Popes who cried out in anguish

Two popes, two anniversaries: Blessed Paul VI and St John Paul II (CNS)

The cry of the prophet is not the usual mode of contemporary preaching, including that of papal rhetoric. But this month two memorable anniversaries were marked in Italy when popes spoke with biblical power in a manner that reverberated across the nation.

Forty years ago, at the funeral of his dear friend, the former prime minister Aldo Moro, Blessed Paul VI shocked a grieving Italy when he publicly professed his frustration with God. It was the desolate lamentation of the prophets.

And 25 years ago, St John Paul II made a pastoral visit to Sicily. In 1993 Italy was gripped by a political crisis as massive corruption was revealed at the highest levels of politics. Thousands of politicians were found to have taken kickbacks.

Prosecutions of the organised crime led to lethal retaliation, with the mafia assassinating a prominent Sicilian judge in May 1992. A year later John Paul visited Sicily. While his prepared remarks were strong but measured, after Sunday Mass he denounced the mafia, his voice and body shaking with anger. It was the fierce denunciation of the prophets.

In 1978, Paul VI was approaching the 15th anniversary of his pontificate. The turmoil in the Church and the world had taken its toll. Terrorism was a present danger in Italy, and in March Aldo Moro was kidnapped by the Red Brigades.

The kidnapping shook the Holy Father to his core. He publicly pleaded for Moro’s release; privately he sought through intermediaries to arrange a ransom. It was reported that Paul VI even offered to take Moro’s place. But Moro was killed 55 days after his kidnapping. On May 13, 1978, Paul VI had the funeral at his own cathedral, St John Lateran in Rome, where he spoke in great torment:

And who can listen to our lament, if not you, O God of life and death? You did not hearken to our supplication for the safety of Aldo Moro, this good, meek, wise, innocent and friendly man; but you, O Lord, have not abandoned his immortal spirit, sealed by faith in Christ, who is the Resurrection and the life.

“You did not listen to my prayer”: such words on the lips of a pope shocked Italy. Even 40 years later the drama of those days is remembered. Pope Paul appeared crushed by a broken heart, a broken spirit. He kept his faith, but lost his strength. The holy man was dead less than three months later.

On the Fifth Sunday of Easter in 1993, John Paul celebrated the Holy Mass in the evocative setting of the Valley of Temples in Agrigento. Knowing that the mafia trials were gripping all of Sicily, John Paul clearly denounced “the culture of the mafia, which is a culture of death, profoundly inhuman, contrary to the Gospel, the enemy of the dignity of persons and civil life together.”

Then, after Mass was over, his spirit deeply troubled, the Holy Father spoke again, extemporaneously, now shaking his fist and his voice trembling with fury as he addressed the mafiosi directly: “In the name of this Christ, crucified and risen, of this Christ Who is Truth and Life, I say this to those responsible, I say to those responsible: convert yourselves! The judgment of God is coming!”

John Paul’s “cry against the mafia” was heard all over Italy, and echoes even today. For the anniversary on May 9, Pope Francis sent a telegram to the commemorations in Agrigento.

The mafia heard that cry too. In July, they gave their response. The pope’s cathedral, St John Lateran, was bombed with sufficient force to blow out all the windows in the neighbouring Lateran palace, seat of the Diocese of Rome. The church of San Giorgio in Velabro was also bombed.

Less than two months later, Fr Pino Puglisi, the most prominent anti-mafia priest in Sicily, was murdered by hitmen. The martyred priest, knowing that the Church would have to pay a price for John Paul’s denunciation, greeted his assassins with the words “I have been expecting you.”

Pino Puglisi was beatified in Palermo in 2013, the ceremony scheduled to mark the 20th anniversary of the papal visit.

The cry of the popes in the face of evil, the cry of anguish and anger, the cry of sorrow and severity. The cries echo still.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of

This article first appeared in the May 18th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here