Did pope just give Philly mobsters the boot?

Pope Francis salutes faithful in Cassano allo Jonio, southern Italy, Saturday, June 21, 2014. Pope Francis is paying a one day visit to Castrovillari, Sibari, and Cassano allo Jonio, in the Calabria region of Italy. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope Francis salutes faithful in Cassano allo Jonio, southern Italy, Saturday, June 21, 2014. Pope Francis is paying a one day visit to Castrovillari, Sibari, and Cassano allo Jonio, in the Calabria region of Italy. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Posted: June 24, 2014

NOW MIGHT BE THE TIME to equip the Popemobile with a remote starter.

During a weekend pilgrimage into the heartland of Italian organized crime, a defiant Pope Francis lowered the boom on the local Mafia, saying their "adoration of evil and contempt for the common good" had led to their automatic excommunication from the Catholic Church.

But it was another quote from the 77-year-old pontiff that made international headlines and was heard on the streets of South Philadelphia, where the remnants of La Cosa Nostra still hold some sway:

"Those who go down the evil path, as the Mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated," Francis told a crowd of tens of thousands in the small town of Sibari, Italy.

Did the pope just kick all mobsters out of the church?

Like the Philly wiseguys who take rosaries to trial and keep Blessed Virgin Mary statues on their lawns?

Even former boss Joey Merlino, who had a Catholic priest - his cousin - step into the witness box and vouch for him when he was charged with drug trafficking and threats?

"He excommunicated them all, from what I heard!" said defense attorney Christopher Warren, who has represented Merlino and former mob consigliere George Borgesi.

"I was surprised," Warren said. "Excommunication is, I believe, the most severe penalty the Catholic Church can impose - other than burning you at the stake."

Francis' remarks were aimed at Italy's largest crime syndicate, 'Ndrangheta, which is based in Calabria and had been tied to the highly publicized death of a 3-year-old boy, Nicola Campolongo, in January. But both mob-watchers and pope-watchers think Francis was also speaking to Mafia members around the globe.

If so, the message is clear: Leave. The Catholic Church doesn't want you.

"I think he was trying to send a broad message: If you participate in a violent way of life, then, in a sense, you are removing yourself from communion with the church," said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large at the national Catholic magazine America. "It's a kind of conscious step away from the church."

Martin, who spoke with the Daily News yesterday as he was preparing to lead a pilgrimage to Rome, said Francis appeared to be taking aim at the romanticized notion of organized crime - that mobsters are somehow more noble than street thugs because they go to church with their families or pray at night.

"It's not enough to just mouth the words. You have to put them into action," said Martin, a Plymouth Meeting native. "It's ridiculous if you go out and commit mayhem, then go to church the next Sunday. Are you listening to the Gospel at all?"

But Celeste Morello, a Philadelphia mob historian and author, doubted whether Francis would take on the Sicilian mob the way he criticized 'Ndrangheta.

"I bet you a dinner he'll never go to Palermo and speak out about the Mafia," Morello said, after attending 11:30 a.m. Sunday Mass. "There are at least 50 Mafia families there. He knows that from these Mafia families come priests and nuns and lots of money."

Rocco Palmo, a Catholic Church analyst based in South Philly, said Francis' blistering criticism creates an immediate problem: Is he safe? What about other church officials in Italy?

Francis told a Spanish newspaper earlier this month that he prefers not to use a bulletproof Popemobile because it feels like a glass "sardine can," despite concerns that he could become a target for 'Ndrangheta. The weekend headlines could raise the threat level significantly, Palmo said.

"I'm sure there are priests in that area who are a lot more scared now than they may have been 36 hours ago," said Palmo, who writes the widely read blog Whispers in the Loggia. "This is another instance of 'Fearless Francis.' This man has already walked into lions' dens in 15 months."

Palmo interpreted Francis' "excommunication" remarks as applying to all mobsters, not just 'Ndrangheta. Even the Vatican Radio website, an official organ of the Vatican, used the headline: "Pope: mafiosi are excommunicated, not in communion with God."

"That was a way of saying: 'We're not backing down on this. There is not going to be a clarification of this,' " Palmo said.

Whether that statement is binding, however, is unclear.

"Knowing Francis, he very well may write up a decree, a blanket excommunication for people involved in organized crime," Palmo said, chuckling.

Francis' attack on the mob is more pointed than Pope John Paul II's remarks in 1993. Following several homicides in Sicily, John Paul warned mobsters that they would "one day face the justice of God." The Mafia responded by bombing several churches, including the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the pope's church in his capacity as bishop of Rome, according to Reuters.

Warren, the mob lawyer and self-professed agnostic, doesn't know what the possibility of papal excommunication means to his clients, but he acknowledged that there was a rosary in the defense room during the last two racketeering trials for reputed mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and his co-defendants.

In 2004, when Merlino was on trial for murder, "We kept a rosary at the defense table," Warren said. Merlino even had his cousin, the Rev. Joseph Kelley, put in a good word for him in federal court in 1999.

"I understand the contradiction," Warren said of alleged mobsters who belong to the Catholic Church.

But, he said, the late James Gandolfini probably provided the best insight into the mind-set of a mobster when his mob-boss character, Tony Soprano, told a psychiatrist: "We're soldiers. Soldiers don't go to hell. It's war. Soldiers kill other soldiers."

And, Warren asked, where does Francis get off passing judgment, anyway?

"More crimes have been committed in the name of God," he said, "than the Mafia could ever commit."


On Twitter: @wbender99

Blog: ph.ly/DailyDelco

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