Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi (Italian pronunciation: [ˈpiːno puʎˈʎiːzi], Sicilian: [pʊɟˈɟiːsɪ]; 15 September 1937 – 15 September 1993) was a Roman Catholic priest in the rough Palermo neighbourhood of Brancaccio. He openly challenged the Mafia who controlled the neighbourhood, and was killed by them on his 56th birthday. His life story has been retold in a book, Pino Puglisi, il prete che fece tremare la mafia con un sorriso (2013), and portrayed in a film, Come Into the Light (“Alla luce del sole” original Italian title) (2005). He is the first person to be killed by the Mafia who was declared Blessed by the Catholic Church.
Puglisi was born in Brancaccio, a working-class neighbourhood in Palermo (Sicily), into a family of modest means. His father was a shoemaker and his mother a dressmaker. He entered the seminary at age sixteen. Following ordination, he worked in various parishes, including a country parish afflicted by a bloody vendetta.
Puglisi was ordained as a priest on 2 July 1960 by Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini from Palermo. Ruffini regarded Communism as a greater threat than the Mafia. He once questioned the Mafia’s very existence. To a journalist’s question of “What is the Mafia?” he responded: “So far as I know, it could be a brand of detergent.” This denial persuaded Puglisi of the need to challenge church authorities. “We can, we must criticize the church when we feel it doesn’t respond to our expectations, because it’s absolutely right to seek to improve it,” he said. With his trademark humour, Puglisi added: “But we should always criticize it like a mother, never a mother-in-law!”
In 1990, Puglisi returned to his old quarter Brancaccio and became the priest of San Gaetano’s Parish. He spoke out against the Mafia who controlled the area and opened a shelter for underprivileged children. Puglisi had been offered other parishes by the local curia, in less troublesome Palermo neighborhoods, but he opted for San Gaetano.
With little support from the Palermo archdiocese, Puglisi tried to change his parishioners’ mentality, which was conditioned by fear, passivity and word omertà – imposed silence. In his sermons, he pleaded to give leads to authorities about the Mafia’s illicit activities in Brancaccio, even if they could not actually name names. He refused their monies when offered for the traditional feast day celebrations, and would not allow the Mafia “men of honour” to march at the head of religious processions.
He tried to discourage the children from dropping out of school, robbing, drug dealing and selling contraband cigarettes. He ignored a series of warnings and declined to award a contract to a construction firm which had been “indicated” to him by the Mafia for the restoration of the church, where the roof was collapsing. Those parishioners that made attempts to reform matters were sent strong messages. A small group who organized for social improvement found the doors of their houses torched, their phones receiving threats, and their families put on notice that worse things lay in store.
On 15 September 1993 – Puglisi’s 56th birthday – he was killed outside his home by a single bullet shot at point-blank range. He was taken unconscious to a local hospital, where surgeons could not revive him. The murder was ordered by the local Mafia bosses, the brothers Filippo and Giuseppe Graviano. One of the hitmen who killed Puglisi, Salvatore Grigoli, later confessed and revealed the priest’s last words as his killers approached: “I’ve been expecting you.”
Puglisi’s murder shocked Italy. There was an immediate call by eight priests in Palermo for the pope to travel to Palermo to be present at his funeral. Pope John Paul II, however, was scheduled to be in Tuscany on that date and did not attend the memorial service. At the funeral Mass the archbishop of Palermo, Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo, spoke out very strongly against the Mafia, echoing the Pope’s words on a visit to Agrigento, Sicily, just months earlier.
On 14 April 1998, the Mafiosi Gaspare Spatuzza, Nino Mangano, Cosimo Lo Nigro and Luigi Giacalone received life sentences for the killing of Puglisi. The Graviano brothers also received life sentences for ordering the killing.