As world awaits new prince’s identity, Catholics face own name considerations

July 23, 2013

By Maria Wiering

mwiering@CatholicReview.org

Twitter: @ReviewWiering

What’s in a baby name?

Money, for one, for those among the Britons who’ve bet on the name of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s new son, born July 22 in London. According to multiple sources, the bookmakers are betting on a traditional moniker such as James or George. Similarly regal names were predicted if William and Kate, as the parents are better known, were to have had a girl.

For Catholics, a name also traditionally includes a patron saint.

Catholics have a long history of naming their children with recognized saints in mind, making a name like “North” – Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s recent choosing for their daughter – once unimaginable.

That’s no longer the case.

Deacon Vito S. Piazza Sr., pastoral associate of St. Joseph in Sykesville who coordinates the parish’s baptisms, said he has seen a decline in the number of Catholics who purposely choose saints names for their babies. Those who do often make them middle names.

Baptismal classes could provide an opportunity for Catholic leaders to encourage saint names, but couples are also waiting longer than in the past to baptize their children, Deacon Piazza said. Many wait until after the child is born to take baptismal preparation classes.

“At that point, they’ve already named their baby,” he said.

Naming a baby after a saint goes back to the early centuries of the church, said Monsignor Steven P. Rohlfs, rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg.

The name affirmed the parents’ belief in the communion of saints and expressed admiration for the early Christian martyrs. It also demonstrated hope that a saint would take a special interest in interceding on behalf of his or her namesake, Monsignor Rohlfs said.

“(The name) is a constant reminder that we are to emulate our patron saint, whoever he or she may be, and that we have a special affinity toward them, and they to us,” he said. “It was a core belief, and still is, that those in heaven still take an active interest in those who are still on their way.”

As Christianity emerged from oppression to become the dominant religion, the culture of Christendom presumed people would name children after saints, Monsignor Rohlfs said. That continued for centuries, until the rise of secularism.

The trend has noticeably declined since the 1960s, he said.

“When I was growing up, we were taught a prayer to our patron saint which we said every day, and which I still say every day. I’ve said it since I was in the third grade,” he said.

With thousands of saints canonized by the Catholic Church, the statistics lean in parents’ favor of giving their child a saint’s name, if unintentionally.

According to the U.S. Social Security Administration, the top 10 baby names for boys in 2012 were Jacob, Mason, Ethan, Noah, William, Liam, Jayden, Michael, Alexander and Aiden. For girls, they were Sophia, Emma, Isabella, Olivia, Ava, Emily, Abigail, Mia, Madison and Elizabeth. Most are the names of saints or biblical figures.

There’s even a St. Zoe (which ranked last year as No. 30), but not, unfortunately for Catholic parents wishing to emulate Gwyneth Paltrow, a St. Apple.

(There’s also no St. Gwyneth, but there is a St. Gwen.)

If a Catholic was not given a saint’s name at birth, the sacrament of confirmation offers another opportunity to take a saint’s name, Monsignor Rohlfs said.

However, he would like to see the tradition of naming a child after a saint or virtue revived, he said.

“Besides the spiritual dimension of it, a Christian name is part of Catholic culture,” Monsignor Rohlfs said. “As the Catholic culture has eroded, so too have many of these practices. We simply have to await a better time when people will once again rediscover these things.”

Deacon Piazza also said he would advise parents to embrace the practice, calling it “a wonderful tradition.”

“That child, if they are raised in the faith, would be taught to pray to that namesake to intercede for them,” he said.

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