By Elise Harris
Just one day after being released from 18 months of captivity, Indian priest Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil shared an emotional meeting with Pope Francis, saying that throughout his time as a prisoner, he offered his suffering for the Pope and the Church.
According to a Sept. 13 article published in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, the encounter took place at the Pope’s residence in the Vatican’s St Martha guesthouse immediately after the general audience on Wednesday.
Photos of the encounter show an emotional scene as Fr. Uzhunnalil bends down to kiss the Pope’s feet, after which the Pope tenderly gives the priest his blessing.
While Fr. Uzhunnalil appeared with an overgrown beard in the majority of photos published during his time in captivity, today’s pictures show him clean-shaven and dressed in clerics.
According to L’Osservatore Romano, Fr. Uzhunnalil thanked the Pope, saying “(I) prayed for you every day, offering my suffering for your mission and for the good of the Church.” These words, the newspaper reports, moved the Pope to tears.
A Salesian missionary, Fr. Uzhunnalil first garnered the world’s attention when he was kidnapped March 4, 2016, during an attack on a Missionaries of Charity home in Aden, Yemen, that left 16 people dead, including four Sisters.
His international profile grew when rumors spread that he was to be crucified on Good Friday, which were later discredited. After that, numerous photos and videos were released depicting Fr. Uzhunnalil, thin and 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 comments to L’Osservatore Romano, Fr. Uzhunnalil said he couldn’t celebrate Mass while in captivity, but “every day inside, in my heart, I repeated the words of the celebration.”
The priest remarked that he would continue to pray “for all those who were beside me spiritually,” and offered a special word of remembrance for the 16 people who died during the attack in which he was kidnapped.
He also offered thanks to the government of Oman, in particular Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, and to the Holy See for their role in brokering his release.
On his part, Pope Francis embraced Fr. Uzhunnalil and told him that he would continue to pray for him, as he had every day while the priest was imprisoned. Visibly moved, the Pope then gave the priest his blessing, L’Osservatore Romano reported.
Accompanying Fr. Uzhunnalil was Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay and a member of the Pope’s Council of Cardinal advisers.
In comments to L’Osservatore Romano, the cardinal said that after this “terrible experience, the essential message that Tom is about to convey is that ‘Jesus is great and loves us.’”
He recalled the words of the priest, who after being released said, “Truly, every day I felt Jesus next to me, I always knew and felt in my heart that I was not alone.”
In a Sept. 13 letter, Fr. Ángel Fernández Artime, Major Rector of the Salesian order, said Fr. Uzhunnalil arrived to their community around 6 p.m. Sept. 12, having flown to Rome directly from the Muscat airport in Oman.
He said Fr. Uzhunnalil will stay with them for a few days in order to ensure that he has medical treatment and time to rest, and also “to be able to embrace him in the name of all brother Salesians and the entire Salesian family.”
Artime said that while they were aware that discussions were underway with the priest’s kidnappers, the community did not know that Fr. Uzhunnalil had been freed until he was already on his way to Rome.
He stressed that “the Salesian Congregation was not asked for any ransom payment,” and said they are unaware of any payment that may have been made to ensure Fr. Uzhunnalil’s release.
The rector offered his thanks to the various parties involved in securing Fr. Uzhunnalil’s release, as well as all those who kept the priest in their prayers.
Fr. Uzhunnalil’s freedom, he said, “is a motivation to continue to respond in the future with utmost fidelity and authenticity to the call and to the charism he has entrusted to us, and to which Fr. Tom has given his life: the announcement of Jesus and his Gospel, preaching to young boys, girls and youth throughout the world, among them, the poor and abandoned.”
In a separate article published on the Salesian Information Agency, it was noted that after his arrival, one of Fr. Uzhunnalil’s first requests was to pray in the Salesian community’s chapel in the Vatican, and to celebrate Mass.
Due to the necessity of immediate medical examinations, he was not able to celebrate Mass right away, but he asked if he could go to confession before the medical staff arrived, since he not had the opportunity while in captivity.
The article says Fr. Tom was treated to a traditional Indian meal later that night. In sharing his experience with the community, the priest said he never once felt that his life was in danger, and that at one point, his captors provided medicine for his diabetes.
No official date was given for when Fr. Uzhunnalil will return to India, however, he is expected to go back to Kerala within a few days.