Canon Law makes it clear that funerals should be refused to 'manifest sinners to whom a Church funeral could not be granted without public scandal to the faithful'

Last week saw the funeral in Rome of the 65-year-old alleged Mafia boss, Vittorio Casamonica, which took place in the Catholic parish church of Don Bosco in the Cinecittà district of the city. The funeral was extravagant in the extreme. A great many people in Rome are outraged by the way the family and associates of the late signor Casamonica were allowed to get away with it, and questions are being asked. So they should.

The questions are for the main part being directed at the civic authorities. In Italy, you need permission from the various branches of the police to do almost anything. So, for example, if you are going to have a funeral cortege of 250 cars, you need the permission of the Vigili Urbani, Rome’s traffic cops. If you are going to fly a helicopter overhead scattering rose petals, you need proper documentation. (The helicopter pilot who did this has reportedly had his licence removed.) Signor Casamonica’s son was released from house arrest to attend the funeral: who authorised this, and why? Putting up posters outside the Church proclaiming the deceased “King of Rome”, and announcing “First you conquered Rome, Now you conquer Heaven”, needs planning permission. Why didn’t the police remove these posters?

In all of this there is a stink of collusion between Mafia and city authorities, which is made worse by the recent scandal involving certain mafia bosses and politicians, which like all Italian scandals has its own name – Mafia Capitale – and which is incredibly difficult to follow.

So things look bad for the city authorities, but, if this were possible, they are much worse for the Church, which, on the whole, most Italians believe is sincerely opposed to Mafia power. (After all, several priests have been murdered by mafiosi in recent decades.)

The parish priest of Don Bosco defends himself by saying that what happened in the Church was a perfectly ordinary funeral (for which he received an offering of 50 euros), and what happened outside the Church in the street was beyond his control. This is true as far as it goes, but it obscures the fact that the priest should quite simply have refused to provide signor Casamonica with a funeral.

Canon Law makes it clear that funerals should be refused to “manifest sinners to whom a Church funeral could not be granted without public scandal to the faithful” (Canon 1184). That canon certainly applies here. As reports in the Italian press make clear, people are scandalised. The same canon also makes it clear that when a priest is in doubt, the bishop is to be consulted. The bishop of Rome is Pope Francis, who, as we know, has declared that the Mafia are excommunicated.

But the case is much worse than the Church simply presiding over a Mafia funeral, and the instrumentalisation and abuse of the sacraments that would go with that. It was outside this very church of Don Bosco that one of the most regrettable incidents of modern Italian Catholic history occurred, namely the funeral of Piergiorgio Welby, back in 2006. Welby campaigned for the right to die, and eventually killed himself with medical help; he requested a funeral in Don Bosco, his parish church, and it was refused by the Vicariate of Rome. Welby’s supporters, which included the Radical Party and other leading anti-clericals, then staged a secular funeral in the square outside the church. So now people in Italy are asking, why was Casamonica allowed into the Church, and Welby excluded?

Of course, Welby’s funeral was a politically charged event, but the Casamonica funeral was even more so. The Church, in allowing one, but not the other, has not just made a terrible public relations gaffe, but also appeared inconsistent, and not adhered to its own canons, while at the same time appearing pastorally insensitive. There was pastoral insensitivity to the friends and family of signor Welby, and, in another way, to the victims of the crimes committed by Casamonica.

What a terrible mess! What can we learn from this?

First of all, Canon Law exists for a reason. Therefore, follow it, and if in doubt, do what the canons suggest – consult your bishop. This really does make sense. It is not simply just a matter of covering your behind, though that may help too: it is also a matter of the Church being true to itself, and maintaining ecclesial communion. After all, mafiosi funerals should be refused everywhere, and I am sure many clergy in other parts of Italy have had their ministry made harder by this incident.

The next thing to remember is that funerals are essentially penitential occasions, when we pray for the deceased and ask pardon for his or her sins. They are not celebrations of the life of the deceased, though they should reflect that life. The Casamonica funeral was particularly grotesque, but we need to guard against the element of self-congratulation creeping into other ‘ordinary’ funerals.

Thirdly, the clergy really do need to prepare funerals properly. This means planning things with the family. My suspicion is that the parish priest of Don Bosco may not have realised what he was getting into: if he had had a fair idea of just who the late Vittorio Casamonica was, he might well have run a mile.