By Father Clement “Clem” Olukunle Oyafemi
JACKSON – Early in the year 2002, a few months after the terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York (9/11), I was invited to officiate at a wedding in Detroit. It was a time of extreme fear and uncertainty throughout the entire country. No one was willing to trust anyone.
So, I flew from New York to Detroit, landing around 6 p.m., early enough for the wedding rehearsal. Dressed fully in my clerical wear, I made it easier for anyone to identify me, and I was also expecting my designated driver to stand at the airport with my name on card as was usual.
Unfortunately, there was no sign with my name, nor was there anyone to ask who I was. I waited and waited at the airport but there was no one to get me. By midnight I made up my mind I was going to stay the night in the nearest hotel and then take a cab to the church the next day to witness the wedding.
As I was approaching the front desk, two young men moved toward my direction, and one of them intentionally brushed his elbow against me and quickly said, “Am sorry sir.” I looked at him and smiled. Then he began a conversation. “By the way, are you Father Clem from New York? Then I said, “Yes, why are you asking?” And the man responded, “Well, I am your designated driver. We have been waiting here for six hours and we couldn’t find you.”
I told the two young men, “I have been here for six hours also, and I have been looking for my name on a sign, but couldn’t find it.” The man responded, “Dr. Cochabamba made a sign with your name on it and gave it to us when we were leaving for the airport. But we threw it away telling him, ‘We know what a priest looks like.’”
I asked him, “So why didn’t you find me? As you can see, I’m wearing my clerical suit.” The other man responded, “Because, we were told that your name is Father Clement, and you were coming from New York. We pictured a tall, white man with a beard, and in his early sixties. So, when we saw you, we did not pay attention, because you did not match the image of the ‘Father Clem’ we had in our heads.”
Just like the two designated drivers in the story, who had me pictured incorrectly in their minds, the majority of the people, in the time of Jesus, had a different image of the Messiah in their minds. Jesus didn’t “fit the mold” of their expected image of the savior. And that is why they did not accept him.
By asking the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus was questioning his disciples about his identity. (cf Mt 16:15) This question is very essential to the Christian faith. It is very important for us to know the identity of Jesus so that we may relate correctly with him. And trust me, Jesus will never entrust his church to those who do not know him.
Peter’s confession, as we see in the gospel passage, represents the apostles, and all people who believe in Jesus as the Messiah, and the Son of God. The response given by the apostles to the question, “Who do people say that I am?” shows, clearly, that many people, in the time of Jesus, did not really know him. And if you do not know a person’s identity, you may not know how to relate to him/her. Some thought he was Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. They were very much mistaken. They did not know him, even after three years of his mission among them.
Notably those two men who came to the airport had a different image of me in their heads. Similarly, there are so many Christians today who do not really know Christ. They neither know his person nor his teaching. So how can they truly follow him? Someone can go to church for one hundred years without knowing Christ. The knowledge we are talking about is not book knowledge. It is experiential knowledge. If I may ask rhetorically; how can we love who we do not know? How can we serve who we do not love? Leadership in the church is based on loving service. And that is a big challenge for us today.
The universal church celebrates two great personalities in the history of Christianity – Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29. These great apostles knew the true identity of Christ. Peter was chosen by Christ to be his first vicar on Earth (pope). He was endowed with the powers of the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. (cf Mt 16:13-19) He was charged with the role of shepherd of Christ’s flock after having affirmed his love for Christ, three times. (cf Jn 21:15-17) St. Peter led the church and suffered martyrdom in the year 64 AD. Buried at the hill of the Vatican, recent excavations revealed his tomb on the very site of St. Peters Basilica. The head of the universal church is called “pope”, which means “father.” Pope Francis is the 266th pope after St. Peter.
Although Paul did not meet Christ in person, he met him in a miraculous way. Christ chose him after his conversion on the road to Damascus. (cf Acts 9:1-16)
Paul is regarded as the greatest missionary of all time. He was advocate of pagans and called the apostle of the Gentiles. Paul testified to Christ, not only in words, but in action. He traveled, worked and taught more than any of the apostles who were called before him. Only Pope John Paul II has surpassed him in terms of missionary journeys. Like Peter, Paul also suffered martyrdom. He was beheaded and buried on the site where the Basilica, bearing his name, now stands.
As we celebrate the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, let us pray that God may continue to raise courageous and fearless leaders to lead his church from generation to generation. Through the intersession of Sts. Peter and Paul, may the Lord sustain the church and keep us true to his teachings. Amen.
(Father Clement Olukunle Oyafemi – Father “Clem” is the Coordinator of the Intercultural Ministry of the Diocese since 2020. He has two master’s degrees, one in theology and one in religious education and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. He shares with Sister Thea his passion for the Lord and music. Father Clem founded the Rejoice Ministry of African Worship Songs –AFRAWOS– in 2002.)