Lost in all the news coverage about the Second Coming of the King — James, that is, he of the miraculous slam dunk — was a story out of Cassano all’Jonio, Italy, that must be giving a local king (of sorts), organized crime leader Lenine “Lenny” Strollo, sleepless nights.
While LeBron James’ return to the Cleveland Cavaliers grabbed the headlines, an edict from Pope Francis was just as significant — for the Mahoning Valley, which has yet to shed its reputation as a haven for the Mafia.
Last month, the pope ventured into the heart of Italy’s biggest crime syndicate, met with the father of a 3-year-old boy killed in the region’s drug war, and made the following declaration:
“Those who go down the evil path, as the Mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated.”
During his one-day pilgrimage to the southern region of Calabria, Francis comforted the imprisoned father of Nicola Campolongo in the courtyard of a prison in the town of Castrovillari.
In January, the boy was shot, along with one of his grandfathers and the grandfather’s girlfriend, in an attack blamed on drug turf wars in the nearby town of Cassano all’Jonio. The attackers torched the car with all three victims inside.
The boy’s father and mother already were in jail at the time on drug trafficking charges. Though news stories of the visit focused on the Mafia in Italy, there can be no doubt about the reach of the pope’s declaration.
Which brings us to the Mahoning Valley.
Although the mob no longeris actively involved in murder and mayhem, and even though Strollo is officially designated a federal government informant and witness (snitch), he and others who took the blood oath remain Mafioso.
And that means they would have been looking forward to a Mass of Christian burial so as to be spared a certain one-way ticket to hell.
It’s no accident that members of the Mafia have traditionally given a lot of money to the Catholic Church. It buys forgiveness — especially when it’s time to meet your maker.
Until last month’s papal declaration, Mafia boss Strollo had every reason to expect a burial Mass. After all, a rival mob boss who was killed after Strollo got the green light for the hit from the Mafia bigwigs in New York City left this world with all the blessings of the Catholic Church.
Indeed, the burial of Joseph N. “Little Joey” Naples at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Brier Hill was a major news event. That’s because Mafiosi from Pittsburgh and Cleveland showed up in church to hear the parish priest, Father John DeMarinis, talk about Naples being a loving, wonderful family man who not only supported his community, but also his church.
There was no mention of the fact that Naples, like Strollo and all other mob bosses, used murder as the ultimate weapon against enemies real or imagined.
But, the Catholic Church’s practice of forgiving the sins of society’s dregs was called into question when one of the nation’s most famous Mafia bosses, New York’s John Gotti (“The Dapper Don”) died and his family sought to have the burial Mass in St. Patrick Cathedral. The bishop slammed the iconic church’s doors on the former head of the Gambino family.
Now, Pope Francis, whose brief tenure as head of the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide has been marked by his willingness to take on highly controversial issues, has issued an edict that can be summed up thus: You Mafiosi are going to burn in the fires of hell.
Strollo, who undoubtedly is taking stock of his life and probably regretting the testimony he gave in court about murder just being business, faces the reality that excommunication from the Catholic Church means his sins won’t be forgiven by a priest.
During his visit to Cassano all’Jonio last month, Pope Francis denounced the Italian Mafia for what he called its “adoration of evil and contempt for the common good.”
That denunciation fits Strollo and other members of the Mahoning Valley La Cosa Nostra like a glove.
For years, they personified evil, only to receive the church’s blessing when they died.
Parish priests in the Mahoning Valley must know that they will be opening themselves up to harsh criticism if they even think about giving mobsters a God-filled send off.
The days of buying absolution are gone.