I spent the school year 1996/1997 gaining pastoral experience at St Gabriel’s parish Bafmeng. During that year, late Archbishop Verdzekov came on pastoral visit. One of the surprising guests who showed up to welcome the archbishop was the Ardo (the community leader of the Fulanis). After exchanging usual pleasantries, the Ardo stated the real intention of his visit: He had come on behalf of his community to plead with the archbishop to bring back Fr Nielen whom he had transferred to St Anthony’s parish, Njinikom in 1995 so he could be closer to the hospital. The Ardo left really disappointed because the Archbishop painstakingly explained that Fr Nielen would not be returning to Bafmeng where he had served for 13 years.
Fr Nielen had left an indelible mark on the lives of the entire Bafmeng community without prejudice to religion. Bafmeng is a typical African traditional society with a weekly market day that rotates on a calendar determined by traditional norms. This weekly event saw the parish transformed into a beehive as people from across the hills and valleys thronged in to receive medication, clothing and/or cash. His unparalleled largesse enthralled the community. Fr Nielen was an extremely generous and charitable man. While the world spoke of a Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the people of the archdiocese of Bamenda had a Fr Nielen.
In seeking to discern the secret to Fr Nielen’s charity, I found the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta quite apt and resonant with the spirit he engendered. Cardinal Sarah Prefect for the Congregation on Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments describes this in his seminal work, The Power of Silence. Mother Teresa shared her secret thus:
“Do you think that I could practice charity if I did not ask Jesus every day to fill my heart with his love? Do you think that I could go through the streets looking for the poor if Jesus did not communicate the fire of his charity to my heart? Without God, we are too poor to be able to help the poor!”
Fr Nielen was not a social worker but a missionary and never lost side of He who sent him. He brought the poor to God and brought God to the power. True charity is an expression of genuine prayer. Fr Nielen’s first act of charity lies in his acceptance of God’s call to bring the Gospel to Cameroon. Being a missionary is undoubtedly a great act of charity. Most Mill Hill Missionaries went above and beyond to also cater for the material needs of their missions. Fr Nielen took this to a whole different level.
Pope Francis’ portrait of the priest beautifully expressed in his 2013 homily for Chrism mass revealed something true of this missionary disciple.
The priest who seldom goes out of himself, who anoints little – I won’t say “not at all” because, thank God, the people take the oil from us anyway – misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart. Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers. We know the difference: the intermediary, the manager, “has already received his reward”, and since he doesn’t put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks. This is precisely the reason for the dissatisfaction of some, who end up sad – sad priests – in some sense becoming collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with “the odour of the sheep”. This I ask you: be shepherds, with the “odour of the sheep”, make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men.
Fr Nielen bore the marks of a true shepherd even for professional shepherds “ganakos” such as the fulanis in Bafmeng who took offence at the fact that he had to be transferred to a different parish.
Fr Jaap Nielen was born on January 28th 1928, the feast of St Thomas Aquinas. He became a Mill Hill Missionary on July 13th 1952 and bagged a doctorate degree in Philosophy in 1955. He took appointment in Cameroon in 1960 and left in 2003. He transitioned to meet the Lord on February 23 and was laid to rest on February 28, 2018.
In September 1995, Fr Nielen had the unenvious task to preach the annual retreat to seminarians of the St Thomas Aquinas Major Seminary, Bambui, Cameroon. One could hardly tell that this soft spoken priest had a doctorate in Philosophy. His demeanor did not betray his intellectual prowess. He did not speak of the Metaphysics of Being or the epistemological provenance of the Truth or any of the esoteric accoutrements of the philosophical disciplines. In fact if one could hazard a guess, one would have thought he had bagged a terminal degree in Spirituality. Nego! This philosopher drew from the rich treasury of 40 years of the priesthood as a missionary to Africa. He spoke from the heart and reeked of the odor of his sheep: “The Anawims of Yahweh – the poorest of the poor.” He exhorted us to make our ministry that of and for the poor. Dr Nielen’s doctorate in philosophy rather became a doctorate of poverty.
The endearing lesson of this retreat animated the students that years after one of the retreatants James Nkuo signs off all his emails with the inspirational words of Fr Nielen: “It is not what you do that is important but the love with which you do it.”
There could not have been a better choice to inspire seminarians aspiring to the priesthood especially given that he had served as Vocations Director of the archdiocese of Bamenda and what is more had three of his spiritual sons studying in the seminary at the time.
Fr Nielen was a great storyteller. This art had been perfected I guess through his interaction with the poor. Christ used parables to teach and thus one could see he was in touch with his environment and his community. Following his master’s experience, Fr Nielen so much a man of his community that he preached the Good News with uncanny simplicity and yet
One of the tragedies that shot him to “prominence” is the Lake Nyos gas disaster of 1986. Fr Nielen was one of the first responders to the victims of nature’s redness in tooth and claw. I just read the letter he is said to have written to Archbishop Paul Verdzekov shortly after he returned from visiting the disaster area. He wrote inter alia:
“On Friday rumors reached us that the lake had killed some Fulani man and his cows. Then again that the quarter head of Cha was lying dead in his compound with his two women. On Saturday morning, I was so worried that I went there with my two catechists…”
I spent a month in Buabua, one of the resettlement camps of the victims of the Nyos disaster. The journey to that part of that parish took weeks to prepare. The journey to Ise, the closest motorable outstation of the parish to the disaster area is at the least two hours 30 minutes. The Nyos disaster occurred in August, in the heart of the rainy season when the roads are near impassable. It is striking to note that when Fr Nielen heard of the news he did not send others to go and explore the area and come back to report to him. He definitely had mass in the parish the next day given it was a Sunday. That would have been a valid excuse. Yet, he was so worried that he set off on that treacherous journey to be with the people during that moment of infinite pathos and vulnerability. Life had been snuffed out of approximately 1700 persons and “Jaap” moved through those villages without fear assessing the needs and burying the dead.
The pain of this veritable pastor was palpable as he recounted: “No Christian of Nyos came to greet me and cry with me. The Church of Nyos had died, with Mattias, the head Christian and Nazarius, the catechist and Mary, the choir mistress.”
What an exceptional feat of courage. The courage of a pastor whose sole task is the wellbeing of the people he has been called to serve and minister to. It is this same courage that inspired him to become a missionary leaving the comfort of Holland to the hinterlands of Bafmeng. No doubt he had as one of his mantras, “life no be na joke!” – Life is not a joke!
By sheer dint of luck, Fr Nielen died a few days after American Evangelist Billy Graham. He had just celebrated his 90th birthday anniversary and 65th anniversary of the priesthood. This year is also the 90th anniversary of the Oscars. And so the Oscar for missionary activity goes to Fr Nielen who was laid to rest on Wednesday February 28, 2018.
Two of his spiritual persons Fr Emmanuel Nuh and Fr Anthony Bangsi spent some time with Fr Nielen prior to his demise and left us with an endearing souvenir of Fr Nielen. The magic of his melodious voice rings out in this audio