VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis has given his full backing to attempts to "liberating" the figure of the Virgin Mary from "abuse" by association in some mafia-style criminal rituals.
The head of the Catholic Church said in a letter released Thursday that devotion to the Blessed Mother needed to be freed from "the influence of criminal organizations."
The letter to the Vatican-based Pontifical International Marian Academy -- which sets up links between international theologians in the study of the Virgin Mary -- commended the academy for creating a department to study criminal and mafia phenomena.
The use of the figure of the holy saint must be freed from "superstructures, powers or conditioning that does not correspond to the Gospel criteria of justice, liberty and honesty," Pope Francis said in the letter, sent on Saturday.
Religious processions in southern Italy are sometimes still marked with the statue of the Virgin making a stop in front of the home of a local mob boss.
"In Italy and elsewhere Marian and other Catholic devotions are often maliciously incorporated into mafia rituals, in a distortion of authentic spirituality," the Vatican News website said.
Since his election in 2013 Pope Francis has attacked mafia groups head-on and in June stepped up his battle against corruption in the Vatican.
Speaking in Palermo in Sicily in 2018 he denounced the mafia's "blasphemous existence" during a trip to honor a priest murdered by the mob in 1993, while trying to save youngsters from poor neighborhoods from falling in criminal hands.
"You can't believe in God and belong to the mafia. Those who belong to the mafia don't lead a Christian existence because their lives are blasphemous," the pope told an open mass near Palermo's port at the time.
In Naples, a traditional stronghold of the Camorra mafia clan, the pope in 2015 condemned organizations that "exploit and corrupt the young, the poor and the underprivileged", adding that "corruption stinks."
In Calabria a year before he called on Catholics to "fight" the ultra-powerful 'Ndrangheta and even excommunicate its members.
Excommunication is the severest penalty for Catholics, banishing them from the spiritual life and sacraments of the church, with local priests already having censured mafia members in the past.