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Mafia, devotion and religious festivals: power between the sacred and the profane

by Rossella Merlino (University of Bath)

On the 17th of September 2006 the community of Campobello di Mazara near Trapani carried the statue of the Santissimo Crocifisso (Holy Crucifix) on an annual procession through the streets of the town. The procession stopped once in front of the church of the Madonna di Fatima, and again in front of the house of local mafia boss Francesco Luppino. As a police report described:

The procession of the Crucifix stopped, as a sign of deference, in front of the house of a subject who has been sentenced for double murder and mafia association. That day, although not being able to leave the house, Luppino left the entrance door open so that he was visible from the outside. As the Crucifix stood in front of Luppino’s door, all the members of the municipal band entered the house, along with other participants in the procession, including a number of local mafiosi[1].

Similarly, during the religious festival of Sant’Agata in February 2004, the procession came to a halt in front of the house of Giuseppe Mangion, notable mafia boss of Catania who had recently been released from prison. Undercover police reported that Mangion stood by the statue on the carriage and was among those privileged ones who carried the reliquary casket of the saint on their shoulders into the cathedral. In July 2012 Alessandro D’Ambrogio, mafia boss of the Ballarò mafia faction of Palermo, was seen playing a similar prominent role during the annual festival of the Madonna del Carmelo. A home video recorded on that occasion shows  not only how D’Ambrogio was given the honourable task of carrying the statue in procession wearing the confraternity vest, but how he was also the object of deference and attention by members of the local devout community[2].

These instances are by no means isolated. On the contrary, carrying the statue of the saint celebrated during local religious ceremonies, as well as playing principal characters in religious performances, is an honourable service that mafiosi have consistently appeared to retain. This is the case of mafia boss of Mussumeli, Giuseppe Genco Russo, who  became Superiore della Confraternita del Santissimo Sacramento in the 1940s in recognition of his services to the religious community[3]. Another example is that of his predecessor, mafia boss Calogero Vizzini, whose funeral in 1954 was solemnly celebrated in the main church of Villalba in the presence of political and religious authorities, and the civil community who attended the ceremony to show respect.

Examples like these are numerous and are remarkably evident throughout the history of the Sicilian mafia. Identifying and exploring this line of continuity is important to understand the reasons why specific cultural codes and practices within the mafia have remained unvaried, whilst structure and economic activities have changed substantially over time. In particular, it contributes to understanding the role that these codes play within the organisation at both a structural and an individual level.

The prominent roles demanded by mafiosi in religious processions may suggest an exploitative use of public ceremonies on the part of mafia bosses in order to acquire social consensus within Sicilian society. However, an interpretation of the mafia role in these public occasions simply in terms of conscious exploitation and solely within the parameters of the ‘moral’ universe of Cosa Nostra risks overlooking the significance that cultural values of wider external society have for mafia affiliates. On the other hand, assuming a correspondence between mafia codes and Sicilian culture might degenerate into yet another stereotype of the mafia as a set of cultural behaviours and attitudes, a paradigm that dominated interpretations of the phenomenon until the early 1980s[4]. Rather than ‘assimilation’, a ‘contextualisation’ of mafia religious practices within the socio-cultural fabric of Sicily is thus necessary to analyse the religious dimension of mafia behaviour in its specificity, while acknowledging the influence of the wider cultural dimension.

Analysed within the diachronic framework of ‘Sicilian religiosity’ – here meant as the result of a specific historical process in a particular socio-cultural and territorial context – festivals and processions in honour of patron saints reflect the characteristics of what Fr. Francesco Michele Stabile defined Cattolicesimo municipale (municipal Catholicism): a religious experience and organisation that ‘remained enclosed in the local and particular dimension of the municipality’[5]. It is a ‘devout and choreographic’ religious model in which loyalty and devotion to one’s patron saint are largely perceived as the main means through which to invoke intervention and receive help, irrespective of one’s moral commitment. Therefore, religious festivals in which local patron saints are celebrated have an enormous value for the community.

Reflecting the sociological positions of Emile Durkheim on religion, these religious rituals offer regular occasions for people to gather and reaffirm their social norms, collective life and historical narratives[6]. These gatherings create emotions and social energy, which further strengthen social bonds between ritual participants. It is in the midst of this ‘collective effervescence’[7] that mafia leaders project their roles in ways that create psychological identification and cultural extension with their audience, thereby acquiring legitimisation with, and power over, the observing community at large, including mafia affiliates at the lower echelons. By financing, organising and playing prominent roles in these collective ceremonies throughout its history, the mafia has consistently presented itself as repository of traditional values that are central to the cultural dimension of wider society. As a result, not only has Cosa Nostra managed to achieve consensus with the external community but, for a long time, it has also met the support of members of the clergy; a support which has demonstrably played a fundamental role both at a personal level for individual mafia affiliates, and for the mafia organisation as a whole.

[1]  Regione Carabinieri Sicilia, Stazione di Campobello di Mazara, police report dated 17 September 2006.

[2] Riccardo Lo Verso, ‘Tutti dietro la bara per omaggiare il boss’, LiveSicilia, 3 August 2012. The video is available at

[3] Isaia Sales, I preti e i mafiosi: storia dei rapporti tra mafie e Chiesa cattolica (Milan: B.C. Dalai, 2010), p. 47.

[4] Until the early 1980s, the major interpretative paradigm had been that of the mafia as neither an organisation nor a secret society, but as a ‘method’ and an ‘attitude’ of loosely connected criminal groups sharing a common ‘subculture’. See Pino Arlacchi, Mafia, peasants and great estates: society in traditional Calabria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Jane and Peter Schneider, Culture and political economy in western Sicily (New York; London: Academic Press, 1976); Anton Blok, The Mafia of a Sicilian village, 1860-1960: a study of violent peasant entrepreneurs (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974); Henner Hess, Mafia and mafiosi: the structure of power (Farnborough, Hants, England: Lexington Books, 1973).

[5]Francesco Michele Stabile, ‘Cattolicesimo siciliano e mafia’, Synaxis 14, no. 1 (1996):13-55 (15-16).

[6] Emilie Durkheim, The elementary forms of the religious life, transl. Carol Cosman, new ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[7] Ibid., 164.

Rossella Merlino is Teaching Fellow in Italian Studies at the University of Bath. She holds a PhD in Italian Studies from the University of Strathclyde. Her doctoral research focused on the role of religion in the transcultural dimension of the Sicilian mafia, contextualised within the wider socio-historical background of Italy from Unification to present day. She has published articles in Modern Italy and in the International Journal of the Humanities.


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This entry was posted on November 4, 2013 by in Voices.
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