The parish priest of this bleak industrial suburb was doing something that, until fairly recently, Italy's Roman Catholic Church has tended to shy away from. He was talking about the Mafia.

"It's easier for the magistrates; they have escorts of armed men to protect them wherever they go," said the Rev. Francesco Stabile quietly. "But ordinary people have no protection against an organization that seems to hold the power of life and death. There is still a lot of fear." Born and brought up in Bagheria, a satellite town on the outskirts of the Sicilian capital Palermo, Stabile is one of a small but growing band of Catholic priests in the forefront of the struggle against the Mafia. His aim is to show that there is nothing honorable about a criminal network that likes to depict itself as "the Honored Society."

The activities of Stabile, 45, and priests like him are also significant because they reflect a profound change in the attitudes of the Roman Catholic Church toward the Mafia. After remaining silent for many years in the face of what they regarded as a "lesser evil" to communism, church leaders from the pope down are now vigorously attacking such Mafia-bred institutions as the vendetta or omerta, the Sicilian code of silence.

In a speech earlier this month in the southern Italian region of Calabria on the mainland facing Sicily, Pope John Paul II called upon his listeners to abandon the code of omerta, "which binds so many people in a type of squalid complicity dictated by fear." Similar appeals have been made by the head of the Catholic Church in Sicily, Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo. The encouragement given by both the pope and the cardinal to the anti-Mafia priests contrasts with the attitude of one of Pappalardo's predecessors, who insisted in a sermon that there was no such thing as the Mafia.

"Never before has the church taken such a strong position against the Mafia as it does today," remarked the Rev. Ennio Pintacuda, a Jesuit sociologist from Palermo. "In the past, many members of the clergy tolerated the Mafia because it helped maintain order and promoted the cult of the family. These values were appreciated by the church."

In the traditional Sicilian mountain village, political power was shared by four men: the mayor, the police chief, the priest and the capomafia or local Mafia chieftain. But this cosy arrangement gradually broke down as the Mafia moved to the cities and involved itself in such purely criminal areas as the drugs trade.

The activist priests got a moral boost earlier this month when Italian authorities launched a major crackdown against suspected Mafiosi following the confessions of a former Palermo gang leader, Tommaso Buscetta. It was the first time that a ranking Mafia member had voluntarily cooperated with the police.

The Associated Press reported from Palermo that police arrested 56 more suspected gangsters Thursday in the continuing investigation triggered by Buscetta's testimony.

The turning point for Stabile came several years ago with a sudden increase in violent killings in the outlying suburbs of Palermo as rival Mafia gangs fought for control of the narcotics trade. Much of the bloodshed was concentrated in the region around Bagheria, sandwiched between the mountains and the sea, which became known as "the triangle of death."

Shocked by the killings, Stabile organized protest marches and began to denounce the Mafia from his pulpit. He tries to encourage other priests in surrounding parishes to be more outspoken, but also recognizes the obstacles.

He explained: "We have to be very careful when talking about omerta. When people are able to read newspaper reports practically every other day of Mafia killings, it's easy to see why they keep silent or choose to avert their eyes. Under these conditions, it's a perfectly natural reaction to ask, 'Why should I draw attention to myself?' "

While priests like Stabile have become accustomed to receiving vague threats, up until now they have been spared the kind of bloody Mafia reprisals that have been visited upon policemen or magistrates who knew too much. There is almost an unwritten understanding that the priests will be left alone as long as they limit their denunciations to the general phenomenon of the Mafia rather than the specific interests of individual Mafiosi.

The most recent, and perhaps most sensitive, campaign by Catholic activists has been directed against the Christian Democratic Party, which has been in power in Sicily continuously since World War II. A growing number of priests and laymen are now opposed to the church's identification with a party whose reputation has been seriously tarnished by allegations of links with the Mafia.

"We cannot be a church of just one political party. Just because a party calls itself Christian, that's no reason why we should automatically support it. What matters are its policies," Stabile said.

In testimony to magistrates, Buscetta accused a former Christian Democratic mayor of Palermo of taking his orders from Mafia bosses. The former mayor, Vito Ciancimino, has now been formally told that he is under judicial investigation for his alleged Mafia links.