“He will destroy death forever”.
“When we were baptised, we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life”.
“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am”.
These clear affirmations of faith from the readings we have just heard sustain us in the face of what the Second Vatican Council has called “the enigma” of death. Confronted with the reality of death and the painful sense of irretrievable loss which accompanies it, neither human reason nor imagination offer much solace. Only our faith in Christ and his promises sheds light on this enigma. By his own life-giving death on the Cross, Christ overcame the destructive power of death and made it the pathway to new life. And so, while we acknowledge our pain at the loss of our brother, Jack, we do so in the context of Christ’s own life-giving death and resurrection which we commemorate in the Eucharist. And, it is in this context too that we recall the key moments of Fr Jack’s life and missionary service.
Jack Casey was born on 11 February 1931 in Cork City. He was the second son of Andrew and Julia Casey. Jack received his primary education at the Model School, Cork and at the North Monastery, where he continued his secondary education. He then studied at UCC and graduated in 1952 with an honours degree in science. During his years of secondary schooling and at University, Jack was an exceptionally gifted chess player and won numerous awards at local and national levels. Following his University studies, Jack decided he wanted to be a missionary priest and began his training with the Society of African Missions in Cloughballymore, Kilcolgan, Co Galway. After doing the first year of the Philosophy programme there, he entered the Major Seminary of the Society in Dromantine where he completed his Philosophy studies, and continued with the study of theology from 1954 – 1958.
Jack became a permanent member of the Society on 12 June 1957 and, on 18 June 1958, along with eleven classmates – four of whom are here today – was ordained to the priesthood in the Cathedral of St Colman and St Patrick, Newry, Co Down.
Following his ordination, Fr Jack’s first appointment was to the diocese of Benin City in Mid-West Nigeria where he was to make a notable contribution especially in the field of education. As a Science graduate, Jack was in great demand owing to the number of Secondary Grammar Schools being established all over the diocese at the time, most of which offered science subjects in the West African School Certificate Examination (WAEC). Jack began his teaching career at Ishan Grammar School, near Uromi. He also taught in St Peter’s Claver’s College, Aghalokpe, Notre Dame College, in Ozoro, Immaculate Conception College, in Benin City, and Annunciation College, in Irrua. While teaching in Immaculate Conception College, Fr Jack also became chaplain to the then Military Governor of the Midwest, David Ejoor.
In 1969 Fr Jack was recalled to Ireland to teach at SMA College, Ballinafad, Co Mayo, for one year. His students remember him not only as an excellent teacher but as a gentle and kind priest. During his time in Ireland, Jack also studied for the Higher Diploma in Education in UCG, while teaching and living at St Mary’s College, Galway.
Unable to obtain a visa to return to Nigeria in June 1971, he undertook courses in French in Dublin and in Lyons, France, before returning to Benin City in January 1973, where he joined the teaching Staff of St Patrick’s College, Asaba. In his 2003 book, Kindling the Fire, Fr James Higgins SMA writes of Jack during his years in St Patrick’s: “He was generally recognised as a brilliant teacher of Mathematics and his past students, many of whom are in high positions today, readily record their gratitude” (p. 94).
Jack’s ability as a teacher was not confined to science. There’s a story he liked to tell about himself when he was given the task of teaching Bible Knowledge to a class preparing for the West African School Certificate Examination. In the examination, as Jack recounted it, only one student in the class passed. Then he laughed as he added the punch line: all the rest got honours.
While teaching in St Patrick’s College, Asaba, Jack was actively involved in pastoral ministry. He developed the Church among the people in the vicinity of the College and subsequently the community where he worked became St Patrick’s parish, West End. In 1986, Fr Jack transferred from Mid-West Nigeria to Western Nigeria, to the diocese of Ibadan where he was also involved in pastoral ministry for a number of years
In 1993 Jack returned to the Mid-West, to assist his classmate, Fr Sean Ryan, in St Patrick’s SMA parish, Cable Point, Asaba. However, he remained there only for only a brief period before returning to Ishan and the house where his missionary career had begun nearly forty years earlier (no longer as a house for training young missionaries arriving in Nigeria but as place of rest for elderly SMA priests). Jack took over as Guestmaster, a post he would hold until 2000 when an unfortunate domestic accident forced him to retire to Blackrock Road, Cork. Of his time as Guest Master in Uromi, Fr Higgins writes: “Jack had time to indulge in his favourite hobbies – solving chess problems, listening to classical music and, of course, reading” [Kindling the Fire, p. 95].
Fr Jack’s years in Nigeria coincided with a period of great development of schools, clinics, churches throughout the original diocese of Benin City. Several dioceses have been carved out of that original jurisdiction and Jack served in two of them: Warri and Issele-Uku. After his departure the dioceses of Auchi and Uromi were created. Bomadi Vicariate was also established during Jack’s time in Nigeria.
It is not for us to measure the enduring significance of any life lived in the service of the Lord. We leave that judgement to the Lord himself. What we can and must acknowledge is that Fr Jack’s life of missionary service played a vitally important part in what Pope John Paul II has termed “the historical drama of charity, heroism and sacrifice that has made the African Church the vibrant, fast growing plant it is today”. We also acknowledge the role that Fr Jack’s family and his local community played in inspiring, nurturing and supporting Jack in the living out his missionary vocation.
The final fifteen years of Jack’s life were spent in retirement in Blackrock Road and for most of that time Jack enjoyed reasonably good health. When his health deteriorated, he took up residence in St Theresa’s Nursing Unit, where he was well cared for by the nursing staff of that unit. Up to a few months ago he took part in most of the community exercises of the House and even developed a latent talent for painting. In his final moments with us, he was surrounded by the members of his family with whom he had always maintained close ties, as well as by his confreres.
Four days ago the Lord called him home. May He grant him the fullness of life in the company of the blessed in heaven.