Ffunerals in Nigeria are complex matters, and it was fitting that on July 15, a few days after the death of Father Raymond Hickey OSA, the religious order to which he belonged, marked his death with a funeral mass attended by eleven Catholic bishops, many priests and nuns, as well as a large crowd of lay people, including representatives of the Council of the Emirate of Potiskum.
It took place in St Monica, Rantya, Jos, and among the many people who came to Rantya that week to express their condolences was the Governor of Plateau State and Chairman of the Northern Governors Forum. , the Rt.Hon. Simon Bako Lalong.
Father Hickey arrived in Nigeria at the age of 24 in 1960, a few weeks after Nigeria officially gained independence. He had spent his entire life there since then, with the exception of a few years in Rome in the 1970s, and although he could have returned to his native Ireland upon learning he was suffering from a terminal illness, he preferred to die here.
The OSA – the Order of Saint Augustine or of the Augustinians – is one of the many Catholic orders or congregations dedicated to the service of the Church and composed of “religious”, who are men or women and have taken vows to poverty, chastity and obedience. Men were known as monks, women as nuns, but these two words have become old fashioned. The Orders are not under the authority of the bishops, which gives them a flexibility which has undoubtedly contributed over the centuries to the growth and dynamism of the Catholic Church and to the dissemination of the Christian Gospel.
Like other Orders, the Augustinians have a distinctive “charism”, a particular philosophy and way of life reflecting the ideals of a founder who lived in a more or less distant past. In their case, it was Augustine of Hippo, the holy philosopher and prolific writer of the late 4th and early 5th centuries CE, who was born and died in Africa, in what we call today the Maghreb. His most famous work is Confessions, a spiritual autobiography, but his faith-based philosophy shaped medieval Christian thinking and had a great influence on Protestant reformer Martin Luther.
As Father Hickey was ready to remind us, the Augustinians had had contact with coastal Nigeria as early as the 15th century; but they did not establish a permanent presence in the country until 1939 and for a long time only operated in the far northeast. Father Hickey’s years in the country thus represented considerably more than half of the time the Augustinians spent here.
For many years he worked among the “minority” peoples in what are now Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states, in what became the Catholic Dioceses of Maiduguri and Yola. Later in his life he spent some time in Benin, Lagos and Abuja; but he was still proud to call himself an Arewa, a Northerner. He was fluent in Hausa and using it to say mass, preach homilies and counsel penitents was routine for him.
Father Hickey was essentially a man of God and a servant of the Church, to whom the fulfillment of the duties just mentioned governed his life and gave it meaning. He was broad-minded in the sense that he had great respect and had good relations with people of other faiths or religious traditions, including of course non-Catholic Christians and Muslims.
Despite his somewhat austere and upright appearance – or because of it – he was an avid sportsman, who once loved to play tennis; years later, he enjoyed chilling out watching football on TV. He also had strong scientific interests and wrote numerous books and articles. Naturally enough, these were mainly about the Christian faith, and it can be said that he specialized in writing the history of the Catholic Church in Nigeria.
I first knew ‘Fr Ray’, or Ray as I finally called him, about thirty years ago, when he lived for some time at the Augustinian monastery of Jos and I , occasionally visited the place from Kano. We got to know each other much better when, after many years of work in the secretariat of the papal nunciature (i.e. the Vatican embassy) in Abuja, he returned to Jos as a member of the small community. of OSA priests in Rantya. The help I was happy to give him was that sometimes, when he went to celebrate mass at the Church of Saint Francis of Babale, at the gates of Jos, I accompanied him and read him the homily he had composed: this is because, for a period of some years, he had a voice disorder which prevented him from reading aloud for a while.
So, during his last years at Jos, Ray and I met a lot; and I knew he enjoyed discussing matters of common interest with me, including languages, literature and history. In addition to Hausa, he was fluent in Italian, but also Gaelic, the “mother tongue” of Ireland which, unfortunately, is now known and spoken by fewer and fewer Irish people; he liked to explain to me the etymology of Irish proper names, like ‘Fionnbarr’, one of the first Irish saints who gave his name to the Catholic Church in Rayfield, Jos. I was happy to nurture his interest in literature by lending him both European and African novels, including that of Dostoyevsky. The Karamazov brothers and that of Abubakar Adam Ibrahim Purple flower season.
Ray was also interested in British politics and was happy to describe himself as politically center-left. In general, he was extremely moderate (to use an oxymoron, perhaps) in his opinions, and very cautious in his expression, whether in relation to politics and ideologies, or the internal affairs of the Church. He once criticized me for calling some current trends in the Church and in society in general in the Western world as manifestations of what I have called “diabolical liberalism”, and I found it difficult to understand. explain that I didn’t mean to say that all liberalism was evil. , only a few manifestations or developments of it. But he said he was generally optimistic about the future of the Church.
While in Ireland, Ray lived with his sister Gladys, and thanks to modern technology she, like many others in Nigeria and abroad, was able to participate in funeral ceremonies.
A generous, honorable, courageous, just and peace-loving man and priest, Fr. Raymond Hickey now lives in a new peace with God. He is greatly mourned and missed in the Church in Nigeria and in Nigerian society in general.
Professor David Jowitt writes from Jos