Father Hickey’s 80th mission step
On the eve of Nigeria’s 55th independence anniversary, The Guardian newspaper carried an article written by me titled “Nigeria at 55: From Despair to Hope” (30/10/2015). My intention was to encourage Nigerians to continue to hope amidst the distress and misery in the land, and to believe that things will eventually get better. But inadvertently I imagined that I ended up selling the bitter pills of despair. While reactions to the piece continued to drop in my email, on October 30, 2015, I received a handwritten letter from the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican Embassy in Abuja. Signed by Father Raymond Hickey, a senior priest working at the Embassy, the content of the letter was a personal reaction to my article.
In the letter, Father Hickey thanked me but expressed reservations about my sombre view of Nigeria’s progress since independence. Included in the letter was a full page of what he titled “Nigeria at 55: Ten Achievements.” In his view, my article was “90% despair and 10% hope.” He therefore wanted me to appreciate the alternative picture of ten major achievements that Nigeria has recorded since 1960 to date. The first achievement on his list was Nigeria’s ability to manage diversity and to stay together as a nation in spite of the tough challenges that threatened to tear the country apart. The apt example he supplied here was the Civil War, an experience that, he said, “showed people the futility and tragedy of division.”
Although I had heard quite some good things about Father Hickey, one singular mark prompted me to read his letter with great relish. He has been in Nigeria since October 1960. He very well knows the country he’s talking about because he has seen Nigeria grow from toddlerhood to adulthood. That partly accounts for the reason he fondly calls Nigeria “my home.” Besides, in an era when many Nigerians have mastered the art of rubbishing their country and dismissing its chances of going anywhere, here was a “foreigner” raising Nigeria’s profile. That made a lasting impression on me.
Father Hickey is an Irish Catholic priest of the Order of Saint Augustine (OSA). Saint Augustine, a 4th century Bishop of Hippo (in North Africa), is one of the most highly regarded theologians of the Christian tradition. His writings continue to exercise great influence on Christianity. Father Hickey himself is also a widely respected theologian and historian. His vast wealth of experience in both sacred and secular matters is very well known in and beyond the Catholic Church in Nigeria.
Father Hickey is quite a simple and humble priest. In a reply to my article “The Other Side of the Coin” published in Thisday newspaper (23/11/2015), he thanked me for ‘promoting’ him to the position of the Chargē d’Affaires at the Embassy of the Holy See (that is the diplomat who is in charge of the affairs of an embassy in the absence of the ambassador), but reminded me of his simple position. “In fact, I am employed here – and I am certainly not a diplomat: ‘office staff’ shall we say – and it is a very rewarding work.” That is the hallmark of a man who does not appropriate honours that are not his own. Since 1960, Father Hickey has laboured tirelessly in some of the toughest missionary frontiers in northern Nigeria, spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. As a result of his overarching knowledge of our country’s peoples and cultures, he can well pass for a ‘living missionary embodiment of the history of modern Nigeria’.
Anyone familiar with the history of Christian missionary enterprise in Nigeria will remember that many European missionaries who came to Nigeria in the early and later part of the 20th century suffered and died from ailments such as malaria and typhoid. A visit to the cemetery in Saint Theresa Junior Seminary, Oke-Are, in Ibadan, where many Irish Catholic missionary priests and lay people are resting in peace, will reveal profound truths about how the love of God drove young men and women to hitherto unknown lands. For love of God, these missionaries abandoned the comfort of their families and countries and came to Nigeria to preach the good news. Many of them died in their late 20s and 30s. Few of them reached their 40th birthday at the time. Little wonder, Africa was called “the white man’s graveyard.”
Their tombstones remind us today of the irresistible pull of a heart that loves God. They teach us that the first step of love is friendship with God. When a man loves God, no amount of sacrifice is too big. The Song of Songs expresses this profound truth in a remarkable poetic rendition: “Love is a fire which no waters avail to quench, no flood to drown. For love, a man can give up all that he has in this world, and think nothing of his loss” (Songs 8:7). This, for me, is a remarkable signpost of Father Hickey’s life. The English writer, Graham Greene, became famous for his novel, The Power and the Glory (1940) in which he sees a priest achieving heroic things, despite limiting human conditions. Maybe Father Hickey can relate with that, but I believe his life’s story might well be summed up in Saint Paul’s missionary disquisition: “I cannot boast of announcing the Gospel: I am bound to do it. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16).
On April 21, 2016, Father Hickey turned 80. Of these, he has spent 56 years in Nigeria. Even after a tough missionary adventure, Father Hickey remains strong in body and alert in mind. His athletic gait might even give him away as a 40-year-old. I have already sent him my best wishes. What I vote for here is nothing less than the Nigerian national honour of ‘Commander of the Order of the Niger’ (CON).
Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja.
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