Fr. Pier Luigi Maccalli

Maccalli: The chains, the desert and freedom

Kidnapped for more than two years by Islamic terrorists, Fr. Pier Luigi Maccalli, a missionary in Africa, recounts his dialogue with his captors. And with God. From the March issue of Tracce.
Anna Leonardi

For two years he could do absolutely nothing. On the evening of September 17, 2018, when a gang of mujahidin kidnapped him from his home in the small village of Bomoanga, Niger, taking him away in pyjamas and slippers, Fr. Pier Luigi Maccalli lost his freedom and everything else. Blindfolded, and with his wrists bound, he traveled for seven days on motorcycles and canoes across Burkina Faso to his first destination, a hideout in the Mali savannah. There, lying a mat and with his ankle chained to a tree, he burst into a cry asking why. "Why are they doing this to me? And why Lord have you abandoned me?" Fr. Gigi, originally from Crema, is 61 and is a SMA (Society of African Missions) missionary. "Those tears and questions have been my greatest companion from the beginning. They were the rain during that time of imprisonment that watered my desert." And that gave him, as the first seed, a sense of freedom, even within total imprisonment.

After those first days, in which the hope that this was a lightning kidnapping faded, his captivity gradually became a perpetual nomadism. Surrendered several times to different groups, he made it as far as the border with Algeria, in the Sahara desert, scorching hot by day and freezing cold at night. He ate and slept among snakes, rats and cockroaches. No longer able to celebrate Mass anymore, he clung to the Psalms and the Rosary. He found shells and two small sticks that he joined together in a cross when no one was looking. Prayer was the space that made him free. There, like a modern Job, he began to question God.

What did those two years mean for you and your faith?
They were the two most fruitful years of the twenty-three I spent in Africa. I know it is paradoxical, because I could no longer do anything, I became useless. And I felt anger at the precious time that had been taken away from me. In Bomoanga, I had helped in the construction of wells and a malnutrition center. I had always combined evangelization and the human promotion of the small community. But the separation from everything changed me profoundly. I had to surrender the helm of mission to God, and accept this change of plans. And let the questions I thought I had already answered come back to shake me. So that I could encounter God again.

In your book Catene di libertà [Chains of freedom], you write that you cried out to God and received His silence....

There was no day that didn't begin without asking him for his help. I used to say to him, "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening." But I waited for Him as deliverance and He was late. I remembered Simone Weil saying that in misfortune we perceive God as absent. But I can say that I sensed His presence precisely in His absence, because in that silence my dialogue with Him deepened. That was the first sign that He was not abandoning me. He was there. And He was as unarmed as I was. God does not impose Himself, He does not come to fix things. I knew I would see Him, but like Moses I would see Him from behind.

What does that mean?
God makes Himself present as a novelty. You cannot circumscribe Him. If you circumscribe Him, He is no longer God, because He is no longer newness. And we do not see Him because we keep looking for Him according to our image, with old categories. During my kidnapping, I rested my thoughts and eyes on Jesus pierced on the cross for the sake of men, crying out, "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing." Within God's silence, when you have nothing left, you can learn to love like Him. Gratuitously.

What happened in the relationship with your jailers? To them you were a kafir, a non-believer destined for hell. That is why they insulted, mocked you, even though you never suffered physical abuse.
They were young men, "prisoners" of ignorance and ideology. I never felt resentment, but a lot of bitterness. They called me shebani, meaning "old," but not with the respect and affection typical of African culture. I could see, though, that more was emerging with them. They were curious, they had desires, they asked me about Italy, but also about what "my" God was like and about Heaven. One night, one of them, Abdul Haq, persuaded his "associate" to release my ankle, and from then on a relationship of almost complicity grew between us. When he had a toothache, he came to me and I tried to medicate it with mint toothpaste, which, thank God, worked. Every night, when the pain came back to haunt him, he would wake me up to ask for the "magic" toothpaste. Thus Bachir also came to seek a remedy for his sinusitis, which we treated with ginger-based suffusions. And then, the youngest of the group with his acne-scarred face came forward. I gave him my bar of soap, telling him to use it three times a day. And his skin made progress, too. But the thing that moved me most was what happened with Abdel Nur. After a less than promising start, he asked me to teach him French. Every afternoon, he would come to my mat on time with a pen and notebook. As a thank you, he gave me his backpack so that I could easily take my things with me while traveling. These are gestures that express the humanity in the other.

You wrote that "God does not ask for miracles, but he asks us to be fully human." What do you mean by that?
Already during the mission in Niger, it was clear to me that we are not called to do great works, but to meet the need of humans. To deliver those "five loaves and two fish," to share the other’s desire for life. I do not think God has specific plans for each of us, his plan is our humanity. That only in the encounter with Christ finds its full fufillment. As a hostage, I did not want to lose this gaze, and everything in me aimed for life to flourish. Mine, and that of my captors. As the theologian François Varillon said, "What man humanizes, God divinizes."

In the last months of the kidnapping you were given a small radio...
It was one of the many ways in which God made Himself present. It was Pentecost, I had not celebrated Mass for 21 months. I managed to tune into the frequencies of Vatican Radio and suddenly I "found myself" among the liturgical chants of the Mass in St. Peter's. I stuck my ear out so as not to miss anything of the Gospel and the Pope's homily. I felt reborn, like a thirsty man when he finally finds water. Through that radio then I was able to reconnect with the world. That is how I learned that there was a pandemic. And of so many other kidnappings going on. The radio was a gift from Abu Naser, one of the leaders of the operation.

Read also - Erik Vardern: Bringing forth the fountain

What was your relationship like with him?
There were some moments of tension. Like when Luca tried to escape [Luca Tacchetto kidnapped a few months after Fr. Maccalli along with another Italian, Nicola Chiacchio] He then chained me again and began to look at me with suspicion because he thought I was an accomplice. He came every now and then to visit me and give me news about the ongoing negotiations.He was the one who drove us there on October 8, 2020, the day of my release. He was very agitated that morning and had thrown away the cup of tea I was holding. But once I was loaded into the pickup truck, just before handing me over to the military, he offered me some dates and cookies. And he apologized for his action that morning. I accepted and thanked him. Then I took a breath and, seeking his gaze, I said, "Abu Naser, there is something I want to tell you. May God grant us to understand one day that we are all brothers." He gasped and lifted his hands from the steering wheel and said, "No, no! Brothers for me are only those who are Muslims." I remained silent before that last wall.

Have you been able to forgive?
Before leaving, I extended my hand towards Abu Naser and he shook it. In my heart I forgave everyone and I am at peace. This is something I felt I had to do from the very beginning, so as not to dehumanize myself. I did not want to allow them to reduce me to being like them. I never treated them badly. I never wanted to react to insults. I always called them by name. Because the real battle is to disarm oneself.