In the latest battle in his war against the mafia, Pope Francis is cracking down on dons’ devotion to Mary.

Media published August 19 advance excerpts from a letter in which the pontiff called for an end to Italian organised crime bosses’ dubious cult to the Virgin.

Insisting that it is necessary to safeguard religious devotion to Mary “in its original purity” by “freeing it from superstructures, powers or conditioning that do not meet the evangelical criteria of justice, freedom, honesty and solidarity”, the pontiff explicitly backed an initiative to “free the figure of the Madonna from the influence of criminal organisations”.

In the quotes cited by media, the pontiff referred to a new working group of the Pontifical International Marian Academy, in which Church representatives and Italian police, alongside other experts, are seeking to develop strategies against the Cosa Nostra, ‘Ndrangheta, Camorra and Sacra Corona.

Among other things, the aim is to prevent the practice during processions of bowing Marian statues in front of the homes of clan leaders as a sign of respect.

In the seven years of his pontificate to date, Francis has never backed away from harsh criticisms of the mafia.

In a March 2014 prayer vigil for the victims of organised crime, for example, the Pope told mob bosses “the power, the money, that you have now coming from so many dirty businesses, so many mafiosi crimes, it’s blood-stained money, blood-stained power, you can’t bring it with you to your next life. Repent”.

Later in June of that year, in an outdoor Mass in Piana di Sibari, Calabria, the Pope warned that “those who in their life have gone along the evil ways, as in the case of the mafia, they are not with God, they are excommunicated”.

In a March 2015 visit to Naples, Francis followed up on that harsh language of the excommunication of mafiosi, saying that mob members “who voluntarily take the road of evil rob a piece of hope. They rob it from themselves and from everybody, from society, from so many honest and hard-working people, they rob it from the good name of the city and from its economy”.

Again, in a January 2017 audience with the heads of Italy’s anti-mafia squad, the Pope railed against organised crime bosses, stressing that “I beseech God, just and merciful, to touch the hearts of the men and women in the various mafia organisations, so that they stop, cease doing evil, change paths and adopt a different life”.

In September 2018, in a sermon at a Mass in Palermo in honour of mafia murder victim Father Giuseppe Puglisi, the pontiff warned that “a person who is a mafioso does not live as a Christian because with his life he blasphemes against the name of God”.

“Change, brothers and sisters! Stop thinking about yourselves and your money… Convert yourselves to the real God”, Francis urged those caught up in organised crime.

In Ocrober 2019, the Pope doubled-down on all his anti-mob rhetoric by appointing one of Italy’s top anti-mafia prosecutors, Giuseppe Pignatone, as the President of the Vatican City State Tribunal.

(Corrected: 20/8/20 11:10 CEST: An earlier version of this article stated that Italian magazine Maria con te had published excerpts of the Pope’s letter, when in fact Maria con te is to publish the full text of the same. The excerpts have been quoted by other outlets).

More on Novena on Church battles against the mafia:

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

More warnings from the Pope against corruption:

30/3: Pope warns in Santa Marta Mass: “God does not forgive the corrupt”

7/1: Santa Marta Mass: Pope warns against worldliness, corruption he says “worse than sin”

Pope calls for “concrete commitment” to combat “cancer” of corruption


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