Pope Francis condemned what he described as the “mafia” around the world that are “exploiting the pandemic” and “enriching themselves through corruption.”
The pontiff made the statement during his weekly address after praying the Angelus on March 21, from the Library of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.
The pope started his address by reminding the faithful of the observance of the “National Day of Remembrance and Commitment to Remembering the Victims of the Mafia”.
Italy’s Associazione Libera, a national anti-mafia organization, had been using the date to commemorate victims of mafia crimes since 1996.
“The mafia are present in various parts of the world and, exploiting the pandemic, they are enriching themselves through corruption,” the pope said.
In December, the Paris-based Interpol police co-ordination issued a global alert warning that organized criminal networks were targeting COVID-19 vaccines.
In March, South African police seized hundreds of fake vaccines and arrested four suspects.
Italian police say crime clans are using the pandemic to buy favor with poor families facing financial ruin, offering loans and food.
Mob loan sharks demanding exorbitant interest rates are bailing out businesses hit by the pandemic, police say.
“These structures of sin, mafia structures, contrary to Christ’s Gospel, exchange faith with idolatry,” said the pope.
In Italy, many members of organized crime see themselves as part of a religious, cult-like group, invoking the help of saints and using religious figurines or statues in initiation rites.
The southern town of Oppido Mamertina made headlines in 2014 when locals carrying a statue of the Madonna diverted the route of a procession to pause at the home of a mob boss and tilted the statue slightly as if to kneel in a sign of respect.
“Today, let us remember all the victims and renew our commitment against mafias,” Pope Francis said.
Pope Francis said St. John Paul II denounced the mafia’s “culture of death” while Pope Benedict XVI condemned them as “ways of death.”
“Today let us remember all the victims and let us renew our commitment against the mafia,” he added.
In 1993, Pope St. John Paul II issued what was internationally acclaimed as a “prophetic invective” against mafia mobsters during a visit to Agrigento in Sicily.
In his off-the-cuff remarks at the end of Mass, he demanded “mafiosi” to convert, change their ways or face the wrath of God’s final judgment.
Pope Benedict XVI also condemned Italy’s “ferocious” ‘Ndrangheta mafia during a visit to the group’s heartland in the southern region of Calabria on Oct. 9, 2011.
Addressing 40,000 people at a disused industrial site in Lamezia Terme, the pope said the crime families in Calabria were “tearing at the social fabric” in a region “which seems to be in a constant state of emergency.”
During a visit to the Sicilian city of Palermo the previous year, Pope Benedict called the mafia “a road of death, incompatible with the Gospel.”
In recent years, the Calabria-based ‘Ndrangheta has overtaken Sicily’s Cosa Nostra as the most feared and lucrative Italian crime group, making most of its money from drug trafficking.