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Kidnapped priest discusses his captivity by jihadists in Africa

John Burger - published on 10/18/20 - updated on 10/18/20

Fr. Macalli strove to maintain his faith through extreme adversity, and then one day heard a familiar voice.

Two years in captivity provided Fr. Pierluigi Macalli a chance to review his life and to meditate on the Gospel. The Italian missionary gave his first interview to Fides, the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, days after being released by kidnappers in Mali.

Militant extremists from Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, a branch of al Qaida in Mali, kidnapped him in Niger, on the border with Burkina Faso, the night between September 17-18, 2018, according to the Union of Catholic Asian News

With his feet chained at times, Fr. Macalli, a member of the Society of African Missions, was regarded as “kafir,” or infidel by his jihadist captors. They refused his request for a Bible, but at one time agreed to bring him a shortwave radio so he could catch up on world news.

He tuned into Vatican Radio as much as Radio France International or the BBC.

Until that time, he said his only support were the “simple morning and evening prayers that I had learned in my family from my mother and the Rosary that my grandmother had taught me as a contemplative prayer.

“The desert was a time of great silence, of purification, of a return to the origins and the essential,” said Fr. Macalli, 59. “An opportunity to review the film of my life which has now reached the second half of my life. I asked myself many questions and cried out to God with all my heart and in a sigh of lamentation: ‘Where are you? Why did you let me down? Until when, Lord?'”

In addition, he recited the prayer of consecration from the Mass, “This is my body …” adding the phrase, “Especially for the world and Africa.” He ended each day praying, “I have no other offer than the offer of my life.” Every Sunday he meditated on a Gospel passage.

When he received the shortwave radio, that meditation was supplemented by a commentary on the Gospel, which was broadcast over Vatican Radio every Saturday.

And then, on Pentecost of this year, as millions of Catholics around the world were viewing Mass over the internet because of COVID-19 restrictions, Fr. Macalli tuned into Vatican Radio and heard Pope Francis celebrating Mass in Italian.

“I found myself in communion with the Pope and the Church around the world,” the missionary said. “I said to myself, ‘Today I am in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and at the same time on a mission in Africa. I listened with some emotion to the readings and the Gospel that reminded me of the motto of my priestly ordination, from the Gospel of John (Jn 20): ‘As the Father sent me, I too send you. Receive the Holy Spirit.’ Coincidence? Pope Francis’ homily was a breath of fresh air. After two years of spiritual drought and the absence of the Word of God, I felt reborn and welcomed this gift as a breath of the Holy Spirit, who wanted to push the radio waves up to this Sahara.”

Maccalli and three other prisoners were released October 8 as part of prisoner swap mediated by the Mali government. As he left captivity, he said he felt no ill will, but hoped that the captors would one day be enlightened. “I am still very sad about the fate of these young people indoctrinated by propaganda videos that they watched all day,” he said.

To the young man who drove him to the release point, he said in French, “May God help us understand one day that we are all brothers.” 

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