Pope Francis sits in front of an image of Blessed Giuseppe “Don Pino” Puglisi during a meeting with young people in the Archdiocese of Palermo, on the Italian island region Sicily, on Sept. 15, 2018. / Vatican Media.

Rome Newsroom, Aug 20, 2023 / 09:00 am (CNA).

Blessed Giuseppe “Don Pino” Puglisi “went all the way in love,” Pope Francis said in a letter published ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Sicilian priest’s death at the hands of the Mafia.

The blessed was shot and martyred by hitmen under the direction of the Sicilian Mafia group Cosa Nostra, on Sept. 15, 1993, his 53rd birthday. Despite threats to his life, for years the priest had quietly fought organized crime through the education of young people in his parish’s poor Palermo neighborhood.

“Following the example of Jesus, Don Pino went all the way in love,” Pope Francis wrote in a letter to Archbishop Corrado Lorefice of Palermo, published Aug. 20.

The priest, he continued, “possessed the same traits of the meek and humble ‘good shepherd’: his boys, whom he knew one by one, are the testimony of a man of God who favored the small and defenseless, educated them to freedom, to love life and to respect it.”

In his letter, the pope addressed the priests of Sicily, a southern island region of Italy, and encouraged them “not to stop in the face of the many human and social plagues of the present hour, which still bleed and need to be healed with the oil of consolation and the balm of compassion.”

He urged the Sicilian clergy to take up a renewed pastoral care corresponding to the concrete needs of the day and to not forget the preferential option for the poor.

Francis pointed to Blessed Pino Puglisi’s “practical and profound” wisdom, summed up by his frequent encouragement that “if each of us does something, then we can do a lot.”

“Let this be the invitation for everyone to know how to overcome the many personal fears and resistances and to work together to build a just and fraternal society,” the pope said.

Pope Francis venerates a relic of Blessed Giuseppe “Don Pino” Puglisi in the Cathedral of Palermo, during a one-day visit to the Archdiocese of Palermo on the Italian island region of Sicily on Sept. 15, 2018. Vatican Media.

Puglisi was born on Sept. 15, 1937, to a working-class family in Palermo. He entered the seminary at 16 and was ordained a priest in 1960 at the age of 22.

As a priest, he was known for speaking out against injustice, including communism, the Mafia, and problems within the Church.

The blessed was also passionately involved in youth ministry and in promoting religious vocations. In 1990, he was transferred to the parish of San Gaetano in the Mafia-ridden neighborhood of Brancaccio.

Puglisi’s approach in the crime-controlled neighborhood was the same: to win over the young people and to be a pastor to his flock.

“Father Puglisi was not a typical anti-Mafia priest. He did not organize rallies or make public condemnation of Mafia,” Archbishop Michele Pennisi of Monreale told the National Catholic Register in 2013. “[The] Mafia does not see that kind of priest as dangerous.”

Puglisi was considered to be more dangerous “because he educated young people,” Pennisi said. He would convince the boys of the neighborhood not to steal or quit school, and encouraged them away from the Mafia, who would often use children to traffic drugs and other illicit materials.

Puglisi preached against the Mafia, banned them from leading religious processions, and even stealthily gave clues to the authorities about their latest activities in his homilies. It was revealed after his death that his life had been threatened numerous times.

Pope Francis visits the home and office of Blessed Giuseppe “Don Pino” Puglisi in the Brancaccio neighborhood of Palermo during a one-day visit to the Italian island region of Sicily on Sept. 15, 2018. Vatican Media.

On Sept. 15, 1993, Puglisi was apprehended on the street and shot in the neck at point-blank range by hitmen directed by the local Mafia bosses Filippo and Giuseppe Graviano. He died of his injuries.

One of the hitmen, who later confessed to the crime, revealed that the priest’s final words were: “I’ve been expecting you.”

Puglisi was declared a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and beatified in 2013.

Pope Francis visited Puglisi’s former Palermo parish in 2018 to mark the 25th anniversary of the blessed’s assassination.

“May the disarming smile of Father Pino Puglisi spur you to be joyful and bold disciples, available first of all to that constant inner conversion that makes you more ready to serve your brothers and sisters, faithful to your priestly promises and docile in obedience to the Church,” Pope Francis said in his letter to priests for the 30th anniversary of Puglisi’s death.

“You,” he said, “who daily uphold the responsibilities of priestly ministry in contact with the realities that inhabit this territory, be always and everywhere a true image of the welcoming Good Shepherd, have the courage to dare without fear and instill hope in those you meet, especially the weakest, the sick, the suffering, the migrants, those who have fallen and want to be helped to rise again.”

“Young people will then be the focus of your care: they are the hope of the future.”

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