What’s in a name?

By Maria Sermersheim

One significant aspect of being human is being called by name. To continue last week’s exploration of what it means to be human, God calls us by name to indicate his particular love for us (Is 43:1, Jn 10:3). When others use our name, we know we are important to them. Many psychological studies agree that we feel more affirmed and established in relationship the more the other person uses our name in conversation. Names have power, and we should consider the importance of how we are identified by the names we are given and the names we choose.

The Catholic Church holds the belief that if someone’s name is the same as (or similar to) a saint’s, then that saint is his or her patron (CCC 2156). This practice is especially evident in our selection of Confirmation saints, whose names we then incorporate into our own, if they are not already the same. Recently, I realized that middle and Confirmation names are tragically underutilized, so I began asking my friends about the other halves of their names and adding them to their contact information in my phone. One might call these lengthy contact names simply silly results of a whim. However, I think choosing specific names distinguishes each person in a manner that is deeply meaningful.

Pope Benedict XVI once said, “in the biblical mentality, the name contains the most profound reality of the individual; it reveals the person’s secret and destiny. Knowing one’s name therefore means knowing the truth about the other person.” Encountering “the most profound reality of the individual” is a necessary step if we are meant to enter into ever-deeper relationships and build the City of God by our fellowship and love. Learning and using names is indispensable.

In “Introduction to Christianity,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote that a word is “the pure relation between the speaker and the spoken to;” and “The name . . . is concerned to make the thing nameable, that is, ‘invocable,’ to establish a relation to it . . . . Thus the name signifies and effects the social incorporation . . . the name establishes the relation of fellow humanity.” In this light, the deliberate use of names gains additional value because the ways in which we call upon others actively reveals our relationship to them. For example, reflect on the use of “mom” and “dad” instead of parents’ names; the use of professional and formal titles as opposed to being on a first-name basis; and the critical name changes in the Bible. At crucial moments in their lives, Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel, and Simon became Peter, just to mention a few individuals. Indeed, these name changes manifested a change in each person’s relationship with God. I think names should continue to exhibit such significance in everyday use.

We should be intentional in choosing and using names. They bind us in the Body of Christ, making each person a partner rather than a number, someone we can call on and ask questions and learn more about. We are not cogs in an impersonal machine, we are coworkers and friends. Names enable us to deliberately embrace the unique and distinct personhood of those we meet. Names allow us to show others we know that we care about them and they are important to us. God himself sets the example (as always) and calls us by name. For others, we should do the same.