Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo

Anti-Mafia Sicilian priest
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The Independent Online

Salvatore Pappalardo, priest: born Villafranca Sicula, Italy 23 September 1918; ordained priest 1941; Counsellor, Vatican Secretariat of State 1947-65; Apostolic Pro-nuncio, Indonesia 1965-69; President, Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, Rome 1969-70; Archbishop of Palermo 1970-96 (Emeritus); named a Cardinal 1973; died Palermo, Italy 10 December 2006.

Salvatore Pappalardo, former Archbishop of Palermo, was the first Sicilian churchman to break the local omertà, or code of silence, to speak out against the island's powerful Mafia. His condemnation of the Cosa Nostra which effectively ruled Sicily through most of the 20th century brought death threats, and forced him to use bulletproof cars and police escorts.

His outspoken attacks on the mafiosi, later echoed by Pope John Paul II during his 1994 visit to Sicily, began in the early 1990s after a string of assassinations of anti-Mafia prosecutors, carabinieri (police) and priests. Until then, the island's Catholic church had been silent in the face of Mafia killings and some would say even complicit in Mafia-controlled corruption.

As a close confidant of three successive pontiffs, Pappalardo had been a strong candidate for pope in the conclave of cardinals of October 1978, following the sudden death of John Paul I, which eventually elected Karol Wojtyla - Pope John Paul II. In a cover story on the succession, Time magazine wrote: "There has not been a Sicilian pope in 12 centuries. But Salvatore Pappalardo could surmount that prejudice."

He spent the last years of his life working towards a Sicilian "renaissance," joining local politicians, businessmen and other notables in trying to rebuild the island's image, erasing the one portrayed to the world by Mario Puzo's 1969 novel The Godfather and the series of films based on it.

Salvatore Pappalardo was born in the small town of Villafranca Sicula, in the diocese of Agrigento, in 1918. He was ordained as a priest in 1941 in Rome, where his diplomatic skills came to the notice of the Vatican. From 1947 until 1965, he served first in the Vatican's Secretariat of State, then as a privy chamberlain of Pope John XXIII, and later domestic prelate, effectively a secretary, to Paul VI.

In 1965, he was elected titular archbishop of the diocese of Mileto, in the southern Italian region of Calabria, but sent to Indonesia on 7 December that year as papal pro-nuncio, where he served until illness forced his return in 1969. The following year, he was named Archbishop of Palermo, a title he held until his retirement in 1996. He had been proclaimed Cardinal by Pope Paul VI in 1973.

As Archbishop of Palermo, Pappalardo won praise for providing his diocese's small Muslim community, who at the time had no mosque, with a disused church in which to worship. He came under heavy criticism from Italian Jews after he said, at the funeral of the slain anti-Mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone in 1992, that his killers were part of a "synagogue of Satan". He later publicly apologised, saying he had used the word synagogue "in the old sense, as a gathering place".

Pappalardo had avoided publicly addressing the issue of Mafia murders and corruption until the carabinieri general Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, a hero in Italy for his part in defeating Red Brigades guerrillas, was ambushed and killed, along with his new bride, in Palermo in 1982. At the memorial service, the cardinal still avoided mentioning the Mafia but criticised the Rome government for failing to guarantee security in Sicily.

A decade later, in 1992, after Falcone and his wife were killed by a bomb placed on their car route, Pappalardo for the first time hinted strongly what all Italy knew - that the Cosa Nostra were to blame. A year later, after a well-known anti-Mafia priest, Giuseppe Puglisi, was shot dead in Palermo, the cardinal finally shattered the omertà. "The Mafia can be eradicated only if the whole people of Sicily rise up in solidarity against its power."

Strongly backed by Pope John Paul II, he became more emboldened and outspoken over the years. After his retirement, he campaigned to "clean-up" his native island and, in 1999, became Honorary President of the Sicilian Renaissance Institute, a non-governmental, non-profit group of both Sicilians and Americans, mostly of Sicilian origin, who aim to outweigh and eventually squeeze out the mafiosi.

In further co-operation with the Americans, specifically the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, Pappalardo was instrumental in bringing a badly needed state-of-the-art organ transplant hospital to Sicily.

Phil Davison