Being Christian is putting God first in one's life, which means having "the courage to say no to evil, violence and exploitation," said Pope Francis, visiting another southern Italian town scarred by mafia crime.
In Caserta, about 130 miles south of Rome, Francis did not denounce the Camorra, as the local mafia is known, but told an estimated 200,000 people gathered for Mass July 26, "we all know the name of these forms of corruption and illegality."
The area around Caserta is known in Italy as the "terra dei fuochi" (land of fires) because of the fires illegally set to burn garbage, including toxic waste. Acres of once fertile farmland in the area are now too polluted to use and residents report higher than normal cancer rates.
The pope told the residents that if they are going to call themselves Christian, then they should demonstrate that by loving one another and "making a commitment to safeguard their life and their health, including by respecting the environment and nature."
Before arriving in Caserta by helicopter, Francis was flown over the area. He told the crowd at Mass, "your beautiful land deserves to be cared for and preserved, which requires the courage of saying no to every form of corruption and illegality."
The pope originally had planned to make a private visit to Caserta July 26 to visit a Pentecostal pastor friend; but when the local bishop and residents heard, they informed the pope and Vatican officials that the date chosen was the feast day of the town's patroness, St. Anne. Francis asked his aides to quickly organize the Mass and he postponed the visit to his friend until July 28.
The Mass was celebrated outside the Reggia di Caserta, an 18th-century royal palace. A locally loved statue of St. Anne holding the hand of her little girl, Mary, was placed to the side of the altar and blessed with incense by the pope at the beginning of the liturgy.
In his homily, the pope said, "Today is the feast of St. Anne; I like calling her the grandma of Jesus and today is a good day to celebrate grandmothers."
"When I was using the incense, I noticed something very beautiful: the statue of St. Anne does not have a crown, but her daughter Mary is crowned," the pope said. "St. Anne is the woman who prepared her daughter to become queen, to become queen of heaven and earth. This woman did a great job."
At a time when bishops in southern Italy have been struggling to ensure popular feasts retain their religious significance and are free of mafia manipulations, Francis also encouraged Catholics in Caserta to ensure their celebrations of St. Anne are "free of any outside influence and are an expression of the pure faith of a people who see themselves as the family of God and strengthen their bonds of brotherhood and solidarity."