Names are interesting. Though we don’t usually choose our own, they give insight into one’s background. My parents had chosen another name for me but hearing that my aunt and uncle wanted to use it for their expected child, Mom and Dad left it for their use. My female cousin ended up not needing the name they reserved, but I had already been born, and named after my dad. There was a period of years when my dad thought being called ‘junior’ by friends telephoning our number (back when whole families shared a single line) was too much for me to bear; he offered to have my name changed.
My wife has commented that amongst the biggest decisions we made for our children was picking their names and their godparents. We have viewed both as consequential. At the beginning, we didn’t know we had naming rules.
When I was growing up back in the old country (Saskatchewan), there was a family at my school who had five children, all of whose names began with the same letter. At the time this seemed a very strange thing to do – especially when the names they used were less than common.
Not every family limits the choices they allow for this key mark of identity, something the individual will probably have for the rest of his life. But I suspect most do. Sometimes they are as simple as not giving a traditionally male name to a daughter. It could be more specific and involve a particular number of letters (this is the case for a family in our acquaintance). You’d think that especially as we hoped from the beginning to have a larger family, and as it turned out that we were going to specialize in daughters, that we wouldn’t make it even more difficult to find good names.
We knew that we wanted our children to share their names with strong and virtuous individuals. The devotional practice of reverencing patron saints made this pretty standard for Catholics; our daughters are each named after a canonized saint, biblical woman, or esteemed member of the family. After naming our first three daughters, we discovered that we had created a further rule: we would not repeat initial letters for first names, nor could initial letters be vowels.
These final two requisites don’t have substance in themselves, but the challenge of finding names that find all criteria somehow added to the experience for us. While our girls have not placed the same restrictions on themselves in regard to their Confirmation names, they have each selected worthy patrons and sponsors.
Taking names seriously is part of not only our faith, but more deeply even, God’s own nature. The second commandment tells us that misuse of God’s name is an offence. There is something of consequence here that I’m not sure we pick up very well in the 2020s.
Scripture also uses names to mark changes of life: Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel, with Saul to Paul being one of the biggest. Just like the number forty represents transformation: in the Sinai, on the Ark, and with Jesus in the desert. We have just finished journeying with Jesus (“God saves”) as we’ve walked through Lent. While we likely haven’t changed any names in this time, we may have examined who we truly are, as named children of the Father. Though we suffered for forty days, Easter is now a fifty-day celebration – where fasting and mourning are behind us. The promise of spring’s new life echoes the New Life we have been promised. And our celebration of this reality means something about how we live. That’s something I’ve been thinking about too …
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers