The Power of Being Named

Like many Catholics, I have family on my mind nowadays. These are exciting times with the Pope’s recent trip to the U.S. in the run-up to next month’s Synod on the Family. With its focus on family issues—like cohabitation, contraception, same sex marriage, divorce, and annulment—last year’s synod stirred up plenty of emotions and controversy. Francis’ openness to discussion and to hearing a variety of viewpoints has given many hope that the Church might soon change its approach to some of these issues, an approach that some people consider backwards or even bigoted. Indeed, the Pope’s recent streamlining of the annulment process stands as proof that this pontiff is genuinely intent on changing certain aspects of how the church operates. Still, others have been frustrated by the slow pace at which these changes are occurring and by the Pope’s insistence that Church doctrine—on marriage, for example—cannot and will not change. With so much at stake, Vatican experts like John Allen project that next month’s synod will involve no less controversy than the last.

As exciting as all this is, for my wife and me, the excitement about the upcoming synod and the Pope’s time on American soil pales in comparison with the excitement surrounding the anticipated arrival of our first child in November. Over the years, we have had many impassioned conversations about a variety of Church teachings on family matters, but these days our minds are consumed by one thought—very soon we will have a family of our own.

Of course, that one, all-consuming thought is attended by many related questions and concerns: Will we be good parents? How will we cope with the loss of sleep? What kind of stuff do babies need? What adjustments will we need to make to our work schedules? Through research and consultation with friends and family, we have been able to find answers to most of these questions. However, one question that no one can answer for us is, What name will we give our child? Naming our baby girl has been a difficult task for us. In contrast with my sister, who has successfully named one child and has names picked out for her next four children, we didn’t have a list of predetermined options. Until recently, whenever one of us would come across a name we liked, the other would quickly shoot it down. Besides lacking a clear favorite name, we are also somewhat in awe of the responsibility of giving a name to another human being.

A name is important, and not only because it follows one around for one’s whole life. In the Bible, to name another person is to redefine one’s relationship with and empower that person. It is an act of recognition that the person is independent of oneself and deserves to be treated with respect. In the second chapter of Genesis, God empowers Adam as a co-creator of the world, granting him the responsibility of naming all the animals God had created. When making the covenant with Abram and Sarai, God gives them new names (Abraham and Sarah) to reflect their new roles as progenitors of God’s chosen people. In the book of Exodus, God redefines His relationship with the people God calls to Himself by giving them the power to call God by name—Yahweh. When Jesus establishes Simon as the rock upon which he will build his church, the apostle’s new responsibility comes with a new name (Peter).

These days I have a much greater appreciation for the significance of these moments in salvation history on account of my experience of eagerly anticipating my daughter’s arrival and conscientiously deliberating about what to call her. So much hinges upon a name. A name is, in a sense, the cornerstone of a person’s identity, the mantel upon which the people who know this child will hang all other attributions: Johnny is handsome. Gretchen is athletic. Liam is an honor student. Amy is a doctor. The name is the bearer of all other identity markers. It also encapsulates a family history (as with a child named for a parent or grandparent) and the parents’ hopes for the child. A name can influence the life experience and character of a child. (I won’t comment on the behavior of a former student named Tyranny). A name is a sign that this is not just a body, not just one more human specimen; this is Claire (or Paul or Kelsey), a unique being worthy of dignity, respect, and love.

I believe that this common yet profound experience of parents deliberating about their child’s name can illuminate what is really at stake at next month’s Synod and the sort of conversations that will be most productive when bishops gather from around the world. Many of the discussions at the Synod will be difficult. The topics on the agenda touch upon sensitive aspects of people’s sense of identity and intimate details of their lives. Furthermore, many people feel that their dignity and personhood have been in some way diminished by representatives and/or teachings of the Catholic Church. In situations as fraught as this one, it seems clear how important it is that all those involved treat one another as persons of worth, that is, as people with names and inviolable identities.

More than anything, we all want to be loved for who we are. We want to feel that we are respected and afforded the dignity that God bestows upon us all in creating us in God’s own image and likeness. It is difficult, if not impossible, to convey such love and respect to individuals while generalizing about the behaviors and intentions of the groups or demographics to which those individuals belong. Even well-intentioned people can sometimes hurt those they intend to support when lose sight of their unique stories, relationships, hopes, and loves and slip into speaking of them as “difficult pastoral cases” or “irregular situations”.

If the Synod is to help heal wounds in the lives of families around the world and if each of us is to do the same in our own communities, we need to call each other by name. In other words, we need to talk to and about one another first and foremost as beautiful persons worthy of love rather than as members of a demographic, problems to be solved, or exceptional cases to be accommodated. Such was Jesus’ approach in tending to the marginalized persons of his day (see, e.g., Jn 8:1-11; Mt 8:24; Mk 2:13-17). The same has been true of Pope Francis in his encounters with marginalized members of today’s society like Diego Neria Lejarraga.

At the moment there is nothing I look forward to more than greeting my daughter by name when she enters into the world. Without a doubt, it will be a very special moment. However, I hope that my life will be filled with many moments like it. I hope that, when I am at my best, I will have the courage and compassion to address every person I encounter with the same care and reverence, regardless of their race, marital situation, orientation, or personal opinions.