Today, the Catholic world celebrates the feast of two of the Church’s greatest men, Peter and Paul. It is hard to find any other two people with distinct and contrasting personalities like Peter and Paul. They occupied two ends of a very wide spectrum in our understanding of the mysteries of God. Both men saw things so differently, came from different social classes and backgrounds, had distinct and contrasting personalities and yet, when it came to Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, both men spoke one language. For me, St. Paul said, to live is Christ (Phil 1:21). For Peter, even in moments of desperation when others had abandoned Jesus, he asked Jesus, to whom shall we go? (Jn. 6:68). The contrast in their lives also shows us the all-surpassing power of the word of God. St Paul says: For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb. 4:12).
First, look at the contrast in the call of both of them. Peter was called along with his brother, Andrew, ordinary poor men who were mending his nets. At once, they left everything and followed Jesus (Matt. 4:18f). As for Saul, later Paul, we are introduced to him in the Acts of the Apostles and told vividly about his very strange conversion. Indeed, the conversion of Saul is one of the greatest fulfillments of the saying of Jesus that with God, all things are possible (Matt. 19:26, Mk 10:27). Saul was on his way to Damascus to track down, catch, literally bind hand and foot, all or any of the followers of Jesus he could find to bring them back to Jerusalem. However the hunter became the hunted. We are told he was breathing hatred for Christ and Christians (Acts. 9:1). The rest is history as the saying goes
In these two great men, God illustrates a few lessons out of which I will mention only two. First, the universality of His message shows us that God is ready to use men and women of different callings, competencies and capacities for His work. No matter our background and intention, once God is ready to use us, we will always fall under His spell. Once that happens, our only duty is to cooperate with His grace. For as the saying goes, God does not call the qualified, but he qualifies those He calls. Secondly, we learn that no matter our intention, mission and location, we are never outside the reach of the eyes of God. Thus, Peter was fishing while Paul was on His way to destroy both Christians and Christianity. None of them was on any spiritual location nor were they doing anything spiritual at the time of their calling. With God, every moment, every location is both a sacred and an extraordinary place of encounter.
We see in the call of both men the fact that even despite the call, we still require the collaboration of others to fulfill our mission. Paul is introduced to the faith through a lowly man like Ananias who already calls him, Brother Saul (Acts 9:11). From breathing hatred, Paul’s next breathe calls Jesus, Lord (Acts 9:5. Even without formal conversion, the Spirit of the Lord is in us.
Paul’s attitude to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the source of our inspiration. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel (1 Cor. 9:16). A faithful account of his work enables Paul to say that he had fought the good fight (2 Tim.4: 7). But he did not fight this good fight without suffering persecution himself. Perhaps from Paul, we must imbibe the inspiring conviction that indeed, Christianity is another name for suffering, pain and even rejection. In the course of the fight, he submits himself to all forms of suffering and persecution, shipwreck, floggings, imprisonment, hunger, poverty, sorrow, trials and tribulations. Yet, in it all, St. Paul came to appreciate that indeed, all we need is God’s grace, because it is when we are weak that we are strong (2 Cor. 12:10).
What we are celebrating today is a great feast of the two greatest men of the Christian faith. From this, all of us have lessons for our lives as Christians. First for the Laity, there is need to appreciate the fact that the task of evangelisation is our task to which God has called us by virtue of being Christians. Our call may not be as dramatic as that of St. Paul. He calls us through our various vocations in life. For us as Priests and Religious, what we celebrate today is the fulfillment of a special call to which our brother answered many years ago. Preaching the word today poses different challenges for all of us.
We seem to have lost the steam of evangelisation as Catholics in particular. We deride those who ask if we are born again, but the question is really relevant in view of the contrast between our claims to be Christian and our lack of enthusiasm and commitment in witnessing to Christ. Truly, we are a Sacramental Church and Christ is the Sacrament and yes, the ordained Priests and Ministers administer these Sacraments. However, we must not fall victims to the culture of clericalism by which our Lay people think that witnessing to the good news is a job for specialists, here the priests and religious.
Parents continue to relinquish the task of bringing up their children in the Catholic tradition to Catechists and Teachers, not knowing that parents remain the best teachers of their children. The public space has become more congested and, like the market, it is full of hawkers, buyers and sellers of all forms of wares and commodities, some fake, poisonous and injurious to health. Our task is to help our children choose well. The Book of Proverbs enjoins us: Teach your children the way of the Lord and when they are old, they will not leave it (Pr. 22:6). Moses warned Israel: These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you sleep. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead (Deut. 6:7).
Over the last twenty or so years, the Holy Father has called for Special Assemblies of the Synods of Bishops to address different themes. It was in 1994 and 2009 that Africa took centre stage with two Synods dedicated to it. In 2008, a Synod was dedicated to the Word of God. In 2012, we again had the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation and only last year we had the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family. In each of these Synods, the Fathers of the Church have continued to explore new ways of presenting the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ especially in the light of the new challenges facing the world. The late Pope, now St. John Paul, prepared the Church for these challenges when on November 10, 1994; he issued a Pastoral Letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte. His successors have continued with the same message with Pope Francis calling for Catholics to embrace what he called, Popular Christianity, based on returning to our popular devotions as Catholics. The Pope dedicated last year to Consecrated Persons and enjoined them to Wake Up the World.
By these calls, we are all enjoined to become more active missionaries in different ways as the values of the world continue to collapse. Our society has become complacent, divisive, oppressive, and violent. Life, a precious gift of God has very little worth now. It is impossible to open the newspaper today without reading gory stories of unbelievable cruelty about the most horrendous acts of wickedness and evil perpetrated across our social structure by men and women who are Christians or Muslims.
For many years, the Catholic Church in particular and other Christians have waged a relentless war against Abortion, the killing of the unborn. That war is still on but it seems now to have been consigned to a secondary degree of absurdity. Now, the sin against the living has assumed proportions that even animals must feel ashamed of what we are doing to ourselves. I am not aware of anywhere else in the world where human life has descended to an animalistic stage as we have in our country today. We cannot even think of any time when things were this bad. The daily stories that get into the media are frightening. But we must also remember that what we read in the papers represents barely one percent of what is really happening in our society.
Almost on a daily basis, we read and hear of husbands are killing wives, wives killing their husbands, children killing their parents, parents are selling off their children, girls being abducted and paid to get pregnant for a huge market for babies, ritualists maiming and outrightly killing children for their organs, young men killing innocent citizens for fun, entire villages being ravaged by hoodlums among us, kidnappers abducting innocent citizens. Everywhere you turn, barbarism has become the new religion. And yet, we have well over 80 million Christians in Nigeria. These murderers are among us or they are our children.
Today, this is the world to which we are called to bear witness to the loving face of Jesus. This is the world to which new priests are being ordained. How do we face these challenges? I want to address all of us and call on us all to respond to the challenges of remaking the world, rebuilding a new world within our own abilities. This is what our vocation is all about whether we are Priests, Religious, or Lay faithful. We must wake up to the fact that there is an increasing disillusionment with our faith. Today, more and more people are leaving the Church of Christ and we must hold ourselves responsible because our actions or inactions have betrayed the face of Jesus Christ.
To you, the Lay faithful, the Church is yours. You make up 99% and we the Priests are here to serve you. We cannot do this alone because we are your own children, and as St. Paul reminds, us, Every high priest is taken from among men to act on your behalf (Heb. 5: 1). To paraphrase the French priest, Fr Lacordaire, we are messengers, carrying your fears, hopes and anxieties to God, seeking his supplication and returning to you with His good news of joy and reconciliation.
Let us learn from St. Paul. He was not at the last supper. Jesus did not make him a priest. But, from his vocation as a tent maker and a fanatical Jew, apparently a smallish deformed man (he himself said he was born abnormally, (1 Cor. 15: 8), Jesus moulded the greatest missionary of all time. Make yourself a vehicle for the propagation of the Gospel irrespective of your status or class. Please pray together as families, pray and speak to your children about the Religious life. My dear brothers and Sisters, fathers and mothers, I appeal to you that while you plan for your children’s future, do not think only of who will keep your name alive. Try to include God Himself in your plans. Do not only plan to send your children to Cyprus, Ukraine, Malaysia or Ghana. Do not make Messi or Ronaldo the only models for your sons. Think of Bakhita and Tansi. I appeal to you to please point them by prayer to the altar of God. Let us answer the call of evangelisation and proclaim God’s word in our homes.
To my brothers Priests and Religious, this duty is in our hands, broken vessels that we are. As St. Paul reminds us: Now we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are pressed on all sides, but not crushed, perplexed but not despair (2 Cor. 4:7). Do not worry about your qualification or lack of it. It is only God that qualifies.
I appeal to you, let us become real pastors, caring for our people not judging them, trying as much as we can to be with them in these difficult times. Together with our son, Fr. Habila, let us as Priests and Religious harken to the words of Jesus to the demoniac; Go back to your own people and tell them what God has done for you (Mk. 5:19). We must in humility both tell and show them how God has blessed us. We must assure them that God is their liberator. He has brought them His word, and His word is the Truth and only this Truth can set us free (Jn. 8:32). In his word, we will all be free from the bondage of neglect, ostracisation and exclusion.
Let me end by thanking your parents, family members, community, teachers, Catechists, Priests and Parishioners who have offered you to the Church by prayers and other means. I want to thank the Rector of the Seminary and your formators who have nurtured you. As humans, we have done our best. The ball is now in your court and all we can offer you is our prayers. Leave your ears open and listen to the voice of God as he guides you. What you now wear is not a garment of honour and pride, but a toga of service and witness. I thank the Parish Priest and Vicar General, Administration, Fr Nuhu Iliya, your senior brother and all the members of Our Lady of Perpetual Help to whom we turned at short notice. To all of you who have come from other Parishes, thank you so very much for your continuous support. Together with my brother Priests, we welcome you to the vineyard of the Lord. God bless us all.