In the two years since he was invested, Pope Francis has taken on the Vatican's bankers, and now the Mafia.

In June 2014, Pope Francis launched a passionate attack on an organization responsible for a century-long trail of blood. In a move that sent shockwaves around the world, Pope Francis excommunicated all Mafia from the Catholic Church, a first in the Church’s history. But has the most popular Pope in years taken on an adversary and a battle he can win?

man behind barsMafia expert John Dickie

In The Pope & The Mafia, historian and Mafia expert John Dickie investigates the long and complicated relationship between organized crime and the Catholic Church, and how today, in many parts of Italy, their mutual fortune depends more on collaboration and compromise than confrontation.

The results of this unholy alliance? Men of the cloth who testify in court on behalf of 'men of honour'. Less-than-holy families who have taken over Catholic festivals. Priests murdered for taking a stand against crime bosses. For decades, an institution for whom the sanctity of life is everything has been intricately bound to an organization whose everyday business is death.

In June 2014, Pope Francis visited Calabria, a poverty-stricken region and home to Italy's most powerful but least-known Mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta. He was there to meet the family of Cocò Campolongo, a three-year-old boy killed when he got in the way of his grandfather’s assassins. Cocò's bullet-riddled body, like that of his grandfather, was burned by the murderers in an effort to hide the evidence. Despite the horrific nature of this crime, the vehemence of Pope Francis' reaction surprised onlookers, and even the Pope's staff:

“The ‘Ndrangheta is the adoration of evil and contempt for the common good,” the Pope said. “Mafiosi are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated!”

With these words, Pope Francis became the first pontiff to excommunicate all Mafia.  But his message was intended for more than just the criminal underworld. Only two weeks later, in the Calabrian village of Oppido, a traditional procession carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary stopped to pay homage outside the house of the local ‘Ndrangheta boss, who was serving a life sentence under house arrest. Outraged, the police left the scene. The clergy did not.

man in cemetaryJohn Dickie travels to Italy

Dickie travels to Southern Italy where he tries to understand how the Church's tangled relationship with the Mafia has helped organized crime maintain its grip over the local population. He explores the underground bunkers used by ‘Ndrangheta bosses to escape capture, bunkers fully equipped with their own chapels. He interviews priests who have had close ties to the Mafia, and others who have risked their lives standing up against them.

Sometimes unwittingly, the Catholic Church has given the Mafia legitimacy in the eyes of the Italian population. High-ranking clergy have turned up in court to give character references for mobsters on trial and others have turned a blind eye. The daughter of a well-known ‘Ndrangheta boss even had the privilege of being baptized in St. Peter’s by Pope Benedict XVI.

The Pope & The Mafia explores how political expediency led some cardinals to collude with the Mafia, how in the past the Vatican Bank has laundered the profits of the heroin trade, and how murderers on the run from the law have had priests say Mass in their hideouts. It also investigates how the rank and file of the Catholic Church is interpreting the Pope’s excommunication.

A dramatic divorce between the Church and the Mafia is now underway and the consequences of the break-up could be profound for both sides. In May 1993, John Paul II became the first Pope ever to use the word Mafia in public. His condemnation was clear – “Convert! God's judgement will come!”  Some Mafiosi decided to turn state's evidence after watching the sermon on television. The threat to organized crime was so profound that the Sicilian Mafia responded by bombing churches in Rome. Pope Francis’ 2014 invective is far more significant. Once friends, the Church and the Mafia are now officially enemies.

The Pope & The Mafia is produced by the same team behind Holy Money (2014), an investigation into the Catholic Church finances, co-produced by ZDF/Arte and Al Jazeera America and broadcast in more than 20 countries. Historian and Mafia expert John Dickie is the author of the best-selling and critically acclaimed “Cosa Nostra” and “Mafia Republic”. The director is Jesus Garces Lambert.

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