The Archdiocese of Catania, Sicily’s second-largest city, has put a three-year ban on godparents at baptism and sponsors at confirmation. Other Sicilian dioceses are planning similar steps. “In the Land of the Godfather Comes a Ban on Them” was the apt headline in The New York Times. The archdiocese has instituted the ban because of the entanglement of godfathers with mafia patronage in Sicily.
The cinematic splendor of the baptism sequence in The Godfather, with Michael Corleone professing the baptismal creed as his henchmen execute his rivals, can make the scandal of it all seem almost attractive, even beautiful. Real life is rather more bloody than that, and the Catholic Church in Sicily, after a very long time, is trying to do something concrete about eliminating that scandal.
Rosario Livatino was confirmed on October 29, 1988. He was old to be confirmed and young to be a judge. At thirty-five years of age, the brilliant young prosecutor had developed a daily habit of stopping at the local church to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. His faith matured and deepened through his daily devotion and led him to prepare carefully for the sacrament of confirmation. Though his confirmation was late in life, it certainly bore fruit in courageous Christian witness.
Ten months after that, in August 1989, he was appointed a magistrate in Agrigento, Sicily. Both admirers and detractors called him the “boy judge” for his youth.
It was the time of “Tangentopoli”—“kickback city” or “bribesville”—the sprawling criminal investigation into organized crime in Italian politics. It was an enormous cultural, political, and legal earthquake. The generations-long cozy and corrupt relationship between mafiosi and the political class was upset by crusading prosecutors and judges like Livatino who, in the continental style, also had an investigatory role.
Thirteen months after being elevated to the bench, on September 21, 1990, he was assassinated by the mafia, his car forced off the road on his way to work. When he got out of the car, the hitmen shot him dead.
The assassination of Livatino—and anti-mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992—devastated Italy. In May 1993, St. John Paul II made a pastoral visit to Sicily. The assassinations were fresh in everyone’s mind. What would he say?
On May 9, 1993, he celebrated an open-air Mass in the evocative Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. Before the Mass, the Holy Father met Rosario’s parents, still grieving their son. The encounter deeply moved John Paul. After the Mass, in extemporaneous remarks, he denounced the mafia by name as a “civilization of death.”
“In the name of Christ, crucified and risen, of Christ who is the way, the truth and the life, I say to those responsible: convert!” John Paul shouted, shaking with righteous anger. “The judgment of God will come!”
The mafia took note. And responded.
In July 1993, they bombed the pope’s cathedral in Rome: St. John Lateran, mother and head of all the churches in the city and the world. It was a spectacular response, an enormity, a true sacrilege against the house of the Lord, like their sacrilegious reception of the sacraments inside.
In September 1993, mafiosi killed Palermo’s most prominent anti-mafia priest, Don Pino Puglisi. His last words to them: “I have been expecting you.” The mafia made him pay with his blood for the pope’s anathema.
The murders of Livatino, Falcone, Borsellino, Puglisi, the blasphemous bombing of the cathedral of Rome—all of it cut Italy to the heart. It was the beginning of the end of the prominent, occasionally dominant role, of the mafia in Italian society.
Father Pino Puglisi was beatified as a martyr in 2013. Rosario Livatino was similarly beatified earlier this year, on the precise anniversary (May 9) of John Paul’s meeting with his parents in Agrigento. Blessed Pino’s feast day is observed on October 21, the date of his baptism, and Blessed Rosario’s feast day set for October 29, the date of his confirmation. Today is the first liturgical celebration of his feast day.
When the police came to Blessed Rosario’s body, they found his daily agenda. He had inscribed on the pages the acronym “STD” for Sub Tutela Dei, “under the protection of God.” A fitting rebuke to the mafia who offer exploitation under the guise of “protection.”
Together the mafia martyrs lived out the true mission of baptism and confirmation; they honored their sacraments, rather than corrupting them. The banning of the mafia godfathers might invite Sicilians to turn to heavenly patrons instead, authentic witnesses to the meaning of Christian initiation.
Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.
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