The bells of the cathedral in Crema, Italy, pealed for joy in the night when the Italian government announced the release of Father Pierluigi Maccalli and three other hostages being held in Mali.
Father Maccalli, a 59-year-old native of Crema and member of the Society of African Missions, was abducted from his parish in southern Niger the night of Sept. 17-18, 2018.
He was released along with: Sophie Petronin, a 75-year-old French humanitarian worker kidnapped in northern Mali in December 2016; Nicola Chiacchio, an Italian tourist kidnapped in Mali Feb. 4, 2019; and Soumaila Cisse, 70, a Malian politician kidnapped in March while campaigning for a seat in the National Assembly.
Luigi Di Maio, Italy's foreign minister, tweeted that the four had been "kidnapped by a jihadist group."
The two Italians, who were said to be thin, but well, were expected to arrive in Rome Oct. 9.
Media reports from Mali said the interim government, put into power after a coup in August, had freed more than 100 suspected members of Islamic terrorist groups in exchange for the hostages' release.
Father Antonio Porcellato, superior general of the Society of African Missions, said the order was informed at 10 p.m. Oct. 8.
"The joy of the whole SMA family is great and our gratitude to the Lord is even greater," he said in a statement that night. "We rejoice with the Maccalli family (and) with Father Walter Maccalli," Father Pierluigi's brother, who also is a member of the society.
"We thank in a very special way the Italian foreign office and the crisis management unit that supported the family during the last two years and worked discretely and efficiently for the liberation," he said.
The missionaries, Father Porcellato said, "continue to pray for the other hostages who are still in the hands of the kidnappers. We pray for the numerous victims of this blind violence that is hitting hard the Sahel, especially those who were attacked in Burkina Faso recently."
Archbishop Protase Rugambwa, secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, said the release of Father Maccalli as the church is preparing to celebrate World Mission Sunday Oct. 18 "is a great sign of hope for us, for Africa and for the universal church."
"It is a sign and vibrant witness that the grace of Christ works and restores hope in situations marked by violence, conflict and pandemic," the archbishop said. "The release shows us that the grace of Christ is stronger than any difficulty and that we always must trust in him."
Bishop Daniele Gianotti of Crema also highlighted the timing of Father Maccalli's release and Mission Sunday; in a statement Oct. 8 he said, "I want to read his liberation as a sign of trust and encouragement for all those men and women who witness to the Gospel of Jesus in the most exposed and difficult situations."
"I hope the liberation of Father Gigi would be a promising sign of hope for all those others who are prisoners because of their faith and their struggle for truth, justice and reconciliation and that it would be a seed of peace and trust for Niger, which he loves so much, for the Sahel and for all of Africa," the bishop said.