A Missionary for Life
Exclusive interview with Father Pier Luigi Maccalli SMA, the Italian missionary who spent two years as a hostage of radical jihadists in southern Niger
Italian missionary Father Pier Luigi Maccalli was released on October 8 in Mali after being held hostage for more than two years. (Photo by J.P. BODJOKO, SJ/VATICANNEWS)
Father Pier Luigi Maccalli had been working as a Catholic missionary in southern Niger for 11 years when -- on September 17, 2018 -- he was abducted in the middle of the night from his home in the small village of Bamoango.
His kidnappers took the then-57-year-old Italian priest and member of the Society of African Missions (SMA) into the Sahel Desert.
Some two years later Father Maccalli learned that negotiations were underway for his release.
"I was always a little afraid, because it's like an airplane: takeoff and landing are the most critical moments," he told La Croix.
But the negotiations were successful and he was released along with other hostages. They included Sophie Pétronin, a French national who said she converted to Islam during her captivity.
Father Maccalli said he always explained to his captors that he was a disciple of "Issa Ibn Maryam" (Jesus, Son of Mary).
La Croix offered to do a face-to-face interview with him at SMA headquarters in Rome, but he said he preferred to speak over the telephone.
"I'm a little stressed and not at all comfortable with this fast-talking world," he apologized in a warm voice.
"I would have liked more silence and tranquility," he explained.
While the Italian missionary is now able to move about freely, he told us he "has returned to his family, but not to his home".
"I hope to see the community of Bamoanga again within the year," he said.
And after that?
"I am a missionary for life," he explained. "I am at the disposal of what the Spirit and my superiors will decide."
The following is Father Maccalli's exclusive interview with La Croix, which was conducted by Xavier Le Normand.
La Croix: On September 17, 2018, you were abducted in the middle of the night from the village in Niger where you had been a missionary for 11 years. What were your first thoughts when you suddenly lost your freedom?
Father Pier Luigi Maccalli: The first hours, the first days, I was really discouraged.
I was lost; I didn't know what was happening to me; I didn't understand.
Everything was getting mixed up, colliding in my head.
What was going on? What's happening to me? What do they want?
At first I thought my kidnappers were thieves; I couldn't imagine an organized kidnapping.
I thought I would be freed quickly. However, as the days went by, I realized that it was something else.
On the 40th day after my kidnapping, they made a video of me as proof of life.
At that point I realized that this was going to last and I had to make the decision to hold on.
In Italian, my mother tongue, to exist is called esistere and to resist resistere. There is only one letter of deviation. I entered into this logic of resisting every day in order to exist.
How can one resist in order to exist when one is lost without landmarks in the desert, without a horizon?
It's above all a question of staying alive.
I tried to drink a lot, especially tea that they made by boiling water.
I drank four liters of water a day, even more at times.
And I ate regularly, even though the meals were not very rich. I never felt hungry, but rather thirsty.
While my captors were doing Ramadan, I explained to them that we Catholics had Lent.
Yet, when that time came and they saw that I was not fasting, I told them that my effort was not about food, but was from another dimension.
I always tried to nourish my body to live and resist.
As for my spirit, I always remained lucid and kept conscious of days and dates. I counted the days, then the months.
At the beginning of my captivity, I was with another Italian.
We were given a small notebook and we wrote little games, like crosswords.
We would invent them, one would prepare them, the other would fill in the grid. The goal was to always keep the mind trained.
You say you understood, after 40 days in the desert, that your imprisonment would not be short. Were you aware of this biblical symbol?
When, after the first 40 days, I understood that the road would be long, I looked at the sand dunes that surrounded me and I thought of the biblical desert.
I said, "Lord, you spent 40 days in the desert, but here it will be much longer. Israel remained in the desert for 40 years, but I will not live until then. I offer you this time in the desert as a time for me to rediscover my vocation."
In the Bible, to go to the desert is always to find the motivation of the beginning. So it was a time to renew my covenant.
I confess that the desert was an opportunity for me to see the film of my life again and to enter into that great silence that allows us to see existence from a different perspective, given the speed to which we are accustomed today.
Were you able to maintain a prayer life throughout your detention?
Someone broke into my house in the middle of the night, I had nothing but my pajamas.
I could not take anything with me, not even a Bible or a breviary.
So I only had with me the prayer that I knew by heart, especially some psalms, but I had the rosary in particular.
Every day I recited the prayer of the Rosary, adding by myself some mysteries that put me in communion with the apostles, the martyrs, the Old and New Testament, as well as the Church and its different times like Advent or Easter.
Moreover, Bamoanga -- the parish where I was in Niger -- was placed under the patronage of the Holy Spirit and I had the Pentecost Sunday Sequence inscribed on the wall of the church that we inaugurated in 2017. The community and I recited it every day.
During my captivity, I continued this daily prayer.
In addition, I have always loved the figure of the Holy Spirit as a comforter, which is one of its names.
To comfort means to be with the one who is alone.
In my solitude, I felt this presence, this company that sustained me. Mary and the Holy Spirit were my companions of hope.
You were a priest and a missionary, a double vocation that you could no longer exercise. How did you experience this deprivation?
When they took me away, my captors tied my feet with a chain.
For a missionary, being in chains was quite a symbol.
I was a prisoner, unable to go to the villages where I usually went.
But these chains freed my prayer: at that moment, I realized that my heart was not in chains.
I told myself that I would do as little Thérèse of Lisieux had done, that I could only count on prayer.
Prayer for the peripheries of the world, to support the steps of the missionaries.
And I decided that through prayer, I would go to this village from which I had been taken to support the faith of all.
I felt a strong communion with them.
As for the Mass, I could not celebrate it according to the rite, but I understood its significance in a new depth.
Each day I repeated the words of the consecration: "This is my body, given up for the world."
I said, "Lord, I have nothing but my life to offer you. This is my physical body and my life as a missionary being offered."
I believe that when we celebrate, it is not only in the name of Jesus Christ, but it is also my life that is involved in this gesture, this rite, this offering.
I told myself that as a missionary I gave my life for the Gospel, for the proclamation of the Good News.
I was also preparing myself to eventually offer it in the extreme act that could happen.
Were you afraid you would die?
Scared? No. I was not afraid, I was peaceful in my heart.
If I had been alone, yes I would have been afraid!
I was completely lost in the middle of this desert, but I could see that the kidnappers knew how to find their way.
I was really surprised at their ability to control the place, to find their bearings, to find other groups waiting for us.
As the days went by, I understood that they had not kidnapped me with the intention of killing me. But an accident could have happened.
Whenever I saw a young boy taking apart and cleaning his weapon, I was afraid that an accidental shot would go off and I always asked if I could move away or if he would turn the barrel of the rifle to the other side.
Otherwise, I surrendered myself to the Lord and prayed: "I am here, and as for what will happen to me, your will be done, Lord."
You were deprived of your loved ones for two years. The situation is, of course, not the same, but what would you say to those who suffer from isolation?
When I arrived in Rome, I was welcomed by my family.
The most moving thing was to be able to have this physical contact that I had been deprived of for two years.
These two years of "confinement" were an opportunity for me to understand the importance of family, fraternity, friendship and to be able to live it in a physical way, not just from a distance.
To those who suffer from isolation, especially during lockdown, I would say that we must hold on, continue to resist in order to exist, not to close ourselves off.
Perhaps this experience will allow us to discover other more essential values, such as the importance of personal contact, of meeting others.
We are a relationship, God is family and together we live -- either in this life or in the next.