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<<enter caption here>> on March 23, 2013 in Rome, Italy. <> on March 23, 2013 in Rome, Italy.  

Pope Flies Helicopter Into Mafia Stronghold

Pope Francis is taking on the most powerful criminal organization in the world–the Calabrian mafia known as the ‘Ndrangheta.

Calabria, a crime-ridden region in southern Italy, is controlled by the ‘Ndrangheta, but that isn’t stopping Francis from flying in by helicopter on Saturday. Francis has taken a firm stand against organized crime, and was the first pope to hold a prayer vigil with anti-mafia group Libera in March.

“There is still time not to end up in hell, which awaits you if you continue on this road,” he pleaded with mobsters. “You had a papa and a mamma. Think of them, weep a little and convert.”

Francis reportedly supports priests who deny Catholic funerals to known mafiosi, like Sicilian bishop Antonio Raspanti, who forbade them in his diocese last year.

“If it were not part of Italy, Calabria would be a failed state,” read a leaked diplomatic cable from 2008. “The ‘Ndrangheta organized crime syndicate controls vast portions of its territory and economy, and accounts for at least three percent of Italy’s GDP (probably much more) through drug trafficking, extortion and usury. … No one believes the central government has much, if any, control of Calabria, and local politicians are uniformly seen as ineffective and/or corrupt.”

Despite efforts from local prosecutors, things have not improved.

In 2012 the Italian government had to sack Reggio Calabria’s entire city council, including the mayor, over suspected criminal ties. Just days before Francis’ arrival, 17 were arrested for usury and extortion. The ‘Ndrangheta have infiltrated the clergy, too, with several priests currently under investigation for mafia ties. The problem is serious enough that local bishops now require seminarians to study organized crime in a course called “The Church and the ‘Ndrangheta.”

Francis is making the trip amid rumors of ill health, having canceled audiences and visits in recent months. The Vatican maintains that he is healthy, however, saying that if the 77-year-old were sick “we would be open about that and asking people to pray for him.” He skipped the annual Corpus Christi procession through Rome on Thursday, with officials explaining that the pontiff has difficulty walking long distances (the procession is about a mile long).

But his Saturday schedule remains packed. While there he plans to visit a prison, a hospice, a retirement home, meet with local priests, lunch with the poor, and offer mass–all in just twelve hours. ”Try doing half of what he does,” said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi. “You’d think you were Superman.”

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