Pope Francis waves to onlookers after celebrating Mass on Sibari's esplanade before departing by helicopter, 21 June 2014. The Pontiff spent his day visit to the Calabria region in southern Italy by meeting por people, victims of violence and imprisoned people. (Francesco Arena/EPA)

Pope Francis on Saturday issued the strongest attack on organized crime groups by a pontiff in two decades, accusing them of practicing “the adoration of evil” and saying mafiosi are excommunicated.

It was the first time a pope had used the word excommunication — a total cutoff from the Catholic Church — in direct reference to members of organized crime.

“Those who in their lives follow this path of evil, as mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated,” he said in impromptu comments at a Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in one of Italy’s most crime-infested areas.

To sustained applause he told the crowd: “This evil must be fought against, it must be pushed aside. We must say no to it.” He branded the local crime group, the ’Ndrangheta, as an example of the “adoration of evil and contempt of the common good” and said the church would exert its full force in efforts to combat organized crime.

“Our children are asking for it, our young people are asking for it. They are in need of hope and faith can help respond to this need,” he said.

Pope Francis lambasted the Calabrian mafia Saturday in southern Italy, condemning them as full of "adoration of evil and contempt for the common good." (Reuters)

Vatican spokesman Ciro Benedettini said the pope’s stern words did not constitute a formal decree of canon law regarding excommunication. Rather, he said it was more of a direct message to members of organized crime that they had effectively excommunicated themselves, reminding them that they could not participate in church sacraments or other activities because they had distanced themselves from God through their criminal actions.

Still, the use of the highly charged word by a pope was significant because many members of organized crime in Italy see themselves as part of a religious, cultlike group, take part in sacraments, go to church and, in some cases, have also found complicity by some clerics in the south.

The pope, Benedettini said, was trying to “isolate mafiosi within their own communities,” sending a message that they should not in any way be looked up to as “men of honor.”

In 1993, Pope John Paul II warned members of the Sicilian Mafia that they would “one day face the justice of God.” The mafia responded several months later with bomb attacks against several churches in Rome.

Francis spoke in a homily at the end of a day-long trip to the southern region of Calabria, home of the home of the mafia-style ’Ndrangheta that investigators say has spread around the world.

— Reuters