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Priests on front line in Italy's battle against Mafias

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Vatican City

Pope Francis' dramatic appearance at a March prayer vigil with the families of Mafia victims, where he said he would plead on bended knee with Mafia bosses to "stop doing evil," has highlighted the Catholic church's role in combatting Italian organized crime.

"Pope Francis awakens consciences. Many who were a long way from the church are now asking to be baptized," said Fr. Luigi Ciotti, founder of the Italian anti-Mafia association Libera, which organized the March 21 vigil in Rome. "The pope brings a moral renewal that touches everyone. Every day I see the results."

Although the Catholic church has been "tepid and prudent" in the past, the pope's praying with the families of Mafia victims has become a model for change, Ciotti told the Turin daily La Stampa. "His church is no longer closed and inward looking -- it's everyone's home. Its doors are always open."

Born in 1945, Ciotti was only 19 when he founded an association in Turin aimed at helping young people in financial and legal trouble. His work increasingly entailed dealing with drug use among youth. In the 1990s, the association evolved into Libera.

Like other priests with similar missions, Ciotti draws inspiration from the example of Blessed Pino Puglisi, the first modern Mafia martyr. Born in 1937 in Palermo, Sicily, Puglisi was killed by a Cosa Nostra hit man on his 56th birthday, Sept 15, 1993. Some 100,000 Sicilians gathered in Palermo May 25 for his beatification celebration, led by Palermo's Cardinal Paolo Romeo, with Cardinal Salvatore De Giorgi representing Pope Francis.

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Other anti-mob priests have received serious threats, particularly in in the southern Campania region, where the local Mafia, known as the Camorra, controls the drug traffic and the massive illegal dumping of toxic waste.

At Marano, near Naples, shots were fired Feb. 28 into the automobile of Fr. Luigi Merola, whose foundation "A voce d'e creature" (The Voice of the Children) works with children in Naples' Arenaccia slum, encouraging them to stay in school as a way to keep them from crime.

"I've lived with these threats for years," Merola told the Catholic daily Avvenire. "I've gotten used to them."

Don Tonino Palmese, 55, is a Salesian priest who represents Don Ciotti's Libera association in Campania. He is slated to participate in a series of "Dialogues on the Mafias," to take place between June and October at the University of Naples. The talks will be part of a UNESCO Culture Forum on the theme of the "Collective Identity as a Value of Humanity." Among the topics will be how the various Mafias influence finance and economies worldwide.

The Sicilian Mafia and the Calabrian crime organization the 'Ndrangheta are also active in the north of Italy, where Msgr. Carlo Galli, a pastor in the region of Lombardy, has spearheaded a project called "Vedo, sento ... parlo?" ("I see, I hear ... dare I speak?") to encourage witnesses to speak out.

"Mafia, 'Ndrangheta, usury -- these are words that have made headlines all over Lombardy," Galli told the Milan daily Il Giornale. "It's omerta -- people know and don't say. Instead they must find the courage to speak out."

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