All around us, if we have eyes to see, there are big and small wrongs that cry out for a courageous response. Maybe you hear gossip that is destroying someone’s reputation. Maybe you become aware that someone is being bullied or exploited or feels desperately alone. Or you find yourself in a situation where prejudice and the status quo are depriving people of opportunities for a better life.
And just maybe, prodded by that quiet voice of conscience, you go on to ask, “What if somebody did something about this?” Then it dawns on you: maybe that somebody is me.
Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi, the “anti-Mafia priest” who was beatified in May 2013, was known for asking this question. He must have begun considering it when he was quite young. He was born in 1937, into an environment where it was risky to reflect on such things: Brancaccio, a gritty working-class district of Palermo, Sicily, which was (and still is) Cosa Nostra territory. Although some courageous voices spoke out against the crime families and their violent ways, most people feared retaliation and kept silent. Many police, politicians, and even clergy turned a blind eye.
We don’t know what Pino heard about this oppression from his parents, who each worked hard to provide for their four children—his father as a shoemaker, his mother as a seamstress. But Pino himself grew into a young man who would not tolerate bullying and intimidation; seeing it always angered and moved him to speak out, despite his somewhat shy nature.
When Pino heard the call to become a priest, he saw it as his way to “do something” about the violence around him. He entered the seminary at sixteen and was ordained a diocesan priest seven years later, in 1960.
Assigned to teach at various schools, he showed a gift for working with young people and with the poor. Over the years, he led youth mission trips to help earthquake victims, organized youth camps, and taught children to pray with an attitude of trust and thanksgiving. People noticed that when Fr. Pino spoke of God, his voice became tender.
Vendetta in the Mountains. In October 1970, Fr. Pino became pastor of the parish in Godrano, twenty-five miles from Palermo. For years, this small mountain town had been split by a blood feud between rival Mafia clans. Fifteen people had been murdered, and no end was in sight.
Pino addressed the situation head-on. Since his adult parishioners would not listen to him at first, he worked with the children and set up an after-school program that went on into the evenings. He made himself available to chat with people and also sought them out by knocking on doors to read Scripture and talk about forgiveness to anyone who would listen. Every two weeks, he held meetings and discussions on the theme of God’s love.
Fr. Pino’s love and courage began to win people over. It took eight years, but he finally succeeded in putting an end to the feud. One key moment was when a mother who was involved in hosting his group said that she could not continue without forgiving the mother of the man who had murdered her son. This incident caused many others to seek out forgiveness and reconciliation.
Confronting the Cosa Nostra. Following several other assignments, Fr. Pino was appointed pastor of the church of San Gaetano, back in his old neighborhood of Brancaccio. Having grown up there, he was in no way naïve about what to expect when he returned in 1990.
The situation was grim. The Mafia ran the district in a climate of fear, terrorizing businesses and killing with impunity. With unemployment at 40 percent, the mob easily recruited young people from the streets and lured them into drug trafficking, prostitution, and robbery. Business deals relied on cronyism and bribes, local elections were rigged, and even crime was regulated: only those not under Mafia protection were victimized!
Into this messy situation came a pastor who seemed like just an ordinary guy. Now in his early fifties, Fr. Pino was short and balding. An absentminded man, his driving was appalling. He ate on the run; he had no bank account and rarely had cash. But the love of Christ shone through this unpretentious priest. Always ready to run wherever people needed him, he got up at dawn to pray and at night fell asleep in his armchair reading. And though he enjoyed intellectual pursuits, he never put on airs. Cheerful and witty, Fr. Pino made you feel that you were valued and loved for yourself.
Playing with Fire. Everywhere he went, Pino asked his question: Se qualcuno fa qualcosa?—What if somebody did something? The people of Brancaccio understood that he was encouraging them to push back against Mafia intimidation and the physical and moral poverty that came with it. “If each person does a little,” he insisted, “a lot can be accomplished.”
The parish of San Gaetano was energized and began to grow under Pino’s leadership. He set an example of courage, refusing to play along with the mafiosi who considered themselves faithful Catholics. Unlike many pastors, he would not accept their money for feast day celebrations, and he forbade their dons from marching at the head of religious processions. He denied a Mafia-backed construction firm the contract for restoration work on his church. He denounced the Mafia from the pulpit and put a sign on his door that said: “The Mafia is strong, but God is omnipotent.”
Pino made special efforts to reach young people, who were especially vulnerable to Mafia exploitation. He sponsored activities and social events, established a family center, and spoke to them plainly about how the Mafia mentality disregards human dignity. In the end, it was this youth work that angered mob bosses the most. Giovanni Drago, a Cosa Nostra hit man, explained:
The priest was a thorn in the side. He preached, he preached, he took kids off the streets. He carried out demonstrations, saying that the Mafia had to be destroyed. So every day he hammered away, becoming more and more of a troublemaker. This was enough, more than enough, to make it a priority to get rid of him.
Soon enough, Pino was receiving death threats. He brushed them aside with black humor: “The most they can do is kill me. Then what?” More than once, he was beaten. Not wanting to alarm parishioners, he blamed his injuries on clumsiness—he had fallen down the stairs or cut himself shaving, he said. “Don’t worry. It’s nothing,” he told people who wondered why he smiled less than before.
Despite his fears and growing awareness that death was inevitable, Pino refused to be intimidated. He continued with his pastoral duties, placing his life in God’s hands.
“I’ve Been Expecting This.” By May 1993, with the Mafia waging a terror campaign throughout northern Italy, the atmosphere in Brancaccio was becoming tense. When two anticrime judges from Palermo were killed in car bombings, Pino petitioned that a street be named after them and organized a march in their honor. The day after the march, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a truck belonging to the company that was repairing the church. Then someone set fire to the doors of the homes of Fr. Pino’s three most active parishioners. As the sweltering summer days passed, the people of San Gaetano had an ominous sense that something worse was about to happen.
On the evening of September 15, Fr. Pino’s fifty-sixth birthday, a small group of mafiosi approached the priest outside his home. Salvatore Grigoli, who eventually repented of his crimes, described what happened next:
He had a bag in his hands. The whole thing was over in a few seconds. . . . Spatuzza [another gang member] approached him, put out his hand to take the bag, saying, “Father, this is a robbery.” The priest turned and looked at him—and this is something that I cannot forget, that has kept me awake at night—and he smiled and said, “I’ve been expecting this.” He had not noticed me. I then fired a shot at the nape of his neck.
The assassins fled, and a parish volunteer found the dying priest a short while later. Fr. Pino died in the hospital later that night.
Legacy of a Martyr. Although Pino Puglisi became the spokesperson for the poor and the marginalized of his neighborhood, he was not a lone hero. In fact, the Mafia wanted him dead mainly because he had successfully rallied so many people to work together to oppose the neighborhood mob bosses. By going about his daily work in defiance of Mafia intimidation, Pino showed the people that they could make a difference.
Pino’s trademark question lives on in Palermo today, written on plaques and scrawled on walls all over the city: Se qualcuno fa qualcosa? More important, it still lives on in people’s hearts, urging them to counter injustice and violence with the courage, love, and forgiveness that come from Christ.
“What if somebody did something?” It’s a question each of us can ask.
Sean O’Neill is a writer and translator currently based in St. Paul, Minnesota.