The priest who frightened Mob boss Riina

The fight against the Mafia

of Father Puglisi




No more than a boy, a fresh-faced altar boy – our Giuseppe, our Pino. Immortalized with his head bowed, his eyes half closed in humble pride: holding in his hand a candle to give to the Cardinal. How thrilled he must be, young Pino. Soon he will grow up and forget that celebration, the stern gaze of Cardinal Ruffini, Archbishop of Palermo, his unnatural composure, perhaps even his assumed grandeur. He will not forget, however, that reference to the “so-called Mafia” which the prelate made several times, in undertones. That Mafia which, in his opinion, “it is scandalous to associate with religion, with the Christian Democratic party”. No, he will certainly not forget.

Giuseppe would grow up to become Don Pino. Don Pino Puglisi. He would wander around the streets of Palermo, a city passive and resigned; he would speak of hope and love to criminals, to those who had known nothing but the snarl of gunfire, always with a smile. Yes, always calm and gentle he was, never angry. After all, anger never gets you anywhere: instead, he always preferred to transmit his ardour, the vital enthusiasm of knowing that all it takes to make a change is to roll up your sleeves. To not be afraid of getting your hands dirty, to perform real actions, because there are already too many fine words recited from pulpits and altars.

It’s not every day that one meets a priest who sits in the squares of the rough neighbourhoods, waiting for criminals to approach him, just to have a word with them. It’s not easy to come across a priest who takes young hotheads by the hand, taking them off  the streets, away from crime, the underworld. Yet Father Puglisi, the parish priest of the Church of San Gaetano in Brancaccio, seems to have found this the right path to follow. Rejecting the official anti-Mafia stance, he did not cease to love even those who think there is no hope left for them, who are convinced that there is no turning back from the path they are on.

Just three years after taking office in the parish in the suburbs of Palermo, on 29 January 1993 Father Pino inaugurated the “Padre Nostro” social centre, a shelter for anyone wishing to receive comfort, support, assistance. All, without exception, were welcomed without reserve because the only way to wrest new followers from the Mafia, the only way to keep them away from the underworld was to hold them close, to give them an alternative.

This and much more cost Father Puglisi his life. He was beatified as a martyr in June 2012: yes, a martyr of a ruthless criminal organisation but also a martyr of the indifference of the institutions, the indifference of the political class, of a cowardly, petty, inept society. A martyr, but not defeated. On the contrary, his was an undeniable and overwhelming victory: proved by the continued work of hundreds of volunteers, dedicated to the Centro di Accoglienza centre of Brancaccio; the numerous schools, squares, streets named after him over the years help remind us. More than this, however, his victory was confirmed by the words of Toto Riina thundering angrily from prison: “Our territory he wanted to command, iddu! You, you just be a priest, only think about saying mass, leave them alone … The territory, our turf, the church, you see what he wanted to do? All things he wanted to do – iddu – in our territory, he wanted to do everything.” The interception, dated September 2013, shows us a boss frustrated, angry, still incredulous.

“What strikes most – commented Salvo Palazzolo, editor of La Repubblica – is that it is a Mafia boss, of all people, who announces what the true fight against the Mafia entails and he does this by lashing out once again, after more than twenty years, against Father Puglisi.” Because that is precisely how it is. The Mob does not care about the parades or slogans which just for one day a year men, women and children shout out in the respectable districts of Palermo. The Mafia is afraid of anyone who dares to step out of line, who fights openly, who is not afraid to take the field every day.

Twenty-two years have passed since that unfortunate September 15, the day when a bullet put an end to the existence of Don Pino. One wonders if anyone was ready to take up his legacy. “During the funeral of Pino Puglisi, his successor was appointed: it was Mario Golesano, a priest on very good terms with Totò Cuffaro, who changed from his immediate predecessor’s line and from that of Rosario Giuè, who had been in Brancaccio before 3P[1]. Well, from that day Brancaccio has not changed much, at least not thanks to the institutions” – declared Salvo Ognibene, a young emerging author, who does not hide his disappointment by any means. “Of course, fortunately there are still those who, like Don Pino, have not given up actively intervening in the territory, but it is always a minority.”


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