By FRANCES D'EMILIO
The Associated Press
Sunday, October 3, 2010; 3:59 PM
PALERMO, Sicily -- Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday hailed as a hero a slain priest who dared to challenge the Mafia in its stronghold, and he encouraged Sicilians not to resign themselves to deep-rooted evil on an island where organized crime has held sway for centuries.
"The temptation toward discouragement, to resignation, comes to those who are weak in faith, to those who confuse evil with good, to those who think that, faced with often profound evil, there is nothing to do," Benedict told tens of thousands of faithful at Mass at a sunshine-drenched park alongside Palermo's waterfront.
The pope later lamented the "barbarous" 1993 murder of the Rev. Giuseppe "Pino" Puglisi, who stirred consciences with his anti-Mafia preaching in one of Palermo's most heavily mobster-infested poor neighborhoods.
In a speech in Palermo's cathedral, which dates back to the 12th century, Benedict urged priests to keep Puglisi's memory alive by "imitating his heroic example."
Since Puglisi was gunned down by the Mafia, his supporters have been clamoring for the Vatican to officially proclaim him a martyr and so streamline the process that had begun several years ago for beatification and possible sainthood.
Among those recently backing an appeal for the pope to beatify Puglisi were Oscar-winning director Giuseppe Tornatore and Italian novelist Dacia Maraini.
But Benedict made no mention of the beatification process nor of martyrdom, recognition which would eliminate the requirement for a miracle to be attributed to Puglisi's intercession for beatification.
Earlier in the one-day visit, Benedict lamented that many Sicilians endured "physical and moral suffering because of organized crime."
"I am here to give you strong encouragement not to be afraid to clearly give witness to human and Christian values," the pope said.
Benedict also urged young people to resist the Mafia and its "path to death."
But Benedict did not directly take to task the mobsters themselves, as his predecessor, John Paul II, did in 1993, in one of the most emotional and vehement denunciations of that long papacy.
Then, in a valley of ancient temples near Agrigento, John Paul in a trembling voice, lashed out in improvised remarks at Mafiosi, demanding that they convert from their evil ways or suffer the wrath of God. Sicilians were shocked a year earlier by twin bombings by the Mafia that killed the island's two top prosecutors.
Benedict, as he was being driven to Palermo airport for his flight back to Rome, stopped at the spot along the highway where one of the bombs went off, killing prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, his wife and some of his bodyguards in 1992. The pope got out of his car, put some flowers at the spot and prayed, the Vatican said.
On his 1993 trip, John Paul had urged Sicily's priests to rally the faithful against organized crime. A few months later, Puglisi was fatally shot in the neck in the neighborhood where he tried to galvanize young people to turn their backs on organized crime.
Young people have recently been the main engine behind an anti-extortion campaign that gave shopkeepers across the island the courage to refuse to pay the mob so-called "protection money."
The admiration for the Palermo priest who worked with young people contrasts with growing reprobation among Italian faithful of clergy accused of sexually abusing minors.
The Italian news agency ANSA reported that police along the route Benedict took through the city snatched away a sign held by an elderly man saying "defend children, not priests," a reference to scandals that church hierarchy sought to cover up the abuse.