- Pope Francis wants the mafia to stop using the Virgin Mary for its own gains
- The Pontifical International Marian Academy is working against the practice
- 'Ndrangheta meet at the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Polsi in Calabria mountains
The Vatican has set up a council to stop the Mafia from using the Virgin Mary as a prop to claim it has God on its side.
The department will work to teach children and families a true theology of Mary with a team of around 40 church and civil leaders, including Italian judges, for 'study, research, and teaching'.
It aims to 'restore the purity of the image of Jesus and Mary which comes from the Gospels,' according to Father Stefano Cecchin, the President of the Pontifical International Marian Academy.
Pope Francis offered his support in a letter last month. He hoped the Madonna could be freed from 'superstructures, powers or conditioning that does not correspond to the Gospel criteria of justice, liberty, honesty, and solidarity'.
The Virgin Mary has been used by the Mafia as a symbol of servitude for centuries.
The words of the bible were twisted, Fr Cecchin said, because the mother of Jesus Christ was forced to bend to the will of God when she was told she was carrying his child.
Fr. Stefano Cecchin told the Catholic News Agency: 'In the mafia framework, this is what the figure of Mary has become.
'The figure of a human being who must be submissive, therefore a slave, accepting the will of God, the will of the bosses, the will of the mafia leaders.'
Statues of the Blessed Virgin are forced to take detours to stop and bow before the houses of mob bosses during processions, something known as the Inchino, to show submission to the crime syndicates.
The Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Polsi, a Catholic shrine in the Calabria mountains, has been used for more than a century by the 'Ndrangheta, a crime syndicate thought to be responsible for at least three per cent of Italy's GDP in 2010.
The 'Ndrangheta host their 'crimini' or councils at the shrine and in Reggio Calabria a boss from the 'Ndrangheta crime group was sworn in under an image of the Virgin Mary.
Pope Francis sent the letter on August 15, the day the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Assumption of Mary - the day Jesus Christ's mother went to heaven in body and soul.
There are three main branches of the mafia in Italy: The Camorra crime syndicate in Naples, the 'Ndrangheta in the Calabria region, and the Sicilian Mafia.
Father Cecchin said the mafia use Catholicism 'to teach the people that God is with them. So they also want to use people's religious feelings not to lead them to be free, but slaves.'
The department's first conference later this month will be attended by judges, lawyers and law enforcement officers as well as priests and theologians.
'The Sanctuary of the Madonna di Polsi was the central meeting point of all the godfathers of the 'Ndranghetta, every year they were meeting there,' Sergio Nazzaro, an Italian journalist, writer and adviser to the Parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission, told OCCRP.
'Why? Because they could show themselves before the people and say they are the church in their own way.'
Italy is not the only country where organised crime groups use the Virgin Mary. It is also common in other Catholic majority countries such as Mexico and Brazil.
During a speech in the valley of Sibari in Calabria, Pope Francis previously spoke out against the mafia.
He said: 'Evil must be fought, you have to say no. The Church must always work so that good might prevail. Mafiosi are excommunicated, they are not in communion with God.'