Fr Pierluigi (Gigi) Maccalli SMA: “The strength came from above. I cried, prayed and invoked the Virgin Mary”.

Gigliola Alfaro, journalist of the SIR (Religious Information Service, Italian Bishops’ News Agency), interviewed Fr Gigi Maccalli SMA, following his release by kidnappers on 8 October 2020. This is a translation of that interview.

“The strength came from above, I am convinced. I cried, prayed and invoked Mary and the Holy Spirit. It was two years of great silence, sadness and isolation (no communication with the outside)”. The words of Fr. Gigi, released in Mali after more than two years in captivity. He was abducted on the night of 17 September 2018 at the Bomoanga mission in Niger Republic by an armed group.

Father Gigi, in what context has your abduction affected you? During the two years of your captivity, Were you moved from place to place?   “At first I thought of an armed robbery. When I first asked them who they were (the day after my abduction), they said I could call them jihadists or terrorists. Only on the 40th day when I had already arrived in the dunes of the Sahara desert, they made me a video telling me that I had been kidnapped by the Group of Support for Islam and Muslims (by acronym Gsim) an organization that developed from Aqmi (Al Quaida in the Islamic Maghreb). At first, we moved about a lot, especially if they heard the sounds of drones. Anyway, I crossed the Sahara desert, which had many faces (sand, shrubs, stones) from southeast to west to Mauritania then from west to northeast to Algeria to finish the last 7 months in the Kidal region, which touches into Mali, Algeria and Niger. This is the guess which we, the Italian hostages (Luca Tacchetti, Nicola Chiacchio and I), made by sharing our knowledge of this geographical area.

Bomoanga Catholic Church-Mission from where Fr Gigi was abducted
Bomoanga Catholic Church-Mission from where Fr Gigi was abducted

How did you go through this terrible ordeal? The grace came from above, I am convinced. I cried, prayed and invoked Mary and the Holy Spirit. It was 2 years of great silence, sadness and isolation. My greatest sadness as a missionary with 21 years of presence in Africa (10 in Côte d’Ivoire and 11 in Niger) was to see young people (my jailers and supervisors) indoctrinated by propaganda videos praising Jihad and violence. I felt like a failed missionary who always preached and believed in non-violence as a means of peace and development. My commitment to the training of children and young people who are the living and dynamic force of a new or at least different Africa, for an Africa not chained by corruption and so many injustices … suffered a blow, I felt defeated.

Were you afraid of dying? “The more days passed, the less I feared a dramatic conclusion even though I had prepared for everything.  Except once. I received a verbal threat from a mujahideen to put a bullet in me. We were in the ninth month of detention. His word or ‘promise’ made me more careful and attentive. I realized that each of  my words and gestures could be read as a provocation.”

Photo of Fr Gigi and one of his fellow captives taken from a video released by their abductors months before they were freed.

To what extent has faith supported you? And how did you live your priesthood?  “That was my strength and it got stronger in the test. I could not celebrate the Eucharist, nor read the Bible, the Word of God. I was stripped of everything and sometimes chained, but not my faith. I went through the dark night and several times I cried out to God with Jesus on the cross: “Father, why did you abandon me?” It was a time of suffering but now I am resurrected and I can sing the words of Psalm 126:1- 2 “When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion, we were like those in a dream. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.”

Some of his fellow detainees converted to Islam. Did they put a lot of pressure on you? Did your refusal put you at greater risk? “As for my suffering companions, I can say that they did it out of convenience. One way to protect yourself from the worst is the belief of these zealous and fanatical Muslim mujahidin that anyone who kills a defenceless Muslim goes straight to hell. They even tried with me. When they insisted a lot, I found the trick by telling them that it will be when God wants it, since everything is written and God is not commanded. Until the last night before the liberation, a leader said to me in French: “You must be told and warned for your good to avoid going to hell. Allah will ask me to report to you too: but how, did you kidnap a non-believer and not tell him to convert to Islam?” I thanked them for their concern and kindness to me, but I said that I remained a disciple of Jesus, son of Mary and I accept the judgment of God whatever it may be.”

Did you ever given up hope of going home? “Every night I said at sunset: even today is past, hopefully tomorrow!”

When did you realize that the nightmare was about to end, how did you feel? “I accepted the announcement with caution because we had already been told several times it would soon be over. On 5 February, 2020, they also gave us an upcoming deadline: “In a week and maybe even less you will be free”. On that day, we celebrated and shared cookies and had meetings with our tutors, but nothing happened. In July and August, they made two videos of us and told us that probably in 10 or 20 days we would leave, double flop! I was afraid that once again something would go wrong, even though we knew that on Sunday, 4 October, a hundred jihadi prisoners had been released from Bamako prisons. The RFI considered this event to be a bargaining chip for the release of the hostages. Hope and prudence lived in me at that time and I entrusted everything to Our Lady of the Rosary (October 7) who untied the knots.”

What is the current situation in the Sahel? “It was a powder keg, now it’s caught fire! The alert level has increased with my abduction in the Niger-Burkina Faso border area and this year in Niger the whole country is in the red zone following the murder of 6 young aid workers of a French NGO last August. From Mali to Niger to Burkina Faso, insecurity reigns and armed groups raid. The SMA Superior General said he was struck by my call for forgiveness, for brotherhood, for the hope that an agreement could be reached with the jihadists … The young jihadists I have been in contact with, my guards, make me so sad. Almost all are illiterate and indoctrinated into the mirage of a false ideal of living Islam to the fullest, to fight for Allah and to impose Sharia law on all Muslims. I don’t blame them for what they made me suffer, because “they don’t know what they’re doing”.”

“To the man who was ‘responsible’ for our imprisonment this past year and who accompanied us personally to the place of liberation, I wished: “May God make us understand that we are all brothers one day”.”

How important is missionary reality in these lands? “The mission is to bear witness to brotherhood in everyday life. Build bridges of universal brotherhood. The mission is to fight ignorance and illiteracy with the weapons of dialogue and non-violence, with humility and patience. What man humanizes, God divinizes him, according to François Varillon. This is my missionary creed.”

Fr Gigi Maccalli arrives at SMA House in Rome

Do you intend to return to the mission? “Mission is not a matter of geography, but of heart. Our SMA Founder loved to say, “Be missionary from the bottom of your heart.” This is what I have always tried to be in Africa and in Italy (where I spent ten years doing missionary promotion work). Mission is the very nature of the Church. We are all disciples-missionaries, called and sent. Even when chained, I was a missionary, but the chains helped me to better understand the Missio Dei. I thought they had stolen two years of my life and my mission. I realize now that they were rather two years of fruitful ministry in Africa and in Italy, which I could never have imagined. A special place, of course, has in my heart: Bomoanga (Niger), the mission from which I was abruptly torn from. Now that I’m in touch with them by phone, I can finally reach them at least by voice. They danced with joy in the church of Bomoanga for my liberation. I know that they are suffering from attacks by armed groups that want to sow terror in the region. For the past two years, no priest has celebrated the Eucharist there spot. Father Mauro Armanino SMA (a colleague on mission in Niamey, Niger) told them that “for now it is not possible, maybe next year they will see me again”.