March 7, 2013
“What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”
(Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2). Shakespeare puts these oft-quoted words on the lips of Juliet when she tells Romeo that she loves him, not for his family wealth and fame, but for himself. For her, his family name means nothing. In her eyes, one name is as good as another. Not so in the Bible. Throughout the Scriptures, names have a meaning. They are not haphazardly given.
At times, parents name their child in a way that reminds them of their child’s birth. In the Old Testament, when the aged Abraham and Sarah finally have a son, they name him “Isaac.” This name means “laughter.” It recalls Sarah’s spontaneous outburst of laughter when God said she would conceive in her old age.
In the New Testament, Zechariah and Elizabeth name their son “John.” This name means “the Lord is gracious.” In their old age, long after they had expected a child, God was indeed gracious and kind to them.
At other times, God himself is the one who changes someone’s name to signify a special role in the history of salvation. When God chooses Abram to be the father of the Chosen People, he renames him “Abraham,” that is, “father of many nations.” After Jacob wrestles with God by the river Jabbok, he is renamed “Israel,” because he struggled with God and men and was victorious.
Halfway through his public ministry, Jesus takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. He deliberately chooses this place. Here a grotto claimed to be the birthplace of Pan, the Greek god of nature. Here Caesar received the homage due only to divinity. Here the River Jordan took its origin. This river, so important in God’s giving the Promised Land to his people, it was more than just a river for Israel. It was a reminder of the one true God who intervenes in history to save his people.
In this town where the gods compete for allegiance, Jesus tests the loyalty of his disciples. Do they know who he truly is? Are they willing to entrust their lives to him? He asks, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16: 14) And it is Simon Bar-Jonah who rises above every insufficient explanation of the true identity of Jesus. He says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16: 15) This is the very first confession of the true faith from a disciple. It marks a turning point in the ministry of Jesus.
Jesus responds to Simon by conferring on him a new name to signify his special role in the Church that Jesus was founding. Jesus announces to him, “You are Peter and upon this rock, I will build my Church.” (Mt 16:18) Never before has anyone bore the name “Peter.” Jesus coins it on the spot. The newly-minted name is a word-play on the Aramaic word for rock. In Aramaic, a rock is called
kepha. And so Jesus is saying to Simon, “From now on your name will be
Kephas or Rock and on this
kepha or rock I will establish my Church.”
The disciples understand what is taking place. Jesus is appointing Peter as their leader. Peter is to have a role in the Church not given to another. As the foundation stone gives stability to a building, Peter is to give stability and strength to the entire Church. Jesus is choosing a living person to be the visible source of unity in the Church.
Recognizing the biblical understanding that a new name means a new mission, the Popes, once elected to fill the shoes of the fisherman, have historically changed their names. Often they have used their new name to signal what they understand their mission to be. For example, after his election as Supreme Pontiff, Cardinal Ratzinger changed his name to Benedict XVI. In his very first general public audience, the Pope said, “I want to call myself Benedict XVI to bind myself to the venerated Pope Benedict XV, who guided the church in a troubled period because of the First World War. He was a courageous and authentic prophet of peace…” From the very beginning, Pope Benedict XVI offered his service to the Church and the world as a ministry of reconciliation and harmony.
By the choice of the name Benedict, he also wanted to evoke the memory of St. Benedict, the 6
th century founder of Western monasticism. St. Benedict’s work helped spread Christianity over Europe. Watching the radical secularization and de-Christianizing of Europe, the Pope was sending the clear message that he was committed to the revitalization of the Christian roots of Western civilization, so glibly denied by many.
By the exercise of his ministry, Pope Benedict XVI continued the reform of