Pope Francis met Monday with an Italian Catholic missionary priest who was freed last month in Mali after he was kidnapped from his parish in Niger in 2018.
Speaking to Vatican News, the 59-year-old priest said that when greeting him, the pope not only shook his hand, but also kissed it. “I was not expecting [the gesture],” Fr. Pierluigi Maccalli said.
The priest, a member of the Society of African Missions, was kidnapped from his isolated parish in southwest Niger, near the border with Burkina Faso, on the night of Sept. 17, 2018.
More than two years later, in the first full week of October, Maccalli and another Italian, Nicola Chiaccio, were two of four hostages liberated in northern Mali by jihadist fighters believed to be linked to al-Qaeda.
Maccalli returned to his home in Crema, Italy, where his sister awaited him.
“We are living an immense joy and a great happiness. After a long time waiting, I can finally hug him again,” Clementina Maccalli told InBlu Radio at the time of her brother’s release.
“His mission is to take the Gospel where it is not yet known,” she said, adding that, during his kidnapping, “hope has never failed. We have a lot of faith and this has helped us.”
Maccalli described his meeting with Pope Francis Nov. 9 as “very, very beautiful.”
“I was moved, most of all, telling the pope about what I lived through and then entrusting to his prayer, above all, the communities I went to and which have now been without a missionary presence and a priest for more than two years,” he told Vatican
Maccalli said he had asked Francis to keep the Catholic Church in Niger in his prayers and that the pope listened very attentively.
The missionary said he also thanked Francis for his prayers, together with those of the Church, for his liberation.
According to Maccalli, Pope Francis replied by saying that the Church had supported him, but he had supported the Church.
“I had no words in the face of his: me, a little missionary and he who said this to me… I really have no words,” the priest said.
Maccalli noted that he shed many tears during his two years of captivity, describing them as his “bread” and his prayer “when I didn’t know what to say.”
Captive in the desert, he said he offered his tears in prayer to the Lord, “to water that arid land of the mission, but also the arid land of hearts that feel hate, causing war and violence.”
Being in the desert reminded him about what is essential, he said.
“There you realize that it is essential to have water to drink, to have something to eat, even if it is the same food every day, onions and lentils and sardines.”
“But you see that it is not gourmet dishes that make up the substance,” he continued. “It is also this way in the spiritual life: what counts is shalom, forgiveness, and brotherhood, and as a missionary I feel even more driven to be a witness of peace, brotherhood, and forgiveness, today and always.”