Can you please tell me why some people get frustrated or even mad when I don’t remember their names? I imagine they’re probably thinking, “It’s because it says Fr. Justin doesn’t care. If he did care, he’d remember.” And why do some people get so excited when I finally remember their names? They smile, even jump, saying, “You finally remembered!” Some students at our school have actually asked, “What’s my name?” eager to know if I remember. It’s because it all comes down to this one, simple, powerful idea: knowing a person’s name says you care.
In 2002, I arrived in New York at a physically massive seminary and I was intimidated by the big New York life. One night, while walking in the cavernous hallways of the seminary, another seminarian walked by me and said, “Hi Justin.” I didn’t even know the guy, we had never met, but he knew my name! That meant a lot to me: whether or not he intended it, it seemed like he was interested in me. The fact that he was a deacon and one of the senior guys, a leader in the seminary, showed that he was, in some way, looking out for me.
Contrast that with meeting one of our Vancouver priests in 2008. He asked me to fill in for him by celebrating Mass for a group of sisters. After asking if I could do it, and after accepting his request, he said, “What’s your name?” I was shocked. He was at my ordination, I’m a Vancouver priest like He, and he still didn’t know my name? So I reached in my pocket for my wallet, flipped a coin towards him and said, “Here’s a quarter, buy a clue.” Then he stormed off in anger. Of course, that didn’t happen. But, not knowing a person’s name may say you don’t care.
Today’s gospel mentions the word ‘greet’ three times. When our mother Mary entered the house of Zechariah she greeted St. Elizabeth. While praying over today’s readings, I realized that the greeting between these two holy women must have been a warm, beautiful one. It makes no sense that it would be cold, half-hearted. What kind of greeting would we expect from someone who is full of grace? One that says “I care about you.”
Jesus says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). You want to know if someone is a good Catholic or not? One of the criteria is to see how they love strangers. Because a good Catholic is a disciple, and a disciples loves, and greeting other people is part of love. It’s simple human logic. To not greet someone when we have the opportunity is not love. At the very least, greeting is better than not greeting, agreed?
Manners and greeting people “are more than mutually agreed upon rules of etiquette—they are means of offering dignity. They communicate, ‘I will treat you with social grace because I think you deserve it’” (Dr. Ray Guarendi, Marriage: Small Steps, Big Rewards, 83).
My oldest brother put it very well: when you enter a room, you don’t greet the computer, you don’t greet the plants, you don’t greet the furniture. Why? Because they’re things. And when we don’t greet other people when we have the opportunity, in some way, probably not intentionally, we’re treating them like things. In Auschwitz, the Nazis gave prisoners numbers instead of using their names in order to dehumanize them. To not use someone’s name when we can may in some way dehumanize them. People’s names are sacred. God always calls by name. He doesn’t say, “Hey you, what’s-your-face, I’m giving you a great mission.”
Jesus said famously in Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” You see, to welcome someone is a kind of emotional feeding. Some people can go through their whole day or week with no one really loving them and so they’re starving. And Jesus says if we welcome the stranger we welcome Him; and if we don’t welcome other people, we’re ignoring Him. So, to deliberately not welcome someone when we can is a sin of omission.
Let’s bring this closer to home. Greeting is a massive opportunity to love, and it’s our duty before God to do so. Here at St. Anthony’s, we have to start learning each other’s names. How is it that people come here and aren’t greeted and no one bothers to learn their names? Yet this is something that some of us already experience. Do you agree with what Jesus has just told us, with these reflections? Then we’re being called to live it out. Because “Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock” (Mt 7:24), but “every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand” (Mt 7:26). Our parish must be built upon rock otherwise we will fall.
Every parish that grows and thrives places a premium on greeting people and loving them. They don’t just do what comes naturally because that’s not enough. They’re intentional and work on it, and constantly talk about it. Churches that don’t work on it eventually die, because they have no love. In the same way, couples with great marriages don’t just do what comes naturally; they’re intentional about how they love each other and about growing. Anyone who is great at anything works on it, and deliberately tries to grow.
Learning names is very important for me. I now know about 400 names here. And that includes students and parents in the school who don’t go to this parish. I work on it, I embarrass myself by asking again and again what a person’s name is because I’m trying to remember. Here is a binder of our parish list, so that when I learn a name, I highlight it. Here is the school yearbook, so that I can learn the students’ names. Yes, I study it. Yes, I look it over. Yes, it takes time. Why? Because I care. Do you also notice how I always try to introduce people? If I meet someone from Iraq I try to introduce them to other Iraqi Catholics. If I meet someone from Latin America, I try to introduce them to someone who speaks Spanish. Because I want them to make a connection with other people.
This is a priority and one we’re going to focus on. I have a duty before God to shepherd this community and lead it as God wants. And I’m asking everyone to start learning each other’s names. A good start is to talk about it; an even better start is to do something about. I’d like to lovingly challenge our parish to learn 4000 names in the next four weeks. Each week at Mass, we’ll give out a piece of paper to write down the names we’ve learned. Writing it down will help us to remember and pray for these people. I’d like to also entrust the greeters and ushers with a particular responsibility: your ministry is no longer just to greet people. Your ministry is to know their first and last names and get to know them.
For one person to learn 4000 names would take years (trust me, I’ve never been able to do it in any parish). But, if each of the roughly 950 people in this parish learns at least one new name a week for four weeks, and pray for the person we’ve met, then we’ll have 4000 names learned—that is a monumental game-changer: 4000 relationships starting and 4000 prayers offered for other people. Each week, we’ll count how many names were learned and how many prayers were offered, and then publicly update our progress to see how we’re doing.
Goals bring out the best in us. If you can’t measure it, you can’t change it. So we’re going to measure our progress. At the very least, the attempt will be better than “Let’s see what happens.” Even if we fail, it will be a success, because to aim high and fail is better than not trying at all and being content with complacency. Parishes that are healthy and serious about growing do these kinds of parish-wide initiatives and measure them. We’re going to do this four times a year, during every season. And we’re going to entrust this initiative to our Mother Mary and to St. Elizabeth, that they will pray for us to be like them: warm and friendly.
This will be easy. We’re all good people, right? Good people greet each other and make efforts to go above-and-beyond, right? So, look for opportunities to greet people, and if you find none, make some. Don’t worry if you can’t remember names perfectly—that will come with time. The goal is not to have a perfect memory; the goal is to welcome people.
This attitude will be critically important this coming Thursday and Friday. I’m guessing that about 400 people will join us for Christmas Masses. Most of these brothers and sisters of ours come to Mass twice a year. What better Christmas present can the Church give them than to greet them, ask their name, and pray for them? Actually, it’s the least we can do. We’d love to win our brothers and sisters back. We love them and want them to come home. With this much good will, great things will happen. This can make someone’s day and make their Christmas a better one. Can you think of something that is as easy as this and makes such a big difference? We will do so little and get so much! We can offer people dignity because we know they deserve it! I was a stranger and you welcomed me! Let’s shorten the truth that Jesus is telling us today: knowing someone’s name means you care.