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Fr Pino Puglisi
by Vincenzo Salerno

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Fr Pino Puglisi.On 25 May (2013) a priest murdered by the Mafia in 1993 was beatified as a martyr at a ceremony in Palermo attended by eighty thousand people.

Giuseppe "Pino" Puglisi was born into a working-class family in the underdeveloped Brancaccio neighborhood in 1937. His father was a shoemaker while his mother sometimes worked as a dressmaker.

Pino Puglisi was ordained in 1960 by Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini, the Archbishop of Palermo who infamously declared that the Mafia didn't exist.

Following service in a series of parishes in the area around Palermo, Puglisi was assigned to St Gaetan in Brancaccio in 1990. He opened a social center for poor children and, in the course of his work, spoke out against the Mafia, which essentially controlled that part of Palermo as well as other districts.

Sadly, his efforts garnered little support from the Archdiocese or other authorities. This was the era when Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were beginning to expose the Mafia for the evil organization it is. In the wake of the Maxi Trial in Palermo and the Pizza Connection trials in New York, there were still those – including the leaders of prominent "Italian-American" ethnic organizations in the United States – who took the position that the Mafia did not actually exist or that its prevalence was exaggerated to "defame" Sicilians, or Italians generally.

In fact, politicians at the highest levels of Italy's national government were protecting the Mafia, which encouraged Sicilians to vote for candidates of the Christian Democratic party, often through the outright purchase of votes. Sicily was then one of the most highly populated of Italy's geographic regions, then comparable to Lombardy (Milan) and Lazio (Rome) in the number of votes it could provide. What happened around 1990 was that the national authorities effectively abandoned prosecutors who had uncovered a direct connection between the national political establishment and Sicilian organized crime. The Mafia managed to kill Falcone in May 1992, and Borsellino a few months later, both with large bombs based on plastic explosives.

Fr Puglisi was killed with a bullet to the head on 15 September 1993 by a band of thugs led by Salvatore Grigoli, a hitman for the local Graviano clan. In addition to Filippo and Giuseppe Graviano, several others later received life sentences for this and numerous other murders: Gaspare Spatuzza, Nino Mangano, Cosimo Lo Nigro, Luigi Giacalone.

During a visit to Sicily in November 1994 for a memorial service for the fallen cleric, John Paul II became the first Pope to condemn the Mafia openly.

About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.

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© 2013 Vincenzo Salerno