As the Royal Oman Air force plane landed in Muscat, mid-morning on Tuesday 12 September, it was like a beautiful oasis in the desert to see Fr Tom Uzhunnalil SDB stepping out of the aircraft and into freedom, after almost 18 months in captivity.
Sources said that this breakthrough happened because the Vatican made a special request to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who issued a royal order to his team to secure the release of Fr Tom from his captors in war-torn Yemen.
In a first video broadcast message after his release, Fr Tom expressed an emotional message of gratitude to all those who have been praying for him. “God is great; His love is everlasting, His mercy is great, He has a purpose in our lives and what I went through definitely had a purpose, because I have received the prayers and love of all the people from the world, and God has ultimately answered your prayers. I am grateful to God for each and every one of you for your love, concern and prayers, and may God bless each and every one of you, and all those who have been involved in making this day possible,” he said.
Expressing with sanguine attitude, he further added: “Although I am still a bit weak, I feel happy and strong in my mind and soul, and I am sure that God will put me back on whatever mission He wants me, and wherever He wants and as long as He wants.”
Shortly after his arrival in Oman, Fr Tom was escorted in a Royal Oman Air Force plane to the Vatican, where he had a special audience with Pope Francis. During his meeting with the Pope, Fr Tom said: “I prayed for you every day, offering my suffering for your mission and for the good of the Church.” Sources present at this meeting said these words, moved the Holy Father to tears.
Speaking to L’Osservatore Romano, Fr. Uzhunnalil said that although he couldn't celebrate Mass while in captivity, yet every day inside in my heart, I repeated the words of the celebration.” One of the first spiritual acts of mercy, Fr Tom did was to make a confession, as he could not do so for a long time.
In a brief statement, Bishop Paul Hinder, Apostolic Vicar of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, under whose jurisdiction Yemen falls, said that he expressed his thanks to God, to all the faithful around the world who prayed, to the officials of the Sultanate of Oman who worked for the release of Fr Tom - representatives of His Majesty the Sultan, and to officials at the Vatican.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias of the Archdiocese of Bombay, added: “After this terrible experience, the essential message that Tom is about to convey is that 'Jesus is great and loves us’.” He also recalled the words of Fr Tom, who said, “Truly, every day I felt Jesus next to me, I always knew and felt in my heart that I was not alone.”
The Salesian Rector Major, Fr Ángel Fernández Artime, said: “In the afternoon of September 13, I had the joy and the happiness of meeting my beloved brother Fr Tom, now in the Salesian community at the Vatican. I greeted him in the Indian style, and we gave each other a strong hug as a sign of fraternal affection.
“I was deeply impressed in learning that he celebrated the Eucharist every day, even without bread and wine, offering the Lord what he was going through. He lived many simple things as a gift of God, like sleeping serenely and living every moment in peace. At the beginning of each new day, he continued to pray, speaking with the Lord, offering himself for everyone, for the Church, for the young. Truly, Fr Tom gave me a testimony of faith that has touched me. We prayed in the Chapel of the Salesian Community, and I gave him the blessing of Mary Help of Christians.”
He further added: “His release is a reason for continuing to respond in the future with greater fidelity and authenticity to God’s summons and to the charism that He has entrusted to us and to whom Fr Tom has delivered his life: The announcement of Jesus and His Gospel, the predilection for children and young people from all over the world, and among them: the poorest and abandoned."
Fr Artime also offered his personal Salesian Cross as a token of brotherly gratitude and affection, and they sang the 'Hail, Holy Queen' to Mother Mary.
The Catholic community across the world was rejoicing and giving thanks to God upon learning the news of the release of Fr Tom. The role of the Vatican, the Sultanate of Oman and the Indian Government, not to forget the ground negotiators who played a significant role in securing the release.
The key takeaways from Fr Tom’s story:
1) This entire case is a strong lesson to the media and persons, who blindly published and shared information that Fr Tom was crucified on Good Friday of 2016, without verifying the facts of the story. There were cases of media houses refusing to even publish a retraction when the story was said to be false.
2) Fr Tom’s story teaches us that he shows no bitterness towards his captors, and asserted that he was never in fear of being killed and on the contrary, they (his captors) even provided medicine for his diabetes. His act of seeking the sacrament of reconciliation speaks volumes.
3) Fr Tom’s unshakable faith in the Eucharist is what kept him moving. His desire to celebrate mass daily, even without bread and wine, and offering to God his nothingness, is a powerful testimony for every Catholic across the world.
4) Although Fr Tom was held captive for 18 months; physically and mentally tortured, yet his missionary spirit and his faith in God and the sacraments never died.
One of the many questions that were asked was, why did Fr Tom go to Yemen in the first place, despite knowing the dangers and the ongoing war. The answer lies in his own words, which he spoke in his first video broadcast message that he is ready for another mission, wherever God sends him and for however long God wants him to be there.
( Indian Currents acknowledges L’Osservatore Romano, Salesian Information Agency and Catholic News Agency for their valuable inputs)(Published on 18th September 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 38)