Pope Francis to visit the heart of Italy’s mafia country

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c. 2014 Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis will travel to the heartland of the Italian mafia for the first time Saturday (June 21), visiting the southern town where a 3-year-old was murdered in a local drug war earlier this year.

Security will be extremely tight when the pope makes his one-day visit to Cassano allo Ionio in Calabria, one of Italy’s poorest regions, in what is certain to be his most powerful political statement against organized crime.

The trip has renewed questions about Francis’ health; on Thursday, Vatican officials said he would not lead a religious procession on the streets of Rome late Thursday so that he could save his energy for his trip to Calabria.

Francis, who had already put his weekly audiences and daily Mass on hold for much of the summer, opted to travel by car less than a mile between the St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major basilicas instead of leading a candle-lit procession for the Feast of Corpus Christi.

In Calabria, the 77-year-old pontiff will go to a prison and a hospital and have lunch with the poor in the area before celebrating Mass with as many as 100,000 pilgrims.

On his visit to Castrovillari Prison, Francis is not expected to meet inmate Nicola Campolongo, father of the slain toddler Nicola, or “Coco,” whose charred remains were found in a burned-out car with the bodies of his grandfather and his grandfather’s companion in January.

Church officials also said there were no plans for the pope to meet the child’s mother, Antonia Iannicelli, who is living under house arrest and made a personal plea to meet the pontiff.

The brutal killing shocked Italians accustomed to reports of mafia violence and prompted a heartfelt response from Francis, who urged the killers to “repent.”

Referring to the “globalization of evil,” the secretary-general of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Nunzio Galantino, said Francis offered hope with his “simplicity and determination.”

“We are losing hope, we don’t know who to turn to, we have no credible political leaders,” said Galantino, who is also the bishop of Cassano. “Even in the church we are no longer enthusiastic.”

Francis’ frank determination to challenge organized crime groups has sparked warnings that he could become a mafia target. The pope met the families of mafia victims in May and warned mobsters that they would “go to hell” if they did not repent.

Last November, respected anti-mafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, who investigates the Calabrian mafia or ‘Ndrangheta, said: “If the mafia bosses can trip him up, they won’t hesitate.”

In a recent interview with the Spanish daily La Vanguardia, the pope shrugged off concerns about his own security, saying he did not want to travel in a protective bulletproof vehicle that was like a “sardine can.”

“It’s true that anything could happen,” he said, “but let’s face it, at my age I don’t have much to lose.”