Lyon Cours Gambetta: Overnight prayer for Fr. Pier Luigi Maccali

The 5th October, 2018 from 7pm to 8pm, the SMA chapel at 150 Cours Gambetta in Lyon (69007) served as framework within which the overnight prayer in favour of the liberation of Fr. Pier Luigi Maccali, an SMA Italian Missionary kidnapped in Niger on the 17th September 2018. Animated by Most Rev. Michel Cartatéguy, former archbishop of Niamey, the celebration was attended by about 150 people of diverse origin coming from the city of Lyon and its environs. 

On the 17th September, the SMA fraternity woke up to the shocking news of the kidnapping of Fr. Pier Luigi Maccalli an SMA priest who was up to then working in the mission of Bomoanga in Niger close to the border with Burkina- Faso.

Niger was a relatively peaceful country that experienced “religious tolerance” between the majority Muslims (98%) and the minority Christians (2%).

However, things turned sour after a French cartoonist Charlie Hebdo published some cartoon that offended the Muslim faithful leading to uprisings here and there.

On the 7th January 2015, forty five churches were among the buildings that were torched across Niger, ten people lost their lives and scores were injured as a result of a deadly protest over the satire. Consequently the celebration of mass was suspended across Niger.

It is in this background that Fr. Pier Luigi continued his Mission among the poor and the most abandoned in Bomoanga. It is suspected that the jihadist who are thought to be Fulani dissidents could well be behind the kidnapping!

Since his kidnapping, prayers and masses have been offered in various parts of the world for the intention of his release and the international SMA mother house in Lyon was not left behind. 05th October, 2018, under the guidance, Michel Cartatérguy the former Archbishop of Niamey-Niger, a beautiful set-up in the community chapel was filled to capacity and some people prayed from the hallway.

With background music, the ceremony began by a display of the only relic of the Stations of the Cross found by Michel in one of the churches that survived the fire in the 2015 regrettable event. Fr. Basil carrying the wood carving of the half burnt first station of the cross where Jesus was condemned to death showed it to all the faithful gathered with the sole intention of supplication for the liberation of Fr. Luigi. However, the train did not just stop with Fr. Luigi but, all those who were kidnapped and held hostage in the Sahara as a result of their faith. That evening twelve of them from different countries were remembered, nine known and three unknown.

In his opening remarks, Michel remarked that “they wanted to burn all that in our eyes represented the occidental Christian world. After the events of 15th January, 2015, I found in one church completely burnt down, devastated and pillaged, under the ashes this wood. It symbolized in my eyes a church that was on a pilgrimage toward its crucifixion in the footsteps of Jesus as it is not above its master. All was not burnt; all was not reduced to ashes. The remaining part of this wood is more important than the part that was darkened by violence and hate and rebellion against the Christians…” quoting from 2 Corinthians 4:7-10 “…We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”

He continued “I am convinced that these strong words full of hope, resonate with our dear captive brother….I have often heard the consternation of families when their children are recruited in the claws of Boko Haram or Al-qaeda in order to perform the most awful task that exposed them to death.  I hope that this evening we can join these families and their youth so that they too may know the joy of liberation. …we are not here to taste the efficacy, but we are persuaded that our prayer though fragile, however useless and that of our brother will meet in the heart of God who doesn’t forget any of his children. All Believing hostages on their liberation said how important the prayers of others and their own prayers helped them persevere to the end. May it be the same too for our brother. Our brother Luigi is not the only hostage in the Sahara, we call them out that they too may be present in our prayers….”

The participants were privileged to hear some extract of personal testimony of Fr. Pier Luigi in Niger read by the provincial superior, Fr. François du Penhoat. “When I arrived in Niamey I was advised to engage in a program where I had to learn gurmancema for a period of six months. It was during this period that for the first time I came across the expression ‘the pastoral of the mat’ of Mgr. Berlier (the first bishop of Niamey)… The pastoral of the mat was for him a missionary method to be followed as witness to the Christian faith in this land where Islam is prevalent. The icon of a mat signified a friendly and fraternal approach of the people of Niger; going to sit down on the same mat without the intention of conversion or explicitly speaking about the catholic faith. A presence therefore, that necessitates listening and respecting the other… The contemplation of the face of God is our primary mission. On the mat of prayer we also witness to our faith before our Muslim brothers who attach great importance in the submission of one unique God in their daily prayer…”

 Fr. François continued, “dialogue is certainly the most favorable way to use in such area that is highly influenced by Islam… we have the opportunity of informal exchange of views while going to the market place and every day the simple greetings teaches us on coming together and on peace; ‘Salam alekum’

… The missionary work in Niger is certainly a chance, a gift from God and an opportunity for the whole SMA. It offers us a different perspective of the Mission, maybe a forgotten one; to be prayerful, to be patient and confident (Missio Dei) to be present, to become ‘little’ and a small catalyst, to practice dialogue and friendship with Islam despite the slaps received from backhand. It is a privilege to be here! … Perhaps we have forgotten the beatitude of the feet; ‘How beautiful are the feet that bring good news...’ Dirty feet full of dust and fatigue, but happy to have accomplished the essential… it is here that my missionary vocation becomes a reality day after day, in the service of a poor church in local clergy and minority… the challenges are plenty and the conditions of departure are not always advantageous but this doesn’t hinder us in from hoping that one day even the ‘desert will flourish’...”

In North Africa one missionary was surprised by the behavior of one Bedouin. From time to time, the man lied on the ground covered by sand of the desert, with his ears pressed against the ground. Taken aback, the missionary asked him “what are you doing there?” the Bedouin picked himself up and answered; “my dear friend I hear the desert crying. It cries because it wants to be a garden”.

Before concluding, Michel on behalf of the SMA Fathers cordially and fraternally thanked all who gathered to pray for Fr. Luigi and other captives in the Sahara that evening.

Dominic Wabwireh