Reading Already There?

There's more to the experience than just the book. Find it here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Give Me My Name

“Our celebrant today is . . . I don’t remember his name, so he’ll have to introduce himself . . .”

So I was introduced at the beginning of one of my masses this summer. One could take offense. I didn’t. But I did wonder if it was symptomatic of something I’ve been noticing all summer, with varying degrees of comfort. I have a new name. That name is “Father.” Even people who do remember my name are prone to calling me not Father Mark or Father Mossa, but simply “Father.” And if that were not enough, some people insist on punctuating nearly every sentence with it in the course of conversation. Now don’t get me wrong; I know they are just being respectful. But I don’t always feel worthy of such respect, especially from those who have been living a good and devout Christian life a lot longer than I have been.

In many religious communities people used to—and some still do—begin their life with a new name. My friend Frances, who recently joined the Trappistines, is now “Sofia.” One of my favorite high school teachers, Brother Alois, started his life as “Donald.” So, getting a new name is not something foreign to religious commitment. And, indeed, I would often be mistakenly called “Father” during my Jesuit formation, but most of the time only when I was wearing clerics. One of the most disarming things that happened right after ordination was having people call me Father when I wasn’t wearing clerics! They’d been, most of them, witness to the event, so they knew who I was. The secret was out.

This summer only heightened my awareness of this new name, because I found myself being introduced to most of the people I would come to know in Germany, already a priest. Indeed, in the case of most of the parishioners where I was working, their first encounter with me was when I was presiding at mass. I suspect most of them didn’t even find it necessary to learn my name; it was easy enough simply to call me “Father.”

My concern in all this is not so much being called “Father,” however. I suppose I’m more concerned with the “Mark” getting lost. Not that it would be so terrible, but I don’t want to just blend into some general category they have in their brain. I want them to know the unique me. Not just because I like to be appreciated, but also so that the unique gifts God has given may be best put to use. Does being just “Father” somehow obscure that? I’m not sure. I may be thinking too much into it. Nonetheless, it’s an identity that I’m still not quite used to. Someone says “Father,” and it doesn’t immediately sink in that they are talking to me.

Yet, in spite of all this, I also find myself resisting the temptation to say, “just call me Mark.” This is because I think that I also have an obligation myself to appreciate and respect my new identity. As much as I know myself to be just like everybody else, there is at least one way now that I am not like everybody else, and cannot be. I’m an ordained priest not because I crave respect and adulation or whatever, but because God has called me to be this. So as uncomfortable as I may be being called Father, I am equally if not more uncomfortable with inclinations I might have to make little of it. It smacks of artificial humility rather than the real humility which is required—accepting the vocation God has called me to, and its consequences. But there is also more to me than just this particular vocation. So maybe in addition to “Father,” maybe there could be also be a “Father Mark” once in a while. Just so I don’t get lost.