Somebody to Someone
Published on September 4-5, 2010 in the Parish Bulletin of Saint Andrew Catholic Church, Harrodsburg KY
The Rite of Baptism of an infant begins with a question that is posed to the parents: “What name do you give your child?” or, more frequently, “What name have you given your child?” (cf. Rite of Baptism 37, 76) It is a logical question to ask at the baptismal font, at the doorway to the Church of God. Consider that the parents would have been known to those who are in the Church. They have been members who have received the Sacraments there. They are known to the priest and to the other parishioners by name. As they come to the doorway, they bring with them a new member, one who is not yet known to the rest of the Church. The question basically says: “We know both of you. Now whom do you have with you? Who is this whom you bring to the Church of God?”
Notice too that it is the parents who name their child, not the priest or any other member of the Church. The Church acknowledges that the child belongs first to a human family, the same family that has given the child a name, the name by which he would be known to all, including the Church.
The Rite of Baptism thus begins with the naming of the child. To be named, to have a name, means to be somebody. To name someone is to acknowledge the worth and meaning of that person: that he is an individual, different from you and me, that he is not just some random creature but somebody with a name.
It is part of our humanity that we go about the business of naming. Consider how we would never refer to an unknown person as UDP (Unidentified Dead Person), but rather give him or her a name: John Doe or Jane Doe. We give even a dead person unknown to us a name to recognize that person’s dignity, that person’s worth. We do not know who he was but we know that he was somebody to someone out there.
In the course of human history, whenever a person is not given a name, there is a deliberate attempt to turn that person into an object, a thing, a random number. We see this in the Holocaust when the Nazis referred to the Jewish prisoners in the concentration camps not by their given names but by the numbers tattooed on their arms. The officer Javert in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables saw and treated Jean Valjean not as another human being but as Prisoner 24601.
When a person is reduced to a number, that person becomes a nobody: just another number in a list, another face from a line-up, another body to be dumped into the furnace. It is part of our human instinct to resist this sort of degradation. Even Agent 007, a fighting machine (an object!) for Her Majesty’s Secret Service, takes every opportunity to introduce himself by his name: “Bond. James Bond.”
To be named means to be identified, to be acknowledged as somebody. When a child is named, the child ceases to be a nobody and becomes somebody.
In Baptism, the child is acknowledged as somebody by Someone, the Greatest Someone. That is why he is named at the beginning of the Rite; we acknowledge this child’s worth and value so much so that we name him a child of God.
This is part of the reason why we baptize an infant in the Catholic Church. We baptize a child because we acknowledge his inherent worth, his share in the image and likeness of God. We also baptize a child because we acknowledge his potential; we acknowledge that he is destined to grow to be a saint of God, to be one of the holy ones. We commit ourselves to the possibility of this child growing in the knowledge of God, that he would not grow wild but grow in faith. We baptize a child to remind ourselves that this child named by God is named for God.