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A bishop in the southern Italian region of Calabria has ordered an end to all religious processions in his diocese after 30 men carrying a large statue of the Madonna and hundreds of people accompanying the statue paused and bowed in front of the house of a mafia godfather last Sunday.
Bishop Francesco Milito of Oppido Mamertina-Palmi said that those who bowed outside the house of Giuseppe Mazzagatti, an 82-year-old convicted murderer whose clan fed a man alive to pigs, "are clearly far from even a minimum spirit of pure, correct and authentic faith."
The bow, he said, was a "gesture of blasphemous devotion that is the opposite of what is due to the mother of God."
His condemnation came after Pope Francis on a visit to a mafia powerbase last month said mafiosi were “excommunicated” because “their lives follow this path of evil”.
In protest at the men’s “salute”, the local commander of the Carabinieri, the Italian military police, and members of his squad who had been accompanying the procession with the statue of Our Lady of Grace left the procession.
Bishop Milito announced that all processions would be suspended until diocesan leaders could work out rules and procedures for preventing their abuse.
July and August are the most popular months for the religious processions, which remain a key part of annual celebrations in cities, towns and neighbourhoods.
Bishop Milito said the decision should not be read as "a gesture of mistrust or judgment of those who contribute with dedication and righteousness to processions."
Bishop Milito told SIR, the Italian bishops' news agency, that "the lack of a correct reaction on the part of participants in the procession, including clergy and people active in the life of the church," shows just how "hardened and dulled" people's consciences are to the evil that is organised crime.
Following the Pope’s strongly worded comments some mafiosi in prison have reacted by refusing to attend Mass.
But the Holy See has attempted to backtrack saying that mafiosi were not excommunicated formally under church law. Instead, the Pope meant the criminals they had effectively excommunicated themselves because they had distanced themselves from God, the Vatican said.
Prison chaplain Marco Colonna told Italian newspaper La Repubblica: “Some prisoners came to me and asked me if they should consider themselves excommunicated, saying they would stop coming to Mass. I tried to explain to them that the Church doesn't kick anyone out, and after a few days of reflection, I told them that they would continue to receive the sacrament.”