The National Catholic Review

A popular and pious saying is that God gives you the graces you need. This is thought to be especially true in your ministry or vocation. If you are a parent, for example, God will give you the graces you need to raise your children—like patience, compassion and wisdom. Likewise, to accomplish their priestly ministry, the ordained are expected to receive graces like, well, patience, compassion and wisdom.

On the whole, I believe this. Often, after I have celebrated Mass, parishioners will say something to the effect of, “Wow, your homily was just what I needed to hear.” And I think, well, that’s not something I planned, it’s God’s grace. Or in the confessional, when I find myself saying something that unexpectedly brings tears to someone’s eyes, again I know it’s God’s grace at work.

On the other hand, it has been something of a disappointment to realize that, three years after ordination, one particular grace that I consider rather important for priests has not been given to me—the ability to recall names.

I’m lousy at remembering names. This is a longtime thorn in my side and a particularly thorny problem in priestly ministry. Here’s an example. For the last few years I’ve run a book club for young adults that meets once a month at a local Jesuit parish—a thoroughly enjoyable ministry. Typically, there are 20 or so twentysomethings in attendance. Just as typically it takes me an entire year to remember a new member’s name. Last year I began asking participants to wear name tags (“Hello, My Name Is...”) for the first few sessions, under the sly guise of helping them remember names. It worked. In a few months they all seemed to know one another’s names. I, on the other hand, did not—something that is difficult to disguise when facilitating a large group: “Hey, you there, how’d you like the book?”

I know what you’re thinking. I’ve tried all the clever tricks for remembering names, like concentrating when you first meet a person and repeating the name in the initial conversation, which, admittedly, makes you sound fairly ridiculous: “Well, Margaret, it’s nice to meet you, Margaret. So, Margaret, how long have you been coming to St. Ignatius, Margaret?” There’s also the mnemonic device of linking a person’s name to a related object. If you meet someone named Taylor, for example, you’re supposed to think of a suit jacket; and when you see the person again, you’ll think of a suit jacket and remember “tailor.” But frankly, I find it hard enough to remember the suit jacket.

All of this would be bad enough were it not for the fact that one of my closest Jesuit friends, named Steve, is a champion name-rememberer. With apparently little effort, he remembers not only your own name, but also the name of your parents and your brother and sister. And your brother’s wife and your sister’s husband. And their children. In order of their birth. It’s very alarming.

Recently, Steve and I ran a weekend parish retreat. Suspecting that his skill would only throw more light on my weakness, I decided to address the issue head on. I would make a full confession at the beginning of the retreat and admit that I was bad at remembering names. This way, I figured, people would be less offended when I forgot or fumbled their names. All would be well.

True to form, no matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t remember everyone’s name. Also true to form, Steve needed to hear a name only once before it was cemented in his mind. But unfortunately, my little plan backfired. By the end of the retreat, it had become something of a running joke, and I had people coming up to me saying, “Ha ha, what’s my name?” Mortified, I realized that my honesty-is-the-best-policy approach was, in fact, the worst policy.

Happily, there is a bright spot: Jesuit priests who visit our community. Fortunately, with this group there’s rarely a problem. Though it makes me sound overly formal, the majority of these guests are more than happy to answer to the same name: “Father.”

James Martin, S.J., an associate editor of America, is author of In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.

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