Pope Francis fired the latest salvo in his condemnation of the Italian mafia on Wednesday, telling gangsters that they “carry death in their souls” and cannot claim to be Catholics.
Speaking at his weekly general audience in St Peter’s Square, the Pope excoriated mafia criminals in a discourse about “fake Christians” who, he said, claim to be pious but in fact “live a corrupt life”.
“These fake Christians will end up in a bad way,” he told a crowd of tens of thousands of people packed into the square.
“Let’s think about what happens right here at home (in Italy), let’s think about the so-called Christian mafiosi.
“They have nothing Christian about them. They claim to be Christian, but they carry death in their souls. We pray for them.”
Pope Francis has singled out the mafia for condemnation throughout his five-year papacy.
Many members of Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria and the Camorra of Naples identify as Catholics, going to church and having their children baptised.
Mafia dons invoke the names of saints in secret initiation ceremonies.
On saints’ days in towns and villages in southern Italy, processions have been known to pause outside the homes of condemned mafiosi, saluting the local don by lowering a relic or a statue of the Madonna in a sign of respect.
In one high-profile case, a procession in the Calabrian town of Oppido Mamertina made a detour and performed a “salute” beneath a flat where Giuseppe Mazzagatti, a convicted mob boss, was serving a life sentence under house arrest.
The octogenarian was not in prison because of his advanced age.
Pope Francis has called for such behaviour to end.
In an interview with an Italian newspaper in 2014, he said: “Some priests tend to overlook the mafia phenomenon. But all this is changing and will change. Our denunciation of the mafia will not happen just once, it will be constant.”
On a visit that year to Calabria, home turf of the drug-dealing ‘Ndrangheta mafia, he declared that mobsters were excommunicated as a result of their criminal activities.
He accused organised crime networks of engaging in “the adoration of evil”.
“Those who in their lives follow this path of evil, as mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated,” he said at a Mass in the town of Sibari in Calabria. “This evil must be fought against.”
Earlier that year he pleaded with mafia criminals to renounce their lives of crime in order to avoid eternal damnation.
"Men and women of the mafia, please change your lives, convert, stop doing evil,” he said during a prayer vigil in Rome that was attended by victims of mafia crimes.
"The power, the money you have now from so many dirty deals, from so many mafia crimes, blood-stained money, blood-stained power; you will not be able to take that with you to the other life.”
He continued: “There is still time not to end up in hell, which awaits you if you continue on this road.”
It was the Catholic Church’s strongest condemnation of the mafia since 1993, when Pope John Paul warned Sicily’s Cosa Nostra criminals that they would "one day face the justice of God".