ROME -- Brushing aside worries about his health and safety, Pope Francis traveled to the heart of mob territory Saturday to comfort the family of a 3-year-old boy gunned down in a January shootout and declared that all mobsters are automatically excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.
The underdeveloped Calabria region that the pope visited is the power base of the `Ndrangheta, a global drug-trafficking syndicate that enriches itself by extorting businesses and infiltrating public-works contracts.
During his homily at an outdoor Mass, Francis denounced the `Ndrangheta for what he called its "adoration of evil and contempt for the common good."
"Those who go down the evil path, as the Mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated," he warned.
Francis turned his attention to Italy after a period of focusing on international issues — including war-torn Syria, a trip to the Holy Land, Vatican visits from the leaders of Israel and Palestine, plus a recent visit from President Obama.
He traveled by helicopter to Cassano all'Ionio, around 275 miles southeast of Rome. The town earned headlines in January, when 3-year-old Nicola "Coco" Campolongo and his grandfather were hit by stray bullets and killed during a shootout involving the 'Ndrangheta — the organized crime organization that exercises a commanding influence in Calabria, the area at the toe of Italy's boot-shaped peninsula.
Local organizers of the pope's one-day pilgrimage said the pontiff first spoke to about 200 men and women held in the prison in the town of Castrovillari. He then spoke separately with the father and two grandmothers of "Coco" Campolongo.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, said Francis told the father: "May children never again have to suffer in this way."
"The two grandmothers were weeping like fountains," Benedettini added.
The Vatican said Francis was using the trip to address two of southern Italy's most endemic problems: the influence of organized crime and unemployment among young people.
However, the trip comes amid speculation about Francis' health. While the Vatican says he is fine, the 77-year-old pontiff canceled a handful of obligations this week and doctors have said he should scale back his schedule to conserve his strength.
Calabria is the source of alleged mob threats against Francis. Last year, anti-mob prosecutor Nicola Gratteri said the pope's reform agenda was making the 'Ndrangheta "very nervous" and that Francis could become a target for the group.
"For many years, the mob has laundered money and made investments with the complicity of the church," Gratteri said, noting those activities have become more difficult due to recent reforms. The Vatican has downplayed the threats.
According to retired church historian Fr. Alistair Sear, it is unlikely any of that was taken into consideration when Francis planned his trip.
"I think we have seen enough to know that the Holy Father is a man who decides to do something and then does it, whatever the circumstances," Sear said.
For the faithful in Rome, there was a tinge of worry as the pope headed south.
"He is a holy man who knows what he is doing and who is surrounded by smart people, but I still pray for him and his mission," said Sister Maria Theresa Nuñez, 30, a Venezuelan nun living in Rome.
Pasquale Paci, a 54-year-old hotel worker, said: "It seems strange to say after he gets involved with Syria and Israel and Palestine, but I worry a little about a trip like this one," he said.
The 'Ndrangheta, less well-known internationally than the Sicilian Mafia, is Italy's most entrenched organized crime organization, in part because its reliance on family ties rather than friendships or ceremonial rites makes it difficult for police to infiltrate. The organization has operations that stretch as far as Australia and Germany, resulting in annual revenue in the range of $75 billion — around 3.5% of Italy's gross domestic product — according to Demoskopika, a research firm based in Calabria.
The pontiff's warnings about excommunication should resonate strongly in the region.
The 'Ndrangheta is also highly religious, often paying for Roman Catholic Church initiatives and seeking the blessings of local priests, who will change their plans on short notice to officiate at mob weddings, funerals and baptisms. Sometimes, religious processions will pause in front of the homes of 'Ndrangheta leaders in order to bless the inhabitants.
In April, bishops in Calabria raised eyebrows by issuing a statement calling the mob a "cancer." Previous popes have denounced the mob's influence in Italy, but none have been successful in curbing it.
Additionally, the pope was also focused on the topic of youth unemployment, which, according to Eurostat, is a bigger problem in Calabria than in any other part of the European Union, with 56% of workers under the age of 25 unemployed.
"I think it's very positive that the pope is getting involved in issues as complex as these," said Ornella Sgroi, a Sicilian journalist who writes about organized crime. "But whether he can do anything about it, we'll have to wait and see."
Eric J. Lyman reported from Rome. Contributing: The Associated Press