A year has gone by since the evening of September 17 2018. On that day, at 11:00 pm, an armed group abducted parish priest Fr Pier Luigi Maccalli, member of the Society of African Missions (S.M.A), from the mission of Bomoanga (diocese of Niamey), Niger, near the border with Burkina Faso. The prelate who dedicated himself wholeheartedly “for the good of all, Christians and Muslims alike”, was born in Madignano, a town in northern Italy, on May 20 1961. We gathered the testimony of S.M.A Superior General Father Antonio Porcellato, and Father Vito Girotto, serving as parish priest of the mission of Makalondi, the closest to Bomoanga, at the time of his abduction.
“S.M.A is experiencing this first anniversary with trepidation, with the confidence that Father Gigi is alive , constantly praying for his liberation. His abduction came as a shock to the entire Society of African Missions and the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of the Apostles, a total of about 1500 missionaries for Africa. There was an outburst of prayer for him, an awareness of our missionary vocation, of the gift of our life to God for the mission”, said the Superior General.
In constant dialogue. “A serene person, in dialogue with everyone, with Muslims and representatives of traditional religions, who proclaimed the Gospel with concrete action, helping the poorest, especially malnourished and sick children, promoting literacy courses and digging water wells.
A passionate man of prayer”,
The portrayal of Fr Maccalli offered by Fr Girotto.
“Pier Luigi is a very enterprising missionary from a practical point of view, with a profound human and spiritual dimension. He is familiar with the Sahel as he spent ten years in the Savanna of the northern Ivory Coast and eleven years in the semi-deserted area of Bomoanga, in Niger. In my opinion all of this helps him to adapt to the condition of imprisonment, most probably in a similar environment. Gigi is an optimistic and adaptable person. I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard that he had created relationships of friendship and collaboration with those who hold him hostage”, said Father Porcellato. “He would visit as many as 15 communities in a month, across a number of different villages. Every evening he organized a prayer in the gurmancema language in the mission to animate the Christian community, and to show that the Church and the Gospel are for everyone”, continued Fr Vito. He pointed out that “there are two ethnic groups: the Gurmance, that include our baptised faithful, and the Peulh (the Fulani people), Muslim shepherds. The diocese of Niamey numbers 20thousand faithful and an equal number of catechumens. Most of them come from Makalondi, Bomoanga, Kankani and Torodi, where we used to have our missions.”
Father Girotto recalled the tragic moments of the night of September 17. “I witnessed the kidnapping in real time through the mobile phone of my Indian brother Dass, who was staying in the S.M.A cottage adjacent to that of Father Maccalli. During the raid no one approached the mission because the kidnappers were shooting in the air to intimidate the people of the village. Then they forced Father Pier Luigi to mount a big motorcycle, seated in the middle between the driver and the second kidnapper who was keeping an eye on him.”
For Father Vito,
“they wanted to scare the people while abducting the missionary.
Father Pier Luigi also ran a Catholic school in the village of Ngula, 30 km from Bomoanga. The school was shut down due to the fears of parents and teachers following the abduction.”
The Superior General offers a key to understanding what happened: “In all probability, the abductors belong to the jihadi ideology groups that were created and grow rapidly throughout the Sahel area, whose presence was also noted in the Bomoanga area in the last few months before the abduction. The motivations of those who performed the attack may partly be of an economic nature. Young people are promised great sums of money if they associate themselves with these violent actions. The perpetrators may have handed over Father Gigi to more organized and ideologized groups. A European is a very valuable prey: he may serve for a high ransom, but he could be a bargaining chip for weapons, military connivance, prisoners, political influence …” There have been “no contacts with the kidnappers so far. Pier Luigi is on the list of the Italian abductees of the Foreign Ministry’s Crisis Unit. The officials of the Crisis Unit have been very close to the family since the very first days, taking all possible steps to find him,” pointed out Father Porcellato.
High level of insecurity in the area. “That night, the local police of Makalondi sent a few young Christians to inform me to leave the mission immediately. With a catechist I was forced to take refuge in the capital Niamey”, recalled Father Girotto. “The Archbishop of Niamey, Msgr. Laurent Lompo, is originally from the area where Father Maccalli carried out his ministry, the only region of Niger with several indigenous Christian communities – the Superior General said -. Before the abduction there were 4 parishes, entrusted to a dozen missionaries and lay Italian, Spanish, Indian and Beninese S.M.A missionaries. In the following months, they were forced to return to the capital by order of the security forces. Basic pastoral service is currently offered by the parish of Makalondi. With the Archbishop, we are waiting for minimum security conditions to be restored in order to resume our service in this area.”
Father Vito expressed a wish, one year since the abduction: “I hope Father Pier Luigi is still alive. But I don’t know when he will be released. I’m afraid it could take years. We must continue praying. All of us S.M.A members gather in prayer every Friday and on the 17th of every months we keep his memory alive.” “I feel that Pier Luigi is alive and close to us, and every day I pray to the Lord for his liberation”, said Fr Porcellato.
In a video taken by one of his confreres, Father Maccalli says: “Since I was a boy, I knew I wanted to be a priest and a missionary. Being a missionary priest today is a dream come true. Speaking of his service in Bomoanga, he said: “Ours is a mission of proclamation and human promotion. Our social ministry is characterized by three key-words: health, school and development.”
In a video filmed in Niamey just a week before the kidnapping, by the priest of the diocese of Rome, Don Federico Tartaglia, Father Pier Luigi explains what drives him to return to the mission each time, after a period of rest in Italy: “The passion for the Gospel and for Christ, for these people who are living it: all this helps me to be a Christian”.