Speaking to a gathering of tens of thousands of people at the power base of a highly dangerous organized crime group in Italy, Pope Francis Saturday condemned the mafia's "adoration of evil" and declared all mobsters as effectively excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
The pope traveled to, and held a mass in, the southern region of Calabria, the power base of the global drug trafficking syndicate 'Ndrangheta, to comfort the family of a 3-year-old boy who, along with his grandfather, was gunned down in a January shootout involving the mafia.
"Those who in their lives follow this path of evil, as mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated," Reuters quoted Pope Francis as saying in impromptu comments at the mass.
People connected with the mafia are highly religious. They often fund some of Roman Catholic Church's programs and seek the blessings of local priests, according to USA Today. In April, bishops in Calabria issues a statement calling the mafia a "cancer."
"This evil must be fought against, it must be pushed aside. We must say no to it," the pope said Saturday, denouncing it for its "adoration of evil and contempt of the common good."
"Our children are asking for it, our young people are asking for it. They are in need of hope and faith can help respond to this need," Francis added.
An anti-mafia prosecutor, Nicola Gratteri, has said the 'Ndrangheta views the pope's move to reform the church as a threat, and therefore could target Francis. "For many years, the mob has laundered money and made investments with the complicity of the church," Gratteri said.
Earlier on Saturday, Francis visited the relatives of the three-year-old boy in a prison and told the father: "May children never again have to suffer in this way," according to Vatican spokesman, Rev. Ciro Benedettini.
Last May, the pope urged mobsters to repent from enslaving people.
"My thoughts are with the suffering of women, men and also children who are exploited by the many mafias who make them slaves, through prostitution, through many social pressures," Francis said during a weekly address at St Peter's Square.
"Behind all this slavery, there are mafias… They cannot do this, they cannot make our brothers slaves, we must pray to the Lord to make these Mafiosi convert to God," the pope said the day after the beatification of a priest, Giuseppe Puglisi, who was murdered by the mafia two decades ago.
Puglisi, who worked among the poor, was gunned down by the Sicilian Mafia in 1993, months after Pope John Paul II visited Sicily and called on mobsters to "repent, because one day you will face the judgment of God."
Francis traveled to southern Italy despite concerns over his health. After Francis cancelled some of his obligations last week, some speculated he is facing some health issues.