On the Giving of Names

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I have come to realize that I have a somewhat unusual name. One question I receive with some regularity upon meeting new acquaintances is “Did you choose your name?” For those of us who have not grown up in Africa or the Caribbean, where the name is still bestowed with some regularity, to hear that someone is called “Innocent” is surprising. Naturally enough, people are curious as to whether some cruel parent bestowed this adjective upon me, or if I merely have myself to blame.

When I have the opportunity, I usually take pains to explain the distinctive way in which religious names are bestowed upon Dominican friars. Although there have been a great variety of approaches to names in the history of the Dominican order, in our province we presently have a custom that shows a beautiful balance of asking and receiving. Before receiving the habit, each brother proposes several names to the novice master, who chooses one that is bestowed upon the brother at his vestition in the habit. With this practice, it is neither a matter of choosing our name simply speaking, nor of receiving a name at the sole whim of the master. Rather, there is a sort of cooperation of formator and formed in choosing and receiving a saint or blessed who will serve as an appropriate patron for a particular brother.

In my case, Bl. Innocent V (d. 1276), the first Dominican friar to become pope, was the fourth on my list of names, and yet the novice master decided that this would be the one for me. It is a marvelous, mysterious name, and its paradoxes have continued to blossom over the last five years since I received it. Through my proposal and the choice of my novice master, I have been linked with a heavenly patron who, though perhaps little known in the Church at large, continues to exercise a ministry of intercession on earth. Through the communion of saints, I trust in the aid of this brother-in-name, whose name I have received and whose assistance I invoke each day.

It is not only religious who are blessed with this dynamic of cooperation in the naming of things. Adam, after all, had the duty of naming all the living things of the earth: “Whatever the man called each living creature was then its name” (Gen 2:19). Christian parents have the joy and duty of choosing a name which will be forever linked with their child through the sacrament of baptism. Those who are to be confirmed are given the opportunity to choose a patron for themselves, conjoining themselves to a saint who will assist them in their public witness to the faith.

In addition to these sorts of naming, however, there is another kind that reveals a mysterious interplay of divine providence and human freedom. Since her Assumption into heaven, the Mother of Jesus has decided upon certain occasions to appear to the followers of her Son in various places throughout the world. These apparitions of Mary do not bestow upon the Church any new revelation: the deposit of faith was fully bestowed upon the Church in the first generation of the apostles, and no new revelation is to be expected before the end of time. Nevertheless, when we are assured by the authority of the Church of the legitimacy of a particular apparition, we receive, in a sense, a new name of Mary, a new title that reveals something of her love for her daughter, the Church.

Our Lady of Fatima; Our Lady of Lourdes; Our Lady of Guadalupe—in each case, the same historical woman, appearing to us after her earthly life by the power and will of God, bestows on us a new way of describing her. She is Our Lady of this place not by our choice, but by the disposition of God. And yet, she is Our Lady of Fatima, of Lourdes, and of Guadalupe because we have chosen these names to describe the particular places where she has appeared. In a certain sense, then, with each human choice of a name for a city or place, we propose a name for Mary, for, even if she does not appear before our eyes, she is always present to those who seek her intercession, now and at the hour of our death.

Image: James Langley, The Virgin of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary, Denton, Nebraska

By | 2015-01-31T09:10:31+00:00 December 12, 2013|Culture, Dominican Order, Saints|

About this Brother:

Br. Innocent Smith, O.P.
Fr. Innocent Smith was born in California and raised in South Bend, Indiana. He studied music and philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He entered the Order of Preachers in 2008, made solemn profession in 2013, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2015. On DominicanFriars.org