Toward the end of Godfather I, Michael Corleone is in church taking the vow as godfather to sister Connie’s son. With dramatic organ music playing, the priest intones, “Do you renounce Satan…and all his works…and all his pomps?” — while the heads of the competing mafia families are all being obliterated at the behest of Michael. He simultaneously becomes godfather to an infant and Godfather to the reigning Corleone family—il capo dei capi.
Godfathers and godmothers have been around since the early days of Christianity when the Church was under persecution from the Roman Empire and had to prevent pagan infiltration. Godparents had various roles: To attest to the integrity of the adult individual receiving the Sacraments of Initiation; to serve as critical spiritual guides if parents of a child were martyred and needed direction in the Faith; and to protect the church’s doctrine from paganism and persecution. After 800 CE, when infant baptism became commonplace, the role of the godparent changed to what we generally understand it to mean today: They are adults who commit themselves to assist parents in teaching the Catholic Faith to children.
Now the appointment of godparents is coming under scrutiny in the land that is home to the Catholic Church. The diocese of the Sicilian city of Catania enacted in October 2021 a three-year ban on naming godparents at baptisms and christenings. Church officials claim that the tradition has lost any spiritual significance. Instead, they say, it has become a way for families to improve their fortunes by making advantageous connections, sometimes with shady local characters. Not only do many godfathers lack the faith, but many live sinful or criminal lives. In some cases, the position has been used for social blackmail and usury.
While church officials say that the primary reason to eliminate godparents is due to the secularization of the position, the influence of the mafia has also played a major role. Some parish priests have welcomed the bans to give them a rest from questionable characters threatening them into naming specific godfathers. In fact, Italian prosecutors have tracked baptisms to show how underworld bosses spread influence. In Reggio Calabria, the birthplace of the ‘Ndrangheta, the archbishop proposed a 10-year ban on the practice because it is ripe for exploitation by mobsters. In Aci Trezza, a town about 10 km north of Catania, the diocese allows godparents, but requires them to sign forms swearing that they are believers and not Mafia members.
In 2014, Pope Francis took a stand against organized crime by excommunicating all mafiosi. He has recently been approached by clergy in southern Italy who want his support on the question of godparents. Michele Pennisi, the archbishop in Monreale, which is near Palermo, is a vocal mafia critic and challenges the idea that crime bosses have a paternal side: “The mafia has always taken the term godfather from the Church to give its bosses an air of religious respectability.” In 2008 Pennisi received death threats from the mob after he banned religious funerals for known gangsters. Earlier this year, he condemned the decision of a local priest to let the son of the infamous mobster, Toto Riina, become his niece’s godfather.
The priest was from the notorious village of Corleone, which was made famous by Mario Puzo’s novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s movie, The Godfather. The confrontation between priest and archbishop led Pennisi to ban anyone convicted of “dishonorable crimes” from acting as a godparent. But will the entrenched culture of omertà—the code of silence—make these rulings hard to enforce?