Passover, Fatherhood, and the Power of Names

“Baruch ata Adonai…” recites my grandmother in Hebrew, as she lights the Passover candles.

Her son, my Jewish father, sits to my left. My Catholic mother is at the other end of the room. About 15 friends and relatives are crammed around my parents’ dining room table, where I sat every Sunday night for CCD during middle school. There are a few more Catholics than Jews in total, including my brother and sister, my wife Genevieve and our daughter, and me.

My parents started hosting the Passover Seder about fifteen years ago, when Grandma moved from Dad’s childhood home to a smaller place. It’s my favorite family tradition.

Each spring, united with Jews all over the world, we recount the story of how God led Moses and the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. We read aloud through the Haggadah – “telling” in Hebrew – and eat ritual foods that symbolize different parts of the Exodus. (Parsley and salt water for the bitter tears shed while in bondage; a mixture of nuts and apples called charoset for the mortar used to build the pyramids; matzah for the unleavened bread the Hebrews ate hastily before fleeing.) There’s a break for a big meal, and then we take the Haggadahs out again for a few more prayers and songs.

For as long as I can remember, an essential part of the celebration has been making sure we have someone there who has never attended a Seder before. I think it was my Jewish grandmother’s idea, who helped our family get started in its interfaith experiment by hosting my baptism party at her house when I was an infant. My mom keeps a box of homemade Passover place-cards that grows every year, all made with blue and yellow colored pencils to match the candles and tablecloth. All the names are there, including those people who came just once more than a decade ago: middle school friends, the quiet kid from the local college who came because he knew some relatives of ours where he grew up across the country, the neighbors’ Swedish au pair, and many more.

Last year, the first-timer distinction belonged to our daughter, who was just nine months old at the time. She had her own brand-new place-card, which we set in front of her high chair on the table. This got me thinking about names.

Genevieve and I didn’t know if we would be welcoming a boy or girl when we got to the hospital in July 2015, so we had narrowed the name possibilities down to two for each gender. A girl arrived, and, utterly overwhelmed and in awe, we spent the first hour in the recovery room gazing at her and not saying much of anything.

Then, while holding her for the first time, I said, “I’ve been calling her Adelaide in my head.”

“Me too,” Gen replied. That seemed like a good sign, and so Adelaide it was – Addie for short.

Gen and I had discussed name options for hours on walks around our neighborhood, and we had spoken the name “Adelaide,” an early favorite, out loud hundreds of times. But it felt so different to say it to Adelaide herself. I said it over and over again, getting used to it, making sure it stuck. It felt almost awkward in its intimacy, choosing a word that would be linked to her identity forever. This link is already strong: She says her own name all the time now and responds when we say it. She recognizes it when it’s written down, and she seems to prefer Addie to Adelaide. In turn, Adelaide has given Gen and me new names ourselves: “Daddy Daddy,” she shouts, most enthusiastically when I come home from work. And “Sit on Mommy!” when she wants to play with her coloring books at the table.

In the beginning of the Passover story, Moses is keeping a flock of sheep on Mount Horeb when God appears in a burning bush, calls Moses by name, and tells him God has heard the cries of the enslaved Israelites and has “come down to deliver them from the Egyptians” and will lead them to a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:8). Moses, so often more persistent in his conversations with God than I would have the nerve to be, says something like, “But if I go to the people and they ask me for his name, what should I say?”  And then God responds: “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” (3:14)

This is a bold question for Moses to ask the King of the Universe, and God surely doesn’t have to respond. As Notre Dame theologian John Cavadini said in a recent lecture on Exodus by way of comparison, Queen Elizabeth, for instance, doesn’t wear a nametag. “Queens just don’t do that,” Cavadini said. “It’s too common, too accessible, too embarrassing to majesty. And yet God, who has all the majesty in the world, […] doesn’t hesitate to bend down and give his name.” God is essentially saying, in Cavadini’s words, “Here’s my business card. Call me.” Names have power.

It is because God wants to have an intimate relationship with the Israelites that God calls Moses by name and offers his own. He desires the closeness of, say, a father and his children. God speaks to Moses and gets involved in the first place because what else can a parent do when his children are crying?

As close as Gen and I are to the daughter we named who renamed us, God wants to be even closer to his children. That is what Passover reminds me of now. Maybe this year, I’ll add a couple lines on the back of Adelaide’s place-card: Beloved daughter of Gen and Mike. Beloved daughter of God.


Social Justice Lessons of Christmas

Every Christmas morning, my friend Sean’s parents would load their three sons into the family car and head to a local soup kitchen. Sean and his brothers would help out by putting napkins and flatware on the tables, then a hot meal would be served and gifts distributed to the patrons. Sean’s dad sometimes dressed up as Santa Claus.

On the first day back from Christmas break one year during middle school, Sean’s teacher asked the class what they had done over the holidays. “We served a meal at the soup kitchen in the morning and then we came home and celebrated,” Sean told his class. An awkward silence followed. Sean could tell that kids around the room were staring at him.

“That was the first time it occurred to me that this was not the way most of my friends spent their Christmases,” Sean remembers. “One of my favorite parts about serving was that it wasn’t a big deal. My parents really did a good job of integrating it into our holiday traditions. It was just something we did.”

For many of us, the Advent and Christmas seasons are times when we feel an especially strong pull to reach out toward those who are in need. Why? Maybe one reason is that while Christmas is supposed to be full of joy and togetherness, we realize that there are so many people in the world who are hurting and lonely, and we feel called to close that gap. Sean’s family surely responded to this call in a powerful way.

One thing I love about the Christmas stories found in the Gospels is that they so clearly affirm the season’s tradition of compassion. The stories are chock-full of love, justice, and God’s special concern for those who are poor and vulnerable.  Let’s explore these themes by focusing on a few of the Christmas season’s central characters: Mary and Joseph; the Christ-child; and the shepherds and Magi.

Mary and Joseph

It’s impossible to imagine. The Virgin Mary – a devout teenager, not yet married to Joseph – is visited by the angel Gabriel and told she will bear the Son of God. At first, she is “greatly troubled” by this unexpected news. Mary, after all, knows the punishment other unwed mothers have faced in her community: execution by stoning.

But, drawing on the deepest well of faith ever known, Mary says yes to God’s plan. She says yes to life.

This time of year, I spend a lot of time thinking about other mothers who are facing unexpected pregnancies, and wonder about the trepidation many of them must be feeling. I pray that our communities of faith can be places of welcome where all parents – single and married, well-off and struggling – feel supported in their choice for life.

Mary found this sort of radical hospitality in Joseph. When he learned of Mary’s pregnancy, his first instinct was to divorce her quietly, protecting her from shame and violence. Then, when an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and told him not to fear, but to care for Mary and her unborn child, he took Mary into his home.

Their journey together took them to Bethlehem and then, in the Gospel of Matthew’s account, into Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod. This must not be forgotten: The Holy Family was a refugee family. How relevant and painful it is to reflect on that fact against the backdrop of the world’s current refugee crisis.

On the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I went to a prayer service for migrants and refugees at Catholic Charities’ headquarters in Camden. The room was filled with Catholic Charities staff members and recently resettled refugees who had just finished an English class. Some of the refugees have arrived here in the past few months from Syria, welcomed by Catholic Charities and working to build a new life in South Jersey. During the general intercessions, prayers for refugees were read by a handful of the refugees themselves who have become confident English speakers. I have had very few, if any, more powerful experiences of prayer in my life. How might the world be different if every Christian around the world consciously saw the Holy Family in each refugee family?

Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden, hosted a prayer service for migrants and refugees on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. (PHOTO: Mary McCusker)

Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden, hosted a prayer service for migrants and refugees on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. (PHOTO: Mary McCusker)

The Christ-child

What can we learn about God from our belief that he came into the world as a baby boy?

God could’ve come to Earth wielding the power of a superhero, but he didn’t. Instead, he came to Earth as the Christ-child, incarnating “transparency, vulnerability, defenselessness,” as the great spiritual writer Fr. Ronald Rolheiser puts it. “Ultimately though that power, helplessness and vulnerability, is the greatest power of all because it, and it alone, can transform hearts,” Rolheiser writes. “You don’t soften hearts by overpowering them. You transform hearts through another kind of persuasion.”

There has been a collective, societal obsession with political and military power this year – even more than usual, perhaps. Christmas is a reminder that God transforms the world (and invites us to join in the work) with gentleness.

Shepherds and Magi

Both of our Gospel accounts of Jesus’s birth include visitors to the manger: shepherds in Luke and Magi in Matthew. Why?

Scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson points out that shepherds in first-century Palestine were “among the lowest-esteemed laborers.” That they are Jesus’s very first companions in Luke’s Gospel sets the stage for Christ’s later ministry, during which he consistently accompanied those who were poor and marginalized. As disciples, the way Jesus spent time is a model for how we might spend time; his priorities should be our priorities.

While the Magi aren’t poor or vulnerable the same way the shepherds are, they come from outside the Jewish community, and reveal how the love of God made flesh in Christ embraces all people. The boundaries we build up to separate groups based on race, religion, class, age, ability, and more are not of God. Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ, cuts to the heart of this idea in his book Tattoos on the Heart. “No daylight to separate us. Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it,” he writes. “Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased.”

If our Christmas season in 2016 is filled with radical hospitality, respect for the dignity of life at every stage, and kinship with the marginalized, our celebration will surely look a lot like the very first Christmas. Or, in G.K. Chesterton’s words, “Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.” May every heart prepare Him room! Merry Christmas!

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This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.


Stephen Curry’s Beautiful Basketball and the Catholic Sacramental Imagination

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In his unforgettable essay “Federer as Religious Experience,” which appeared in the New York Times’ tragically short-lived Play Magazine in 2006, David Foster Wallace reflects on watching the all-time great Roger Federer play tennis. “Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments,” he writes. “These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.”

In my family’s house, this year has brought a handful of extremely similar experiences, but they’ve come during televised basketball games, not tennis matches. You could call them Stephen Curry Moments.

Here’s one: tied at 118 with the Oklahoma City Thunder with about 5 seconds to go in overtime, Curry picks up the ball in the backcourt, calmly dribbles over the halfcourt line, pulls up about 35 feet from the basket, and launches:

(I have trained myself to not yell after moments like this, as they often come after my infant daughter has gone to bed for the night. I do pace wildly around the room, though.)

For all human beings on Earth except Curry, 35 feet is a crazy distance to shoot from. For all human beings on Earth except Curry, a shot like this would be pure desperation. The crazy thing watching this live was that, for the 1.7 seconds the ball arced through the air, I was sure it was going in. (Oklahoma City’s Enes Kanter, on the bench at the time, agreed, throwing up a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ before the ball found the net.)

I was sure it was going in because Curry is the greatest outside shooter of all time, and it’s not particularly close. That alone would make him worth watching. But he also has perfected inside shots, gracefully flipping the ball high over taller defenders and watching it nestle gently into the basket, time after time. He is also a brilliant passer and ball-handler and will even snag you a steal or two on defense.

Oh, and he is the reigning league MVP and NBA champion, and he guided the Warriors to a league-record 73 wins this regular season, capping off the historic run with 10 three-pointers and 46 points against Memphis in Wednesday night’s finale. He’s a lock to repeat as MVP this year, and some media folks who cover the NBA have been arguing that he should also win the league’s most improved player award as well, since he went from really great last year to can’t-believe-what-I’m-watching great this year.

Watching Curry this year reminds me of another passage from David Foster Wallace’s Federer essay. “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war,” he writes. “The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty.”

This is one of the biggest reasons why I love the NBA. It is full of raw, improvisational, gravity-defying, gobsmacking, kinetic beauty. No other sport provides such consistent opportunities for dazzling displays of athleticism. And while Curry’s individual achievements this season are beyond description, the Warriors wouldn’t have become the best team in history without their balletic passing and cutting and their stifling defensive rotations and their deep collection of secondary players each doing exactly what was required of them. The most beautiful basketball is always team basketball, a collection of individuals working together as one seamless unit.

Beauty is a key ingredient to what’s called the Catholic “sacramental imagination” – a way of seeing that finds God in all of creation. The Church’s seven Big-S Sacraments all require tangible stuff and our physical senses: bread, wine, water, oil, the laying on of hands. God comes to us through these signs.

This way of God reaching out to us doesn’t stop when we walk out of the church doors, though. Formed by the Big-S Sacraments, we can find small-s sacraments all around us, most easily in those places, people, and moments that we find beautiful. My favorites include my daughter’s wide-mouthed smile; certain instants when my wife and I make knowing eye contact when something is hilarious but the decorum of the time and place prohibits laughter; the sudden explosion of flowering trees that marks the beginning of spring here in the Mid-Atlantic; music by the band Wilco; a few slices with peppers and onions at DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies of Robbinsville, NJ; and, yes, the exquisite basketball choreography of the Stephen Curry-led Golden State Warriors.

When I find myself zoning out at Mass or otherwise spiritually lethargic, I do a quick mental check-in on small-s sacraments: Have you gone on a good long walk recently? Have you listened to any good music? Have you spent enough quality time with your wife and daughter with your cell phone turned off? Making time and space for beauty in my life helps me connect more deeply with the Eucharist. It’s not such a leap of faith to believe that God comes to us in the form of bread and wine at Mass when I’ve been finding God in other everyday objects and moments.

So if you tune in to watch the Warriors during the playoffs, which begin this weekend, don’t get mad at yourself for being lazy. It’s not vegging out! Instead, consider it a mini-retreat on the theme of kinetic beauty and the sacramental imagination.

(Yes, I think that’s exactly what I’ll say to my wife on Saturday afternoon at 3:30. It’s worth a shot.)

 


Amoris Laetitia and Social Justice: Ten Quotes from Pope Francis’ Exhortation

Pope Francis’ much-anticipated apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, does not disappoint. It is an incredible work that is full of good advice for both families and church leaders, delivered with theological richness and pastoral sensitivity. Do read the whole thing if you can.

A lot has already been written on many of the key elements of the document, but what struck me while reading it is how clearly Pope Francis connects family concerns with social concerns. He argues that families are only able to flourish if our societies are set up to support them.

This approach called to mind a great quote by St. John Paul II, who said,  “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.” Part of Pope Francis’ emphasis in Amoris Laetitia could be summed up by flipping that idea around: As society goes, so goes the family. They are complementary ideas.

Here are ten quotes from the exhortation that connect particular social issues and our call to work for justice to family life:

1. Dignity of Work

Labour also makes possible the development of society and provides for the sustenance, stability and fruitfulness of one’s family: “May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life! May you see your children’s children!” (Ps 128:5-6)….This having been said, we can appreciate the suffering created by unemployment and the lack of steady work, as reflected in the Book of Ruth, Jesus’ own parable of the labourers forced to stand idly in the town square (Mt 20:1-16), and his personal experience of meeting people suffering from poverty and hunger. Sadly, these realities are present in many countries today, where the lack of employment opportunities takes its toll on the serenity of family life. [24-25]

2. Care for Creation

Nor can we overlook the social degeneration brought about by sin, as, for example, when human beings tyrannize nature, selfishly and even brutally ravaging it. This leads to the desertification of the earth (cf. Gen 3:17-19) and those social and economic imbalances denounced by the prophets, beginning with Elijah (cf. 1 Kg 21) and culminating in Jesus’ own words against injustice (cf. Lk 12:13; 16:1-31). [26] Read More


To Protect Life and Promote Justice, Laws Matter

In a recent column for Religion News Service, Marcia Pally, who describes herself as “emphatically pro-life,” argues that all of the legal efforts to regulate or ban abortion over the past 40 years are “hokum.” She writes “Laws limiting abortion don’t pay for sonograms or day care, and they don’t feed or educate children.”

If the most important pro-life goal is to reduce the number of abortions, she writes, it’s better to focus on and address the host of complex issues that help drive up the abortion rate, such as poverty, an overly complicated adoption process, and the lack of access to things like paid parental leave and quality healthcare. We should abandon the pursuit of legal restrictions on abortion because they don’t work — not until we’ve had a big cultural shift, anyway.

Pally’s column reminds me of an argument I’ve heard from those who oppose stricter gun control measures. Some gun control opponents say that tighter restrictions on gun rights won’t work because there are already lots of guns out there and those bent on doing harm will find a way to arm themselves. Better to focus instead on improving mental health services, or keeping violent video games from kids. We should abandon the pursuit of legal restrictions on gun ownership because they don’t work — not until we’ve had a big cultural shift, anyway.

Don’t get me wrong — focusing on root causes and the web of related issues that contribute to abortion and gun violence is essential. But not at the expense of addressing the issue head-on with targeted legislation. Laws restricting abortion access and gun ownership do reduce abortions and gun violence. They’re not silver bullets, but they’re important pieces of the puzzle.

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Whenever I think about the role of narrow, limited legislation within a broader movement for social change, I remember this quote from a speech Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at Western Michigan University in 1963:

Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.

As all pro-life and social justice advocates discern how to best spend our time, we shouldn’t make an “either/or” decision about broad social change vs. targeted legislation. Instead, as is so often the best option for Catholics, we should choose “both/and.”

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.


Five Quotes from Pope Francis’ Laudato Si: Beauty Will Save the World

A lot has already been written about Laudato Si’: On Care of Our Common Home, Pope Francis’ new encyclical on ecology. Most reactions have focused on the politics, the economics, or the science in it — all good, important perspectives. But the document is truly beautiful. There are passages that made me stop in my tracks and savor. As the writer Austen Ivereigh puts it:

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement who spent most of her life with the poor, loved the Dostoevsky quote, “Beauty will save the world.” She saw immense suffering and injustice, and a devotion to the beautiful was her response. If you see and acknowledge beauty in something or someone, it becomes awfully difficult see haphazard destruction of creation and people and do nothing.

Pope Francis’ call for a renewed sense of wonder at the miracle of creation is a key ingredient the Church can offer to the ecological conversation, and to make that appeal with such rich language heightens the call’s potency.Here are five of the encyclical’s most beautiful passages.

1) St. Francis of Assisi’s love of creation is a great example. 

Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever [St. Francis] would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason.” (no. 11)

Fall in love with the Earth, this gift of pure abundance that God has freely given us. This disposition cannot be written off as “naive romanticism,” Pope Francis writes, “for it affects the choices which determine our behavior.” If we lose our wonder and awe, our attitude toward the Earth will be that of “masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on [our] immediate needs.”

2)  We must listen for two cries.

Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. (no. 50)

Humans are designed to feel compassion when they hear someone crying. The exterior expression of pain or sadness has an interior effect on the other. We don’t hear crying, though, if plug our ears and put our heads under a pillow. “When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities,” Pope Francis writes (no. 117), “it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected.” As Jesus put it, whoever has ears ought to hear.

3) To grow your own care for the earth and for the poor, get in touch with your inner child.

The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God. The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning; we all remember places, and revisiting those memories does us much good. Anyone who has grown up in the hills or used to sit by the spring to drink, or played outdoors in the neighborhood square; going back to these places is a chance to recover something of their true selves. (no. 84)

Places form us. When we forget our intimate connection to place, we take it for granted, and the move to exploitation is not far off.

4) Take the long view.

Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others…the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us. (no. 159)

Taking the long view, what’s best for me right now might not line up with what’s best for all of us for centuries to come. If we see the planet as a gift — gift we have received and gift we will pass on — we can develop gratitude. And gratitude is the best tool for breaking down self-centeredness.

5) Simplify, simplify, simplify. 

In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer. (no. 223)

Simplicity is not a superficial reduction of stuff, but what Pope Francis calls “an attitude of the heart” (no. 226), one which “is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full.” At the center of Laudato Si’ is this call to conversion: individual, communal, and global conversion, opening our hearts to the fire of God’s love for the world. Beauty is the first spark.

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.


Seeking Christ in the Poor and Vulnerable

In his modern spiritual classic Tattoos on the Heart, Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, writes about the gang-intervention ministry he runs in Los Angeles called Homeboy Industries.

Frequently, Fr. Greg says Mass at juvenile detention camps, and he shares the story of a meeting with one of the teenagers there. After Mass one day, a kid walks over to Fr. Greg, “all swagger and pose,” with a scowl fixed on his face.

“What’s your name?” Fr. Greg asks.

“SNIPER,” the kid replies.

Fr. Greg pushes back – there’s no way the kid’s mom named him Sniper.

“What’s your name?” he asks again.

“Gonzalez,” the kid says, easing up a little.

But Fr. Greg wants to know what the kid’s mother calls him. The replies with a Spanish word that loosely translates as “blockhead.”

Fr. Greg tells the kid he doesn’t doubt it. “But, son, I’m looking for birth certificate here.”

Softening right before Fr. Greg’s eyes, the kid squeaks out his full first name: “Napoleón.”

What a historic, noble name, Fr. Greg tells the kid. But there’s no way your mom uses the whole thing. What does she call you?

Fr. Greg writes: “Then I watch him go to some far, distant place – a location he has not visited in some time. His voice, body language, and whole being are taking on a new shape – right before my eyes.”

Speaking just above a whisper, the kids says, “Sometimes, when my mom’s not mad at me…she calls me…Napito.”

“I watched this kid move, transformed, from Sniper to Gonzalez to [Blockhead] to Napoleón to Napito,” Fr. Greg writes. “We all just want to be called by the name our mom uses when she’s not [ticked] off at us.”

Names are powerful things. By digging down through Napito’s five layers of names, Fr. Greg started to build a relationship with the teenager. Napito felt valued and cared for. He felt important.

I think names might be one key part of building what Pope Francis calls “a culture of encounter.” In the Holy Father’s native Spanish, the word encuentro means much more than a mere run-in. Instead, it implies the sort of mutuality and kinship present in Fr. Greg’s meeting with Napito.

Pope Francis talks about encounter as an antidote to what he calls a “throwaway culture,” in which people who are seen as useless – the unborn, the elderly, the poor and homeless – are pushed to the margins or even literally discarded. However, if we encounter individuals and communities that are usually pushed aside – if we get to know their names – the throwaway culture begins to crumble. You don’t throw a friend away.

The importance of building a “culture of encounter” has found a new emphasis during the papacy of Pope Francis, but it’s not a new idea. Indeed, Christ himself spent so much of his earthly ministry building a culture of encounter, as he dined and conversed with tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, the poor and hungry, and other people who were usually excluded. Pope Francis’ call is the same as Jesus’ call.

Reflecting on Fr. Greg’s story makes me think about how we might deepen our commitment to building a name-based culture of encounter here in the Diocese of Camden. Here’s one question that I keep mulling over: How might the Church be different if every Catholic knew at least one person by name who had been threatened by the throwaway culture? What would it take to make that goal a real possibility?

For those in the Camden area, be sure to check out an upcoming initiative to get this “culture of encounter” momentum going, called The Encounter Series: Seeking Christ in the Poor and Vulnerable, a three-part experience set for this May.

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.