Fr. Bossi in Loreto: embrace with the Pope, the “emotions” of a son regaining a father
Loreto (AsiaNews) – “Both deeply moved” they embraced at length, without undue ceremony, like a father and son, regained after a long separation. This is how Fr. Giancarlo Bossi greeted the Pope in Loreto, where he was taking part in the Youth Agorà organised by the Italian Bishop’s Conference in preparation of the 2008 World Youth Day in Sydney. The PIME missionary, released July 19th last after 39 days in captivity in the South Philippines – spent over 3 minutes in conversation with Benedict XVI. In those minutes – he tells – we thanked each other and were both deeply moved”.
Fr. Bossi thanked the Pope for having “having carried him in his father’s heart during the captivity and having urged prayers” for him. And speaking to over 300 thousand young people present on the Montorso Plain: “with their prayers and their love they gave me the courage to remain faithful to Christ, to his Church, to my missionary vocation and to the people to whom I belong. And you have also given courage to the missionaries who work throughout the world”. In his testimony during the September 1st vigil, the priest won over the silent attention of the entire audience, who – those present describe – listened to his words and then en masse led a standing ovation in applause. The Italian bishops were also touched, inviting Fr. Bossi to bring his witness to the various dioceses in the peninsula.
The priest has a particular love for the young, because “the future and hope lies in them”. The children and teenagers of his parish in Payao Mindanao, were his first thought on his release: “As soon as possible I want to embrace them again”. In this interview with AsiaNews , Fr. Bossi reflects on the most intimate aspects of his experience as a captive in the Philippines, on the meaning of his kidnap for the PIME mission, as well as the local Church, and confides his future projects for the Asian nation.
Father Bossi, can you summarize a typical day during your sequester?
The wake up call was at 4.30 in the morning, followed by long treks through the forest towards the next make-shift camp, usually reached by 7 in the evening, then sleep, when possible. During the day it was impossible to rest because of the mosquitoes. As I walked my thoughts would turn to my friends and family, to the situation I was in and of course to prayer: keeping my mind alert was fundamental for survival.
What space and meaning did prayer have for you during these 39 days?
Prayer meant a lot for me, but generally it was more of an attempt to pray. It is difficult to pray when your are a prisoner. I remember once asking a sick man to pray for me and he answered me with a note of bitterness: “You cannot ask me to pray for you because this place (the hospital) is not a place of prayer”. It was as if I were a sick man, thoughts crowd your mind, you continue to pray but it is not a serious prayer, it lacks reflection concentration because too many thoughts disturb your peace of mind. Despite everything I continued to pray. Having neither watch nor anything else by which to keep track of time, I knew which day it was thanks to my rosary.
Immediately after your release you said that you also prayed for your abductors, Muslims. What type of relationship did you have with them?
During my captivity I spoke with them in the local dialect. It was also a way to pass time, which seemed endless. When I could I tried to question them about religion. They would pray 3 to 5 times a day, as did I, so I asked them: “Are we praying to the same God? If it is the same God then it is the God of peace, of mercy, you pray with machine guns in your hands and me a prisoner beside you, does this God hear you or not?”. And they would remain in silence, often choosing not to answer, only once did they try to explain to me that Allah is in their hearts, but not in their work. Christians often err in this way too: often God exists, but our actions go against Him, and our choices are made without Him.
My kidnappers were common criminals. I think they were only answering to orders from above, members of a hierarchical Mafia like criminal system. The aim was probably to sell me on to a bigger group, maybe even to Abu Sayyaf. But the area is a Milf stronghold and that destined their plans to fail.
You didn’t bring charges against your abductors, how do you reconcile Christian forgiveness with justice?
I have been a priest for almost 30 years and if you can’t forgive then it means that you have understood little or nothing about what it means to be a priest. One of the kidnappers asked me: “Father, if you see us on the street what will you do?” And I answered: “Maybe I will invite you for a cup of coffee, and then, maybe we will go together to the police and tell them: this is one of the men who kidnapped me”. That means that forgiveness does not exclude justice, which is the same for everyone. I have brought charges against no-one, but if they showed me the photos I would clearly identify each one of them. In the end when they released me, they went into hiding: they were afraid that the car was not the right one, that it was a trap. I spoke only to one of them who saluted me saying “arrivederci” and I answered in kind.
What was your reaction when you learned of the general public’s participation in your plight?
Incredible, truly wonderful: years ago when my confreres, Fr. Luciano Benedetti and Fr. Giuseppe Pierantoni (dehonian) were kidnapped, it passed almost unnoticed. Instead with my kidnap a sort of miracle occurred: a sign of this is that following my case, the Church in the Philippines is experiencing a reawakening and this is very positive and I think it will have repercussions on the local Catholic communities. Just the fact that it was discussed on a daily basis is really extraordinary: as a result the figure of the missionary has been seen for the first time, a figure which upon till now has been totally undervalued, misunderstood and ignored. I still have not read all of the articles written about my case, but listening to the Superior General, I get the impression that even in Italy, which is exceptional, what it means to be a missionary in every day life has finally emerged.
What repercussions will your kidnap have on the PIME missions in the area?
In a meeting held at the end of July in Manila we confirmed our presence in the country: we are aware of the difficulties, we know of the risks that face us, but we have decided not to move from our posts. I think this is a truly beautiful decision. In Jolo and Basilan, both delicate areas there have not been foreign missionaries for quite some time now.
What was it like to embrace the parishioners of Payao again?
Exceptional, I really didn’t expect such a wonderful welcome. It was important for me to go t Payao after my release: there over 50% of the population is Muslim and I was kidnapped by a Muslim group. I didn’t want to create a climate of conflict, so I went their to say that my kidnappers were criminals and should be considered as such. I think they understood this message: let us move on, continue our work and our dialogue with our Muslim brothers. I then had to free my parishioners from their sense of guilt, who felt responsible for not having protected me enough. The same thin with the apostolic administrator who had sent me to Payao. I told him: “It happened. It is not your fault. You chose me and I willingly accepted”. And he welcomed my words with relief.
Has emerging alive from this experience given you more strength?
I have always loved the missions. I said straight away that I want to go back to the Philippines as soon as possible: or before or immediately after Christmas. I hope to return to Payao- but that depends on the new bishop in Ipil – but definitely to Mindanao. The bishop of Zamboanga was at the Manila meeting, it seems he intends that I should return to my parish. That is how we missionaries are made.
What contribution do missionaries bring to the society and Church in the Philippines?
Missionaries work in the shadows and in silence, where I want to return after this media chaos has died down. But I think that those who work in the shadows also deserve to be heard. There are good and beneficial relations with the local Philippine Church. But the work within society, even if majority Catholic is enormous. We have to make them understand that God is not only in our hearts, but in our lives, in the choices we make and this has to be taught by example and true testimony.
This is why education on a cultural level is fundamental- My experiences there really opened my eyes to this. I told my kidnappers that I would pray for them. I told them: !I will pray to my God not to convert you, but that he will help you to understand how nice it is to come home at night and find your family, to eat what is available without asking for more, in peace and tranquillity”.
How can this gaol be reached?
The example of forgiveness is very useful, respect for who you are and what you represent is important. Even among Christians the sense of vendetta is high, we have to educate to love and respect. You cannot see the results immediately, but I trust that the Paths of the Lord are infinite.
What is the Gospel message that the Philippines is most in need of?
There as here, in our own country, I think it is the idea that we are all brothers and sisters. And until we really understand this I think we are far from the Gospel. It is easy to recite the Our Father, but the first two words means a lot: if we call him father, we are his children; we are brothers and sisters, no? Recognising that me you and the next person are brothers and sisters changes things. But until this is not recognised, hate and rancour continue to spread.
What advice do you have for a young man, who feels the call to mission?
I would tell him to accept the call with joy and with the awareness of the risks he runs. John Paul II always said: “Do not be afraid!” If you are afraid, well it is best you don’t go on the missions, because that sensation then reflects on the parishioners and does not create the necessary climate of hope and of peace.
What is the current situation of young people in the Philippines?
There is a great need to work to promote honesty and transparency in the Philippines, to work against corruption, which is a social scourge. There is a need to promote concrete human values. Unfortunately it is difficult for the young: there is no work and their future means becoming a small farmer or a fisherman. Last year I asked for an experiment to be held in a local farming village, not only because I like this work, but also because I wanted to transmit to the young people that farming is a dignified work and that you can build something good with your own hands and sustain your family.
The problem is that the race to urbanisation has created cities overflowing with people: young people move to the cities with the belief they will become rich, then they arrive, they don’t find work, they loose face and humiliated, refuse to return to the villages thus often becoming lost to drugs and prostitution. This is why we need to educate them in farming and fishing, so they may remain in their own villages. In the past I had the dream of buying a piece of land in a village and cultivate it using modern methods, together with local villagers. A simple and poor life can allow one to rediscover values such as honesty, the value of work, and daily prayer. Who knows if sooner rather than later I will be able to realise my dream.