represent the very essence of the organisation. From this follows also a distorted use of devotion by the mafias. This is a cancer that must be fought. Can it be eradicated?

We want to eradicate it through educating people and families. An education that is truly Christian.

Pope Francis calls us to this integral education of the human person. The pre-eminent way of helping humanity and the common home, society and man and woman, is precisely by offering a healthy education.

Another worrying phenomenon that must be combated is that of the “bows” in the processions…

[The question refers to mafia groups’ practice during religious processions of inclining statues and images of the Virgin towards the homes of mob bosses as a sign of respect – ed,]

This is not religion! It is a superstition. What do these leaders, these mafias, understand by religion? As a reality in which God also bows down to them…

And the Virgin also bows down to them and protects them and their authority? It’s like they wanted to teach people that God is with them. But they also want to use people’s religious feelings not to make them free, but slaves.

On September 18 in Rome, during the conference organised by the Pontifical International Marian Academy, the guidelines of this new Department will be drawn up.

As you mentioned, it involves not only theologians and Mariologists but also magistrates, criminologists, lawyers, members of the police force and the mayors of various cities. An alliance between people of the Church and representatives of civil society…

On September 18, the whole journey and the projects [of the department] will be presented. We will start the courses in October. The idea is that then every year, on May 13, there will be a national conference that will give an account of the fruits of this work.

What we reiterate is that we must work together, but each with his own identity without confusing State, Church, associations. We must be united for the common good.

The Pope has told us that the Academy must be a place of meeting, a place of dialogue.

We are also working with the Muslims. We have created the Muslim-Christian Marian Commission. And we will also begin courses with the mosque in Rome, and discuss these aspects of bad interpretations of religion with them, or how religion is used to divide and create problems. But God, however, is love, and not fear or punishment.

More on Novena on the Church versus the mafia:

In latest battle in war against mafia, Pope cracks down on dons’ devotion to Mary

Italian bishops warn of new “epidemic” of mafia-induced “slavery” amid COVID-19 need

Italian Church denounces mafia taking advantage of poor caught in coronavirus credit crunch


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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.