Captive in the desert: the blessing of the great silence
AFTER TWO YEARS LIVING AS A CAPTIVE in the desert that straddles Niger and Mali, the Italian missionary Father Pierluigi Maccalli , who was received by the Pope Nov. 9, 2020, recalled his first impressions in an interview conducted a few hours after his liberation. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) summarizes his testimony given to the Society of African Missions (SMA) on Oct. 10, 2020.
“I find it hard to speak, because after spending such a long time in silence I now find myself in this world of quickly moving events and words.” These were Father Maccalli’s first words after his release, which he experienced with great joy and emotion but it was also as a moment of confusion.
It all began on Sept. 17, 2018. “It had been a quiet Monday. I had celebrated Mass and eaten my evening meal. I had retired, as I usually do, to prepare the morning Mass. When I heard a noise, I thought it was perhaps someone coming looking for medicines at the medical store I had established. Going out, I found myself face to face with men armed with guns, who tied my hands behind my back. I thought at first they were robbers. I gave them the money I had with me and thought things would end there. Everything happened very quickly; I was surprised and unprepared for what was about to happen to me.”
During his captivity, his abductors treated him well for the most part. “Let’s say that they never hurt me or beat me. Sure, there were some pretty hurtful words. I was even preparing to die, but I noticed that they treated me with respect. They called me ‘the old man.’ Their idea seemed to be to convert me to Islam. I felt psychological pressure, but there was no physical mistreatment.”
The Italian missionary, a member of the Society of African Missions, speaks about difficult episodes, especially long marches, for days and nights, through the vast desert alongside the Niger River. During that time Father Maccalli felt a great sense of anguish, a great solitude in the face of such immensity. “Where are we going? Where are we? I wept at those times; I was completely lost. I said Lord, where are you? But I was never afraid. Thanks be to God, I never felt abandoned. Certainly, I cried out to God, got angry with him, but I always felt he was there. It was the sole presence that sustained me.”
The days were monotonous, and time dragged. “As soon as they removed my chains in the morning, I prayed the Rosary, as we walked along, with some beads and a little piece of string. I did a little cooking. Later on I was with another hostage. There also was a little radio set.”
In the evening of October 6 of this year a man arrived in a car, crying out, “Freedom!” We set out on October 8 after Muslim prayers. We met up with the French hostage Sophie Petronin and Mr. Soumaila Cissé, a Malian politician.”
The hostages were then taken by car and by plane to Bamako airport. There they met with the new transitional president, Mr. Bah N’Daw. Father Maccalli gave thanks to God and to the officials who were present. Then, on the evening of October 8, the former hostages were put on a plane to Rome and were finally able to meet up with their families. Father Maccalli was able to celebrate Mass after a very long time: “Two years of waiting had finally come to an end. At last!”
“I heard so many people telling me ‘We never gave up on you.’ I was never alone, even though at times I did feel alone, but the Lord was with me, with us all. I thought at first that I would be set free within three months, then perhaps six months, but a year went by, a year and a half, and then two years. It was too much, all that time. I knew that there were other hostages, including a Romanian who had been there for six years! How can you hold out that long? Thank God, it’s all over for me, quickly over. Now I’m with you all again. I haven’t the words to thank everyone!”
The great silence was an experience that has deeply marked Father Pierluigi. “I experienced some beautiful things, because I was in a great silence. After so many years proclaiming the Word, I had to be quiet and enter into the silence of God. I realized that this was perhaps my mission. It truly was the silence of the desert. There is no music except the music of the wind blowing. That was truly a positive time. Because in the silence you hear other things. My companions were the stars, so beautiful so brilliant. In the morning I had to battle with the sun, which was extremely hot, and the thirst, and yes, I suffered. But the great silence was also a blessing. You find yourself experiencing an inner journey that takes you far and deep.”
Father Maccalli feels particularly for the women who are still being held hostage. They are more despised by their Muslim abductors. He thinks particularly of the Colombian religious sister Gloria Narvaez, who is starting to show signs of distress. And he also asks us to pray for peace in Africa: “I’ve lived in Africa for 21 years. Africa is beautiful, strong, a place of exchange and sharing. But it is also a body enchained by violence, by all these rebel movements,” he says.
“Let us pray to the Lord for peace and freedom. The Pope has issued this new encyclical called Fratelli Tutti. May this universal sense of fraternity touch the heart of Africa, because that is the beauty of our mission.” Father Pierluigi concludes with a final message of peace: “I feel no bitterness towards my abductors. These young men are indoctrinated by propaganda videos; they do not know what they’re doing. There must be a non-violent way to reach the peace, which is the true message of the kingdom of God. We must continue to work in patience and humility, and without violence.”
—Virginie de Martin