Please pray for Fr Henry Nickel, SVD, who died this morning.
Fr Henry is one of the priests who loomed large in my childhood. He was never in my own parish in Ballarat East, but he moved to the cathedral when I was nine years old, so he was a familiar priestly presence.
I long identified him with Pope John Paul II. They shared a close physical resemblance — at least to my child’s eye — and they were both Polish. Their accents, though, were very different. Fr Henry was much harder to understand. Perhaps because of that, I listened closely at his Masses.
Fr Henry always prefaced ex tempore remarks with, “My dear people,” and his homilies were liberally peppered with the same. When he preached he exhorted, so even at a young age I differentiated him from most other priests, who tended not to exhort but to instruct. Popes exhort too. Another resemblance between Fr Henry and his compatriot!
In the first month of my priesthood, I lived and worked at the Ballarat cathedral. The first weeks after priestly ordination are filled with wonder and awe. Fr Henry dined late at night, and I would often share a drink with him, which allowed me to debrief. Those conversations demonstrated his great love for the priesthood, but this was even more evident in his spirit of service and his generosity.
I would add, too, that Fr Henry was a man who “thought with the mind of the Church.” That’s not easy, because the mind of the Church is really the mind of God, and our human minds naturally settle for narrower horizons.
When Fr Henry departed Australia last year, Fr Gary Jones — another priest I remember as a child, who did live in my parish! — wrote a warm tribute. It is timely.