ROME — Pope Francis has driven into Rio de Janeiro with his car window rolled down, visited a Brazilian slum and walked right through the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Sign up for breaking news alerts from NBC News
But on Saturday, the apparently fearless pontiff faced dangerous territory he hasn’t ventured into before: the stronghold of the Italy’s most powerful and violent Mafia.
The pope paid a one-day visit to the small town of Cassano all'Ionio in the southern region of Calabria, where a 3-year-old child was brutally shot dead in January, allegedly by the ‘Ndrangheta, the local and powerful Mafia.
Nicola “Coco” Campolongo was killed alongside his grandfather and another man in what was believed to be an execution caused by an unpaid drug debt between rival clans.
“Never again should a child suffer so much. I always pray for him, don’t despair.”
Their bodies were then burnt beyond recognition when the car was set on fire.
Shocked by this gruesome murder, Pope Francis called for the killer to come forward and “repent.”
“There is still time not to end up in hell, which awaits you if you continue on this road,” Pope Francis said in March, after a meeting with a number of relatives of Mafia victims.
“You had a papa and a mamma. Think of them, weep a little and convert.”
The strong condemnation of the Mafia that was reminiscent of John Paul II’s 1993 outburst in Sicily, from where he warned mobsters: "I say to those responsible: Convert! One day, the judgment of God will arrive!"
As Pope Francis’ plea has gone unanswered, he decided to pay a visit to the mafia-ridden region.
On Saturday, he visited a local prison where Coco’s father, Nicola Campolongo, is serving an 8-year jail sentence for drug dealing.
“Never again should a child suffer so much,” the pope told Coco’s relatives on Saturday. “I always pray for him, don’t despair.”
Known for keeping a low profile, the ‘Ndrangheta may not be as famous as Sicily’s “Cosa Nostra or Naples’ “Camorra,” but it is considered the most violent, powerful and rich of them all. With an estimated annual turnover of $72 billion, its businesses account for 3.5% of the Italian economy, according to the Italian research firm Demoskopika.
The fascination by the Mafia with the Catholic Church goes beyond the tradition of calling bosses Godfathers. Allegations about organized crime using accounts in the Vatican Bank for money laundering have been rife for decades.
With Pope Francis cracking down on suspicious accounts and keen to clean up the murky dealings within the so-called “God’s bank,” some believe he has become a Mafia target.
Last fall, a local prosecutor, Nicola Gratteri, said the pope’s drive to reform the church was making the ‘Ndrangheta “very nervous.”
“I cannot say if the organization is in a position to do something like this, but they are dangerous and it is worth reflecting on,” Gratteri warned. “If the godfathers can find a way to stop him, they will seriously consider it.”
First published June 21 2014, 9:09 AM