On 25 April 2018, the parish of Tierra Nueva (San Luis Potosí) lived through one of the greatest moments in its life of faith: thousands of people wished to accompany Fr. Rafael Rico Hernández when they heard, to their great distress, the news of his untimely death. There was a gathering of countless people who shared the life, the missionary vocation and the ministry of Fr. Rafael: priests, relatives and faithful of the parish and many others coming from different places where Fr. Rico, as he was called, used to work. Without delay, there were various celebrations and moments of prayer to give thanks for the gift of this Comboni who conquered the hearts of all he met on his missionary journey.
Rafael was born on 27 February 1963, in Tierra Nueva, San Luis Potosí, a small town hidden among arid and uninhabited mountains. He spent his infancy taking care of the family herd of goats. It was there that he first dreamed of going far away to tend other flocks. It was there that he received the gifts of generosity and simplicity in a family that was humble and poor but rich in faith that planted in his heart the values that led him to decide to leave everything to become the servant of all.
Having finished elementary school, he entered the seminary of San Francisco del Rincón, in the state of Guanajuato. He is remembered as having been, during his entire formation, a simple, respectful, generous and cheerful boy who was ready to agree to all the seminary asked of him.
Rafael did all his formation with the Combonis – secondary school, postulancy and novitiate – in Mexico. This helped him greatly to grow in his identification with the charism of St Daniel Comboni and enabled him to fall in love with Africa – with its people and its missions – where he later spent most his missionary life.
On 7 May 1988, having completed the novitiate, he took first vows at Sahuayo, Mich. He was then sent to the Nairobi scholasticate where he dedicated himself to the study of theology and had his first contact with Africa.
The years 1988 to 1993 were years spent in study, sometimes with difficulty, though he was never discouraged. On 12 October 1992, he made his perpetual profession and on 4 September 1993, he was ordained priest by Mons. Arturo A. Szymanski, Archbishop of San Luis Potosí.
His first appointment was to the province of Mexico and his first posting was to the seminary of San Francisco del Rincón, where he had begun his formation journey.
In San Francisco he dedicated himself with enthusiasm to vocations promotion, bringing many young people into the seminary. Those years were filled with intense work of visiting schools, parishes and youth groups, with many vocational and pre-seminary meetings. At the same time, he was happily busy with priestly ministry, showing great availability and closeness to the people.
In October 2001 he was appointed to the mission of Kenya where he would spend the rest of his life. As soon as he arrived he set about learning the local language at the parish of Lokichar. From there he went to his first missionary appointment in the parish of Lokori where he stayed until 2006. He then returned to Lokichar to continue his pastoral work. He was still in the region of the Turkana, the people who won his heart.
From September 2009 to May 2010, he was stationed in Mexico to participate in the Comboni Year of On-going Formation. He then returned to Kenya and the parish of Lokichar.
Little by little, Fr. Rafael took on duties not only in the parish but also in the diocese. His presence and his work were greatly appreciated by the bishop, and the people of his mission.
His last mission in Kenya was the parish of Nakwamekwi situated in an isolated and impoverished area. The parish was surrounded by low, arid mountains that reminded Rafael of those he knew in his infancy. It was not easy for him to leave that mission. It took him some months before, in obedience to the decision of his superiors, he returned to Mexico in January, 2018.
They were waiting for him in Mexico to take up a post in a mission among the indigenous people in the mountains of Guerrero State, a situation full of challenges and a demanding mission. I still remember his reply: ‘Father, send me where they need me; I know what it is to demand obedience of other confreres’. In actual fact, he had done so during his years of service as a provincial councillor in Kenya.
He arrived in Metlatónoc just before Holy Week and immediately began to work visiting the villages and celebrating in the various communities. (Fr. Enrique Sánchez G., mccj)