Vatican City — In the stronghold of an Italian crime syndicate believed to be richer and more powerful than the Sicilian Mafia, Pope Francis said, "Those who follow the path of evil, like the mafiosi do, are not in communion with God; they are excommunicated!"
During a Mass Saturday in the southern region of Calabria, Pope Francis made clear that even if the mob families continue to go to Mass and decorate their homes and hideouts with religious pictures, they have cut themselves off from communion with the church and with God.
"When instead of adoring the Lord, one substitutes the adoration of money, one opens the path to sin, personal interests and exploitation," Pope Francis said to applause from an estimated 250,000 people gathered in a field near the town of Sibari. "When one does not adore the Lord God, one becomes an adorer of evil, like those who live lives of crime and violence."
"Your land, which is so beautiful, knows the signs and consequences of this sin. This is what the 'Ndrangheta is: the adoration of evil and contempt for the common good," Pope Francis said. The 'Ndrangheta is a crime syndicate based in Calabria.
The pope began his nine-hour visit to the diocese of Cassano allo Ionio meeting prisoners at the Rosetta Sisca jail in Castrovillari. At the jail, he met the father and grandmothers of Nicola Campolongo, a 3-year-old killed with his grandfather in January. The boy's parents and several other relatives are in jail on drug trafficking charges. Italian police said it appeared the boy was caught in the crossfire between rival clans over a drug deal.
In a speech to all the detainees and staff, Pope Francis called for prisons to offer programs aimed at rehabilitation: "When this objective is overlooked, the penalty becomes an instrument only of punishment and social retaliation, which damages both the individual and society."
The pope also told the prisoners to use their time in prison to think about the impact of their crimes on their families, society and their relationship with God.
"The Lord is a master at rehabilitation," the pope said. "He takes us by the hand and brings us back into the social community. The Lord always forgives, always accompanies, always understands; it is up to us to let ourselves be understood, forgiven and accompanied."
Before leaving, Pope Francis made his usual request for prayers, then added: "Because I, too, have done wrong and I, too, must repent."
The pope also visited a hospice for the terminally ill, where a doctor removed a small splinter from one of his fingers, according to Vatican Radio.
Although he did not give a formal speech at the facility, Italian news media quoted him as telling the staff, patients and their family members that holding and caressing someone are the best uses of one's hands. "Sickness is awful, but hands are powerful," he said. Through people's hands, "the caress from God's hands touches the depths of one's being."
Before having lunch with a group of poor families assisted by the diocesan Caritas and with participants in an addiction-recovery program, Pope Francis stopped in the diocesan cathedral for a meeting with priests.
The pope handed out copies of his prepared text, the Vatican said, and spent an hour personally greeting each priest and listening and responding to their questions.
In his prepared text, the pope urged them to remember "the joy of being priests," of being called by the Lord "to follow him and be with him in order to go out to others, sharing him, his word and his forgiveness."
Priests, he said, must be "open, generous channels through which his love and grace flow," and not "screens" where the priest is the star who blocks access to God.
Among the many pastoral concerns of priests, he said, the family must be a priority today. "It is a work the Lord asks us to do in a special way at this time, which is a difficult time both for the family as an institution and for families because of the (financial) crisis."
"It is precisely when times are tough," he said, that "God makes known to us his closeness, his grace and the prophetic power of his word."