Although I have great respect for the work and influence of Shakespeare, I must admit that in this the Bard and I part ways. In this often-quoted dialogue between Romeo and Juliet, the point seems to be that what things are, not what they are named, is all that matters. Its not that the point is without merit – after all a rose is a rose no matter what you call it! But isn’t it important to call things what they are nonetheless?
This point hits home particularly in the oft-raised dispute of what we call priests. Is it Father [lastname], Father [firstname] or even Father at all? And what does it matter what we call our priests – are they not our brothers, representatives of Christ who Himself referred to His Apostles as ‘friends’? Even several years into priesthood, and fairly established in my current assignment, I find that not a few Catholics disagree (sometimes vehemently) with having to address a priest in a manner more formal than or distinct from anyone else.
One of my friends, a fellow priest, has a habit of asking all those he meets ‘what would you like to be called?’. He’s sincere about getting an answer and attentive to making sure that he follows through in addressing them from then on in the manner they request. He explains that names are something special, something personal. While another’s name might not so mean much to us, the person has to answer to it, be identified by it and ultimately make it his own.
In fiction, particularly fantasy, there is a trope that to know the name of someone is to have some sort of control over them. Usually this is applied to supernatural beings…. often the kind that come from Hell and that you really shouldn’t be talking to in the first place. It usually doesn’t end well. But there is truth there, to some degree. Naming something means that you have some control or authority over it. At creation, God gave dominion of the earth to Adam – which is shown most authoritatively in his naming of all living creatures, tame and wild. Likewise it is parents who give their children names; it is one of the first signs of their role over (but also with) their child.
Incidentally, this is another good reason why we don’t name our guardian angels – we have no authority to do so! Quite the opposite, if we’re entrusting ourselves to their care.
Perhaps this dynamic of hierarchy, implicit in the naming of names, is one of the reasons folks struggle with titles, particularly in the Church. It is immediately evident how uncomfortable, even offended, people are when introduced to a priest who greets them with ‘My name is Father [lastname]‘. I’d estimate that every fifth new person I meet inevitably asks ‘what’s your first name?’, and its not in ‘just curious’ kind of way. There’s an edge to the request.
Although I sometimes wonder if age comes into the issue (at 31, I’m generally just old enough to be many parishioner’s grandson), it is mostly the issue of control that seem to be at the heart of this title and name. I recall one complaint, passed onto me secondhand, where a parishioner remarked “if he insists on being called ‘Father Maurer’, I’m going to insist on being called Mrs. [lastname].”
Underlying that sentiment seems to be a more basic question of ‘who does he think he is?’ The resulting effort to change the name and de-formalize the manner of address an effort to regain control, and perhaps assert position. There’s a denial in there somewhere, of what a priest is to others, of the authority that implies, of the structure of the Church and indeed, the hierarchy of all creation.
It’s also personal, as my fellow priest points out. ‘Father’ is my identity. ‘Father’ was only bestowed on me after nine years of formal training and discernment – and a few more years of informal discernment! It took more people than I care to count and my archbishop to place this indelible mark on my soul, to anoint my hands to celebrate the Sacraments, to give me authority and responsibility that puts me in the person of Christ our Head. I can never go back to being the man I was before that day of ordination. Denying me the title of ‘Father’ implicitly denies my priesthood, even if unintentionally. Moreover, apart from being offensive – and it is – this is also hurtful. Ask any mother or father whose child has decided to call them by their first name rather than ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’.
‘Father Maurer’ is only slightly more flexible – which is to say that the choice of first or last name is less intrinsic. But the choice is an expression of my person as well. It is not by accident that a priest decides to go by one or the other, and it has a meaning and a purpose in either case. For myself, the choice of going by my last name is because of how I was raised, a form of respectful address and the way I was taught to honor and use right authority. ‘Father Jacob’ or, God forbid, ‘Father Jake’ doesn’t fit how I see myself or want to be seen. I imagine parents have similar reactions to teenagers who try out variations of ‘yo Daddie-o’ and ‘okay Moth-er’. Eek.
In the end, names do matter, for both the person name & the person naming. It sets the stage of any relationship! Our accepting of a name, even before we know the person, conveys an acceptance of the person, their role, who they are. And perhaps that is the genius of introductions: we have a chance to affirm dignity of who someone is before we even know them, simply in the use of their name. In the receiving (and using) someone’s name, we accept that the person is different from us. We affirm the experiences and events that have formed them into the person they are now. We honor the person they hope to be.
We allow them to affect, even form us, just as we hope to do the same for them.
A rose by any other name, though it smells as sweet, will never be as appreciated as a the one that is rightly called and thus appreciated for exactly what it is. May we be ensure that we take the opportunity to do the same.