I envy people whose job does not include knowing names of more than 5,000 parishioners. After all, one of the most embarrassing moments in ministry happened in an encounter with people I have previously met but caught off guard and eventually, unable to identity names the next time around. Things like, Fr. Jojo, you went to our house and ate dinner with the family. Remember? Would you please help me jog my memory?, jotabz says silently.
A similar situation often takes place at the school. Once, I took a short walk in the grounds after spending a couple of hours in the office. There, the 6th graders were surprisingly behaved and lined up in a single file when I walked to the basketball court. What’s going on? I whispered to one of them. Not much. We were just messing around and got sanctioned. And now comes the often-unannounced short quiz on names, again. A girl, among a group of five, felt bad when I could hardly remember her name after many serious attempts. It was a tough test and clearly embarrassing for someone who never got it right even after 10 encounters with the same person. Upon seeing her again at the parish fiesta, I pointed my finger and instantly said, there you go, Alexis. Bingo! She laughed out loud!
It was about time. I got tired of too many excuses and disclaimers. Getting familiar with faces is never enough. Identity must be a priority.
At a wedding Mass, few weeks ago, the benevolent presider asked me to distribute the blood of Christ. A lady and her fiancé joined the line. As they got nearer, I began to notice the huge smiles on their faces and suspected they must have met me before. I had no clue but it was greatly astonishing. When it was their turn, I handed the cup and smiled back. I felt very conscious of what I was doing. Maybe, there was a speck in my eye. Maybe, I needed to retouch. Maybe, they knew me.
Late was my arrival at the wedding reception but such a grand entrance in the ballroom wasn’t a big surprise for those who knew me. There was a reason, however. I went back to the parish and said hello to the wonderful and lovely ladies who gave their time and energy doing most of the behind the scenes work at the fiesta. That said, the all-important wedding entourage procession, I’ve looked forward even before the planning started was terribly missed. No regrets. I was going to wear barong tagalog, mamahalin na pina, to be exact, but ended up putting my vest, short for, you look very priestly father. While I was looking for my table, I chanced upon the sort-of, couple again and guess what, truth be told, don’t you remember us, father? Remember, the Way? Absolutely. How could I ever forget the family who considered me as one of their own?
It’s very telling. It boils down into one’s ability and sincerity to remember. Every encounter should never be taken lightly. Even if I go back to the Seminary for further studies, surely not a single pastoral course will be offered for names 101. I studied systems of thought from ancient to modern, read the scriptures, shared sacred stories, memorized biblical figures, timeline and historical events including lyrics of my fave songs by heart, wrote reflection papers on numerous theological courses, sit in the classroom for countless hours, counseled the troubled, convened meetings, delegated constituents, listened patiently to professors who did most of the talking in conferences and spent great amount of time with perfectly innocent and distressed people. And yet, remembering names is a totally different scenario, which requires strong pastoral sensitivity.
Truly, life after ordination considerably changed and shifted my priorities. I embarked on a whole new world with great hopes and deliberate effort, well-defined goals and disciplined lifestyle. At the end of the day, laughing at my mistakes before a gracious God was the first major lesson learned. Although it might take me a lifetime to remember names, honesty will always be the key in ministry.
So, what’s in a name? Why remember names of my parishioners? Because the need to belong, to be loved, to feel important and to be counted is the deepest longing of the human heart.