It’s something you probably don’t even notice the first time, and the second or third might just be chocked up to a nervous twitch. Eventually, if you watch long enough, you’ll realize there’s something to the odd tendency many Dominicans have of bobbing their heads during prayers and liturgies. In fact this bobbing is not mere bobbing at all, but a bow of the head in reverence when the names of Jesus and Mary are spoken. While the latter is part of the well-known Dominican devotion to Our Lady, it seems appropriate to focus on the first, as today is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.
The power of names and the sacredness of the name of God are concepts we inherited from our Jewish forebears, and the particular importance of the Name of Jesus is made perfectly clear in the scriptures: “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Despite this, it often seems like the Holy Name is more likely to be upon people’s lips after slamming their thumb in the car door than in a moment of prayer. Like so many problems in our society, though, this is not as new as we might imagine. In the wake of the Albigensian heresies in Italy and France during the time of St. Dominic, a particular disdain and irreverence for the Lord’s Name crept into common parlance and proved stronger than the heresy itself. As a result, in 1274 Blessed Pope Gregory X, at the behest of the Council of Lyons, asked Blessed John of Vercelli, sixth Master General of the Dominican Order, to preach reverence for the Name of Jesus, asking specifically that “at the pronouncing of that name, chiefly at the Holy Sacrifice, everyone would bow his head in token that interiorly he bends the knee of his heart.” The Brethren took on this charge with zeal, and devotion to the Holy Name is a common current among many Dominican saints.
While this might ease your concerns that your local Dominican is nodding off at prayer, devotion to the Holy Name goes beyond a simple gesture (and it’s not limited to Dominicans, either—the General Instruction of the Roman Missal says “A bow of the head is made when the three Divine Persons are named together and at the names of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated”). By striving to keep the Name of Jesus in such high regard, a love of his Church and the desire to follow Him flow quite naturally. This was the impetus behind the founding of the variety of groups and organizations that were eventually gathered under the title of the Confraternity of the Most Holy Name of God and Jesus, or the Holy Name Society. This Society sought to encourage Catholics, and men in particular, to venerate the Holy Name and to sanctify their lives, with a particular emphasis on avoiding cursing, blasphemy and immorality. While these groups were formally instituted in the sixteenth century, they arguably reached their peak early in the twentieth century in the United States.
Imagine a sitting President speaking to a crowd of avowedly Catholic men about the danger of foul language to good and honest men. As far-fetched as that sounds, that’s exactly what happened on August 16, 1903, when Theodore Roosevelt addressed the Holy Name Society of Brooklyn and Long Island on a hill across from St. Dominic’s Church in Oyster Bay, NY. He encouraged the members of the Society in their desire to be decent men, but emphasized that that decency did not imply timidity.
I do not expect you to lose one particle of your strength or courage by being decent. On the contrary, I should hope to see each man who is a member of this society, from his membership in it, become all the fitter to do the rough work of the world.
The world has not gotten any less rough than it was then, and the need for strong and decent men is just as pressing now as it was then. While these strong and decent men should stand tall in their striving for virtue, they should know exactly when to bow their heads.
Blessed be God.
Blessed be his Holy Name.
Blessed be Jesus Christ, True God and True Man.
Blessed be the Name of Jesus.
Image: Holy Name Society at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier