John Paul II set a powerful precedent for how a Roman Pontiff can take on the Italian Mob. In May 1993, after a high-profile spate of Mafia killings, the Pope denounced the Mob's "culture of death" in an emotionally charged sermon in Agrigento, Sicily, the home turf of Cosa Nostra. "I say to those responsible: Convert!" he intoned, shaking his clenched fist and index finger. "One day, the judgment of God will arrive!" Two months after the dramatic papal appeal, the Mafia bombed two historic churches in Rome.
Pope Benedict XVI was certainly aware of that confrontation as he prepared this past weekend to visit Pompeii. The southern Italian city, near the ruins of an ancient site buried by a Mount Vesuvius volcanic eruption, lies in the heart of the region controlled by the Camorra. The Naples-based organized crime syndicate has lately tightened its grip on the impoverished region, with more killing sprees and a high-profile death threat against a young writer. But unlike John Paul, Benedict said nothing at all about the Mob in his Sunday homily. Did the Pope back down in the face of one of Italy's most entrenched and destructive evils?
Many were counting on another papal mention about the Mob as violence in the region reaches new heights. Last month, a Camorra death squad unleashed a fury of submachine-gun fire, killing seven immigrants in a single attack. A week ago, reports surfaced of a pointed death threat against Naples writer Roberto Saviano, 28, whose best-selling book Gomorrah, and the movie based on it, reveal the extent of the Camorra's influence and dirty dealings. While the Pope remained silent, more than 100,000 people signed a petition this week in support of Saviano, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Desmond Tutu, Orhan Pamuk, Günter Grass, Jose Saramago and Jonathan Franzen. "It is intolerable that all this can happen in Europe, and in 2008," reads the petition. "The state must make every effort possible to protect (Saviano) and defeat the Camorra." The movie version of Saviano's book, directed by Matteo Garrone, won second prize at the Cannes film festival this year and is Italy's entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar.
When reporters asked why the Pope had said nothing on such a burning topic in Pompeii, Vatican spokesman Reverand Ciro Benedettini said Benedict had intentionally avoided referring to the Camorra as a "show of respect for decent people" of the region, who "are the vast majority." The Pope, the spokesman added, had also talked about organized crime in a visit last year to Naples, though admittedly not with the same confrontational tone as John Paul did in Sicily.
Benedict's silence has generated a small rumbling of dissent from both inside and outside the church. "It could seem that there is fear now to confront the Mob, and call it by its name," Don Vitaliano Della Sala, a leftist priest from nearby Avellino, said in a Monday radio interview. He drew a parallel between Benedict's decision not to speak out Sunday and the controversy stirring over Pope Pius XII's alleged silence about the Holocaust during World War II.
That analogy seems a stretch: the Italian authorities' decades-long battle to uproot the Mob bears little comparison to the Nazis' state-run policy of genocide. But the comparison between Benedict and his immediate predecessor is illuminating. John Paul not only possessed a pastoral charisma that made him beloved among his flock, but also he could call on a reserve of public passion in order to confront a problem facing his church or the world at large. That kind of fire is simply not in this Pontiff's arsenal.(See photos of Pope Benedict's trip to the U.S. here.)