Icon of the Person

Father Bob Papi

'Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, And they shall name him Emmanuel, which means 'God is with us.' (Matthew 1:18-24)

These days when parents contact the priest for Baptism of a child often the parents have minimal contact with the believing community, the Church, prior to coming to request Baptism.

This presents the priest with a series of problems as regards the aliveness of the parental faith, the level of practice, or lack there of by both parents and suggested sponsors, commonly known as Godparents.

The parents often are tense because they are well aware of their lack of faith practice, and that of the suggested sponsors, and it can be a most delicate situation for the priest as he attempts to see to the gift of Baptism being made available to the child while at the same time re-evangelizing the parents, as he is obliged to do. So many wounds can be touched, and by God's grace healed, or touched and torn open with devastating results.

Thus priests are often tempted either to avoid any form of confrontation and Baptize without proper preparation, thus failing both the parents, child and sponsors or he will try and pick and choose what he will insist upon and what he will let slide, for example taking a very broad interpretation of the canonical insistence that: "..there be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion.."(cf. Canon 868.2) Sadly the opposite is also true that some priests interpret the Code in an extremely narrow fashion and miss the opportunity, with a little effort and prayer, to be compassionate and bring a family back to the fullness of faith.

Thus everyone should pray that all priests and parents will approach the Baptism of children, in particular when the family is non-practicing, with truthful compassion.

Of all the various hurdles which can confront both priest and parents around Baptism, and this occurs even when the family is faithful in the lived practice of the faith, the NAME of the child can often be the most serious since usually the parents only contact the priest after the child is born and a name already given and registered with the state.

Thus priests find themselves asked to Baptist children with names such as Jade, River, Stone, Hunter, Aurora, or combinations alleged to assure a benediction from some wealthy relative or to assuage guilt over poor relationships with some deceased parent. The thought process around selecting a name appears often to have more to do with the complexity of relationships among the adult members of the extended family than with prayerful reflection and request for insight into the person of the child who is about to be or is already newly born.

The Code of Canon Law stresses that: "Parents, sponsors and the pastor are to see that a name foreign to a Christian mentality is not given." Now it could be argued that giving a child a sobriquet such as Willy after the whale of some fame is no big deal or that to call a child Moonbeam indicates brightness or that naming a child after the last name of the family, such as the TV character 'Wilson-Wilson' is no big deal either...because none of these appear to be foreign to a Christian mentality in the same way as naming a child after some pagan deity.

However the Catechism of the Catholic Church takes this critical responsibility of naming to its true depth of import. It would do all of us, parents and priests, to be familiar with this teaching.

The section on The Christian Name comes at the end of the teaching on the Second Commandment and links the naming of baptized persons to the teaching on the Most Holy Name of God, and since the whole catechism is paragraph numbered, I simply indicate here the entire section covers numbers 2142 to 2167. The focus here being on numbers 2156 to 2159.

2156 states clearly that we are Baptized 'in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit' ...and that it is the Lord's name which sanctifies us and that at that moment 'the Christian receives his name in the Church.' and then reiterates the Canonical provision about a name compatible with Christianity.

2157 reminds us that we Christians should begin - though the Catechism is more positive and does not say should but states the declarative "begins" - our day, our prayer, all our activities with the Sign of the Cross. Thus everything becomes dedicated to the glory of God and sets us in right relationship with the Trinity as we call on ' the Saviour's grace which lets (us) act in the Spirit as a child of the Father'... Perhaps nowhere else however is the mystery of name more tellingly revealed as regards the Christian in particular than in 2158 which I quote in its entirety:


In Genesis we see God creating, and when He creates He 'names' what He has created and recognizes His creation and declares it to be good! 'Indeed in Revelations we have the Holy Spirit telling us that:...' to those who prove victorious I will give the hidden manna and a white stone - a stone with a NEW NAME: written on it, known only to the man who receives it' (cf.2:17) and further on...'those who prove victorious I will make into pillars in the sanctuary of my God, and they will stay there forever; I will inscribe on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God...AND MY OWN NEW NAME AS WELL'(cf3:12-13)

Naming then is something so important and holy we human beings should exercise great and prayerful care in choosing the name we shall give to a child, seeking truly to listen deep in our hearts to what the Spirit is saying in reference to the naming of the child.

Now everyone's name is sacred first because of the reference to the one named, that is to a human being, a person, in the image and likeness of God but also because when the person is named at the beginning of the Baptismal Liturgy it becomes the name in which they are Baptized, for the priest always names the child first and then adds 'I baptize' etc.

Thus the name immediately becomes truly the icon of the person, the image which reveals the one named to us, identifies them in their uniqueness as an individual member of the human family and critically as a member of the Mystical Body of Christ. Certain names easily lend themselves to being more sobriquets - leading to severe teasing and loss of dignity - than others. Once the child is named and the name becomes known, the child is in a sense 'stuck with it' and has no recourse but to suffer, the 'slings and arrows' which are sadly too common amongst peers, and not always only amongst childhood peers.

We need to soberly reflect that it IS the person named, the child, who will bear either the Joy, or the burden, of the name we give them for their whole life....thus we need to choose the name for the blessing of the child and NOT because we are in some way indebted to some adult family member, friend, employer, or mythical figure from the entertainment or sports field.

Finally 2159 begins with this sobering reflection when it comes to giving someone a name: THE NAME ONE RECEIVES IS A NAME FOR ETERNITY. Sort of shifts the import and impact a bit from thinking it cute to burden the child with a name chosen for its previous owner's media popularity, for example.

It breaks the hearts of priests when they have to argue with parents over the child's name, especially when parents are unwilling, for example, to soften a name such as (insert here the worst sobriquet you've heard) with a Baptismal name that is of a saint or virtue.

We need to learn the difference between a 'name' and a 'label'.

Once we do, and once long before the child is born, parents and priests begin the journey to Baptism God Himself will aid in the selection of the name and then the name chosen will lead to this concluding and wonderfu1 reflection from 2159:...' In the kingdom, the mysterious and unique character of each person marked with God's name will shine forth in splendour'.....

Mother Theresa's name became so familiar that just saying 'Mother' and the icon of her name reminded everyone of the poor whom she served, the example she set, the faith she lived; the name Pope John Paul merely spoken evokes an image of truth-spealcing pastoral compassion and love, and that most Holy of all names, JESUS is itself when spoken with faith and reverence an occasion of grace.

In the Baptismal Liturgy the parents are asked publicly: "What name do you give?" or "What name have you given this child?"

All of creation, the whole Church, the entire human family waits in silence at that moment to hear what the icon of this little person will be.

Fr. Bob Papi

Nov.18, 1998.

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