From the Archdiocesan Catechetical Office
Our babies come into the world as surprise parcels, each with a unique bundle of characteristics, we have to wait to see them gradually unfold but cannot wait until then, though, to give them names; so we choose a name in the hope that they will grow into it and like it. We choose names because they sound well, because they belong to someone we love, or because they mean something important to us. A name has no real meaning apart from a person. It is only a word until it is attached to a real person. Then it becomes inseparably a part of a person’s identity, the first answer to the question, “Who are you?”
A name cannot easily be put aside or changed. An immigrant may assume a name that flows more easily in a new tongue; a woman may take her bridegroom’s name as her own. That action proclaims a profound change of identity and announces the beginning of a new life. Even the adolescent’s rejection of an earlier nickname announces a new person.
Ultimately, of course, no one decides what another person will be. Each individual makes personal choices. But in the beginning, someone else must claim responsibility and authority and care for a budding life. You are that someone for this child, so you have the right to choose a name, friends and family may suggest, but only you can choose.
Giving identity and claiming responsibility are profoundly human deeds. But most of all, the gift of a name signifies the holiest human experience; entering into a relationship.
When you speak your baby’s name, you approach this small person intimately. A few months later your child will speak your name. In any tongue, the equivalent of mommy and daddy are usually the first words a child masters. Mommy and Daddy, not Joan and Mark or Maria and Tony. This tiny person will lay aside your old name for a new one – a single word that will always evoke your smile, your voice, your touch. All through life, your child will call you by name that says what a special part you play in his or her life.
And you are changed. You carry a new identity, whether this is your first child or one of many.
For centuries, people have bestowed a saint’s name on their baby in the hope that the child will grow up like its namesake, even though many saints were notoriously difficult to live with. The saints are also believed to offer a range of services to their protégés: protection, of course, help for specific problems, such as the rigours of travelling, and help for special talents, like music or resourcefulness.
To bear the name of a saint certainly means having something to live up to or even to live down. But to have a “heavenly” godmother or godfather is to be part of the tradition of the Church, to have a name which is familiar throughout the Christian world. It is a star to follow.
How then, do you choose a saint’s name for your baby? Since the Church’s calendar remembers several saints on any given day in the year, babies were often christened hastily by a priest after the saint’s feast day on which they were born.
The gift of a name to a child is a special privilege for parents. It is also a deeply significant spiritual gift. The gift of a name at Baptism is the acknowledgment that the child is called to become a disciple of Christ. The choice of the name is very personal to the parents; but one of the names chosen should be one which is Christian. The Christian name gives the child a saint’s name who can be an example to them of how to follow Christ.
It is therefore important that catechists in all faith formation programmes repeatedly emphasise the value and importance of our Christian saints and their names so that the parents’ choice of a saints’ name for their babies at baptism (and at registration), is not an afterthought. We are reminded that the child of today is entering a world of tomorrow, a rapidly changing world where Christian values are competing with a variety of other influences which draw people away from the practices of the faith. It is within this world that, parents, godparents, grandparents, the community, the Church must teach the infants the practice of the faith. This responsibility implies that all concerned need to have an awareness and experience of what it means to belong to the Church within these social realities. The Antilles Bishops have been insisting that this involves an experience of Church which is accompanied by lifelong catechesis which goes beyond the preparation for sacraments.
Adapted from Saints’ Names for your Baby – Fiona MacMath and Your Child’s Baptism – Carol Luebering.