VATICAN CITY // Pope Francis paid tribute to a courageous priest murdered by the Sicilian mafia and urged mobsters yesterday to abandon their evil ways.
Pope Francis issued his call for a change of heart by organised crime members, a day after the beatification of the Reverend Giuseppe "Pino" Puglisi in Palermo.
The Vatican honoured Puglisi as a martyr in the ceremony, 20 years after he was killed in the city by mobsters for preaching against the mafia in a neighbourhood where the Cosa Nostra held sway.
Pope Francis told a crowd in St Peter's Square that the mafia killed Puglisi because he tried to keep youths from being recruited by mobsters.
Beatification is the last formal step before possible sainthood. As part of the process leading to beatification, church officials considered statements that convicted mafiosi had given to investigators. The mobsters told authorities that Cosa Nostra bosses had ordered Puglisi's murder because he had dared defy the mafia by his preaching and work with young people. Mafia bosses convicted of ordering the killing are serving life sentences in prison.
The pope did not attend the beatification ceremony, which drew tens of thousands of people to an esplanade near Palermo's seaside. Instead, he used the traditional Sunday papal appearance in St Peter's Square to hail Puglisi as a martyr and "an exemplary priest, especially dedicated" to serving young people.
"Educating young people according to the Gospel, he took them away from organised crime, and thus it tried to defeat him by killing him," Pope Francis said.
Puglisi was shot dead in 1992 a few months after Pope John Paul II made a pilgrimage to Sicily and angrily called on mobsters to "convert" their hearts. At the time the island was still in shock after bombing assassinations by the Cosa Nostra - two months apart - of Italy's top anti-Mafia magistrates.
"I think of the great pain suffered by men, women and even children, exploited by so many mafias," Pope Francis said. He decried the crime syndicates for "making them do work that makes them slaves, prostitution".
"Behind this exploitation and slavery are the mafias." Pope Francis, two months into his papacy, has branded human trafficking as one of the most terrible evils plaguing the world.
"They cannot make our brothers slaves," Pope Francis said. "Let us pray that these mafiosi and mafiose convert to God."
Investigators say that along with drug trafficking, human trafficking, which includes illegal immigrants used for clandestine work in agriculture or factories, or in prostitution, has become one of the most profitable industries for organised crime.