By Charles Igwe
Pope Francis has extolled the life and unwavering commitment of Father Pino Puglisi, an Italian figure who stood against the Mafia’s influence. Three decades after his assassination by Mafia assailants, the Pontiff expressed his admiration for Puglisi’s legacy in a letter dated July 31, which was addressed to Archbishop Corrado Lorefice of Palermo, a region synonymous with Mafia activity.
In the letter, Pope Francis hailed Puglisi as a “virtuous priest and compassionate witness of the Father.” He offered gratitude for the “gift of the Blessed Martyr Don Pino Puglisi,” acknowledging his vital role in both the Palermitan Church and the entire region of Sicily.
Puglisi, born in 1937, served as the pastor of San Gaetano parish, located in the tumultuous neighborhood of Brancaccio in Palermo. He gained renown for his staunch anti-Mafia stance, refusing financial support from the criminal organization for religious celebrations and rejecting their participation at the forefront of processions, a common practice in Mafia territory.
Furthermore, Puglisi dedicated himself to shielding youth from the Mafia’s influence, urging them to pursue education and eschew criminal activities. He declined a construction contract offered by a Mafia-backed firm for the restoration of his church.
Despite enduring numerous death threats, Puglisi remained steadfast in his convictions. Tragically, he was shot dead in the streets outside his Palermo parish on his birthday, September 15, 1993. One of his assassins later revealed that Puglisi’s final words were, “I’ve been expecting you.”
In 2013, Puglisi was beatified, marking him as the first victim of the Mafia recognized by the Catholic Church as a martyr.
Pope Francis highlighted the profound impact of Puglisi’s smile, describing it as a “gentle light” that penetrates the heart. The Pontiff emphasized that Puglisi exemplified Jesus’ teachings through his compassion and commitment, particularly in his efforts to support the vulnerable and the defenseless.
Addressing pastors in the region, Pope Francis urged them to address the numerous societal wounds present, promoting solidarity with the poor and marginalized. He encouraged them to become ambassadors of the Gospel’s compassion, justice, and mercy, emphasizing their role in constructing a “new humanity.”
Pope Francis concluded his letter with a plea for prayers and entrusted the area’s protection to the Virgin Mary and Puglisi. He offered his blessings, expressing hope that Puglisi’s disarming smile would inspire priests to be audacious and joyful disciples, fostering personal transformation in the service of their communities.