ROME — Father Tom Uzhunnalil, the Salesian missionary released this week after 18 months of captivity, thanked all those who have prayed and made sacrifices on his behalf, saying he recommits himself to the service of God.
“With your prayers and sacrifices, you have brought me from God and have brought me here,” he said Sept. 16. “I do not know how to thank you all. May the Lord God bless you and reward you and give you courage to go through whatever difficulties may come as we go on in this world.”
“And one day we will all be together to praise God; that should be our aim — that is actually our aim. May that happen. … We all rejoice, thank God for my freedom. I am at the service of the Lord God. Let him continue to use me as he wants.”
Father Uzhunnalil, who became known around the world through social media and news outlets as people prayed for his release, spoke to journalists during a news conference at the Salesian headquarters in Rome.
An Indian native, Father Uzhunnalil, 59, was kidnapped March 4, 2016, from a Missionaries of Charity home in Aden. In the attack, 16 people were killed, including four religious sisters.
Throughout his 18-month captivity, several photos and videos of the priest were released, showing a thin Father Uzhunnalil with an overgrown beard, pleading for help and for his release, saying that his health was deteriorating and he was in need of hospitalization.
In the news conference, Father Uzhunnalil emphasized that despite the great stress he was under and his inability to move about freely, being kept in one room, his captors did not physically harm him.
He was provided with adequate food and water and even some small amount of medical treatment for his diabetes. He went on to explain that if in any of the videos it appears that his captors hit him, it was not a real blow, but acting, which they planned in advance, telling him it was to quicken a response from authorities.
Father Uzhunnalil said he has no knowledge of who it was that took him or what group they belonged to, but said that “God has been with me.”
“The whole world must have been praying; you all might have made sacrifices. The fruits of all (this) must be that they have not injured me right from the first day,” he said.
From the moment he was taken, he was not afraid, he related. “I said to myself: With the knowledge of God, nothing will happen to me. For Jesus has said, ‘Not a hair will fall from your head without the heavenly Father’s knowledge.’”
“Those words, that phrase flashed in my mind. Maybe that’s what gave me strength, kept my mind serene, calm.”
In the news conference, Father Uzhunnalil was calm, but he did become emotional when he noticed the presence of a number of Missionary of Charity sisters, to whom he gave his condolences for the loss of their four religious sisters.
“I’m sure they feel the pain of their loss, but their loss is for themselves and for the world; I am sure that these four who have gone are in heaven,” he said.
Witnessing the death of those in his presence was a very traumatic moment for him. “He didn’t want to speak about that moment,” Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay told CNA Sept. 14.
Cardinal Gracias had the opportunity to speak with Father Uzhunnalil soon after his arrival in Rome and was present when the priest met Pope Francis Sept. 13.
Pope Francis was very touched by Father Uzhunnalil’s expression of faith in their meeting, Cardinal Gracias said. The Holy Father told the priest: “The whole world has been praying for you; everybody has been praying for you.”
Father Uzhunnalil repeated over and over to the Pope: “Jesus is great; Jesus is great.”
In the news conference, Father Uzhunnalil recounted a detail from the day he was kidnapped. After the initial attack and killings, which took place while they were having adoration in the chapel, the attackers covered his head and locked him in a car, and then they left to re-enter the chapel.
At some point later, he heard them return, open the door of the trunk and place something heavy near his feet.
His hands weren’t tied, he explained, so he “lifted the cloth, just looked to make sure, and it was the tabernacle.” He knew that it contained consecrated Hosts from the Mass he had celebrated the previous evening.
Although he did not have bread and wine with him in captivity, Father Uzhunnalil said he was still able to peacefully pray the Mass every day from memory. He said he would pray to God to spiritually give him the gifts of bread and wine for the Eucharist.
Another line he said he prayed frequently was: “One day at a time, sweet Lord. Give me the grace to live this day. I thanked God for that day. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow is not sure, so give me the grace to live this day.”
While in captivity, the Salesian lost more than 60 pounds, he said. But in the few days since his release, he has already gained back more than 11. He will remain in Rome for eight-10 more days for continued medical tests and recovery time before returning to India to see his family.
“I thank in the name of the Lord God even my captors, who have been understanding to me and have not hurt me,” he said.
“It’s God's intervention. And that is due to the prayers and sacrifices of all my brothers and sisters, all of you around the whole world — my own country, other countries, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, all men of goodwill. I’m sure each one has made sacrifices.”
“I don’t believe in arms,” he continued. “The best weapon against any enemy is love, prayer, forgiveness.”
Comments from Cardinal Gracias contributed by Elise Harris.