Martyrdom “in the Hands of God”

I have visited the Valley of the Temples in Akragas – today’s Agrigento (Sicily) – several times. It is one of the most breathtaking places of Magna Graecia (Great Greece) dating back to the fifth century BC, the golden age of the Greeks in Sicily, before the coming of the Carthaginians and the Romans.

Since 1993, the valley has not been the same for me. I covered John Paul II’s May 9, 1993, visit to the Valley of the Temples for Vatican Radio. All present were stunned when the pontiff went off script, harshly denouncing the Sicilian mafia during his homily in front of Temple of Concordia.

His visit made history: John Paul II became the first pope to ever to use the word mafia. Since that speech, the ambiguous relation between La Cosa Nostra and the Church was clarified (something not always clear in Southern Italy): the mafia and the Church were on opposite fronts. And those who fight and expose the mafia, including clergy and lay heroes like Judge Rosario Livatino, are the Church’s allies, fighting in the same trenches for justice: 

God once said: do not kill! Man cannot, any man, any group. . .the mafia, cannot change and trample on this most sacred law of God! . . . .This people, Sicilian people, attached to life, people who love life, who give life, cannot always live under the pressure of a contradictory civilization, civilization of death!. . . .In the name of this crucified and risen Christ, of Christ who is life, way, truth and life. I say it to those responsible: Convert! One day, the judgment of God will come!

Few know that St. John Paul II’s plea came after a private meeting with the parents of the slain judge Rosario Livatino, who is soon to be beatified. But the pontiff went a step further: he defined the 38-year-old judge murdered by the Stidda (the Star), a mafia criminal group in southern Sicily, as: “a martyr of justice and indirectly of the faith.”

Judge Livatino

When Livatino was killed, almost no one knew of the youthful, talented and exemplary judge working in Italy’s peripheries. The judge’s investigations dealt with the seizure and confiscation of property of illicit origin acquired by the Sicilian mafia. He did so while respecting the rights of the accused, with great professionalism, and with concrete results. And also, out of his commitment to the Catholic Faith.

In 2019, Pope Francis reflected on what judge Livatino wrote on the connection between Faith, Law, and Charity:   

To decide is to choose. . .and to choose is one of the most difficult things that man is called to do. And it is precisely in this choice to decide. . .that the believing magistrate can find a relationship with God. A direct relationship, because doing justice is self-realization, it is prayer, it is self-dedication to God. An indirect relationship, through love for the person judged. . . .And such a task will be all the lighter the more the magistrate will humbly be aware of his own weaknesses, the more he will present himself each time to society willing and inclined to understand the man in front of him and to judge him without the attitude of a superman, but rather with constructive contrition.

The Church’s fight against the mafia continued under Pope Benedict XVI and  Pope Francis, who in 2014 declared that “Those who follow this evil path in life, such as members of the mafia, are not in communion with God: they are excommunicated!” In 2020, Francis promulgated “the decrees regarding the martyrdom of the Servant of God Rosario Angelo Livatino, a lay faithful.” So, the road is open for Judge Livatino to be beatified, which marks the first-ever judge-martyr slain by the mafia to be declared “blessed.”

Theologically, the martyrdom of Judge Livatino is an indirect martyrdom of faith. This is a further instance of what JPII called the “new martyrs,” another model of martyrdom that arose during the 20th Century, when many died under conditions of ideological attack or large-scale social violence, even if at times indirectly related to the faith.

Police examine Judge Livatino‘s body

Since the fourth century, the Church has recognized two traditional pathways to canonization:  via martyrii (the way of martyrdom) and via virtutum (the way of virtues). In 2017, building on John Paul II’s “a martyr of justice and indirectly of the faith” specification, Pope Francis introduced a third path to canonization with an Apostolic Letter that specifies: “The offer of life is a new cause for the beatification and canonization procedure, distinct from the causes based on martyrdom and on the heroism of virtues.”

There are five criteria for evaluating an “offering of life”:  

a) a free and voluntary offer of life and heroic acceptance propter caritatem of a certain and untimely death; 

b) a nexus between the offer of life and premature death; 

c) the exercise, at least as ordinarily possible, of Christian virtues before the offer of life and, then, unto death; 

d) the existence of a reputation of holiness and of signs, at least after death; 

e) the necessity of a miracle for beatification, occurring after the death of the Servant of God and through his or her intercession.

The young, tough Sicilian judge offered his life, abundantly fulfilling the five criteria: he offered his life through his vocation of being a model judge, fighting against a public evil – the mafia – knowing  that death was imminent; a Christian judge who applied Christian virtues in his exercise of law; a judge who has demonstrated that Faith and Law or Gospel and the Code of Law can coexist if guided by the theological virtue of charity; a judge who placed his life and vocation as an anti-mafia judge Sub Tutela Dei (in the hands of God), the saying that Livatino often used in his diary.

Ines Angeli Murzaku is Professor of Church History at Seton Hall University. Her extensive research on the history of Christianity, Catholicism, Religious Orders, and Ecumenism has been published in multiple scholarly articles and five books. She edited and translated with Raymond L. Capra and Douglas J. Milewski, The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano, part of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Dr. Murzaku has been featured frequently in national and international media, newspapers, radio and TV interviews, and blogs. Her latest book is Mother Teresa: Saint of the Peripheries.