Repeatedly celebrating the Mass in his mind and resolutely praying the Stations of the Cross, the Angelus, the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet by himself while being held in captivity for 557 days in war-torn Yemen were among the spiritual survival tactics used by Father Tom Uzhunnalil, S.D.B.
Yet the humble Salesians of Don Bosco priest from Kerala, India, recalls questioning his worthiness to be a martyr like the women religious who were murdered minutes before he was placed in the trunk of a vehicle and driven away.
A chaplain to the Missionaries of Charity Sisters in Yemen at that time who was also serving Catholics there on a religious visa, Father Uzhunnalil, now 60, was abducted March 4, 2016, after a group of gunmen barged into the care home for the elderly run by the religious sisters. Sixteen people, including four Missionaries of Charity, were killed in the attack.
He was released Sept. 12, 2017, after enduring a lonely captivity in some unknown locations.
Last week, Father Uzhunnalil recounted his kidnapping and release at the Salesian Missions in New Rochelle. The attentive audience at the Sept. 5 assembly included students from nearby Salesian High School as well as Salesian Missions administration and staff members. Father Mark Hyde, S.D.B., director of Salesian Missions, had invited Father Uzhunnalil to share his story. A question-and-answer session followed.
The day marked the feast of St. Teresa of Kolkata, foundress of the Missionaries of Charity.
“First, I say a big thanks to our Lord for permitting me to be present here, and to see you all and to thank you all in Jesus’ name for the prayers that I have received without really knowing who all have been praying for me,” Father Uzhunnalil said.
“If I stand here, I owe to each and every one of you present here, those representing different parts of the world in this country and other countries. May Jesus bless each and every one. Jesus is our living God who has heard our prayers, will continue to hear our prayers, and give us an answer in His good time, at the most appropriate time, for our benefit.”
Relaying his story, he said he was relegated to a chair by his captors and witnessed either by sound or sight or both, some of the murders that day, including those of two nuns who, a mere 50 feet from him, were shot in the back of the head and fell to the ground face down. “It was a big shock,” he said. “I just prayed to the Lord, ‘Lord, have mercy on the sisters, and also on those who are killing them,’” he said, explaining they had regularly prayed “for the conversion of all these fundamentalist groups and for the end of war.”
Father Uzhunnalil has written a book about his captivity and release titled “By the Grace of God: Recounting 557 Days of Terrorist Captivity in War-Torn Yemen.”
Among the numerous poignant excerpts of the book, published in Bengaluru, India, this year, is his account of being placed in captivity. “They took away the steel chain that was on my neck, looked at the medals on it and said, ‘Miriam.’ I said ‘yes,’ for they were medals of Mother Mary and Don Bosco.”
The threat of death did not crush him. “All this while, from 8:30 a.m. on 4 March 2016, to the moment of release, no fear of death overtook me,” he said.
“Often, I wonder at those 557 days, when I was in captivity. I was vulnerable, but not defeated. I was anxious but not desperate. I had worries but never lost trust in His Almighty hands. My captors could have hurt me, but they never did,” he said.
“While He gave me trials on one side, He strengthened me with graces on the other.”
The murder of the sisters continued to disturb him as he lay in captivity, he said. “In my disturbed mind I kept asking God if the sisters were already with Him in heaven. I kept pleading with God for a tangible sign that they are in His company in heaven. In fact, this was the biggest preoccupation of my prayer in the initial days of captivity.
“One day, something made me pray that God should give a rain as a sign from heaven that the sisters are now enjoying the Beatific Vision,” he continues in his book. “Believe it or not, that evening there was a very heavy shower; there was lightning and thunder as well. Looking at the rain through the window and feeling the lighting and thunder, I thanked the Lord in my heart. The Lord has heard my prayers.”
The profound pain Father Uzhunnalil felt at the martyrdom of the sisters then disappeared, he said, and he prayed for their intercession.
“All of you have prayed for me for the past one- and-a-half years, with sacrifice, with love,” he said to the attendees of the Salesian Missions forum.
“Trust in the Lord, trust in prayer,” he told them. Father Uzhunnalil underscored that “the Lord calls each of us with a mission. Let’s be attentive to what that mission is.”
The priest said he understand his “present duty is to be a witness,” which he is doing by sharing his story around the globe.
“In Yemen now,” he said, “the war is still not over. Let’s pray for the end of war,” Father Uzhunnalil concluded. “Let no country have any war. The hardships of war are too hard. Hundreds of thousands of young people, men and women, lose their life. Our prayer will help them.”
Accompanying Father Uzhunnalil to the Salesian Missions in New Rochelle were Father Jose Koyickal, S.D.B., vice provincial of the Bangalore Province, in India, and Father Shalbin Kalanchery Paul, S.D.B., mission procurator of the Bangalore province’s Don Bosco Mission.
That evening the three priests celebrated Mass at St. Thomas Syro-Malabar parish in the Bronx, at the invitation of the pastor, Father Jos Kandathikudy. Father Uzhunnalil served as principal celebrant and homilist. Concelebrating were Father Kandathikudy and five other priests.
Father Uzhunnalil, Father Koyickal and Father Paul arrived in the United States at the end of August; the first visit on their American tour was Charlotte, N.C. Scheduled stops were to include Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Calif., and Dallas, before their return to India in early October.