Monday, 29 October 2018

Ask Sue: How Should Catholics Choose Baby Names?

V asks, “Sue, I have a question for to-be parents. According to Scripture, what route/methodology should a Catholic couple take while choosing a name for their child? In the past, children have been named after saints whose feasts are celebrated on their birthdays, or based on suggestions by a priest or a nun, also by the direct promptings of the Holy Spirit (I much prefer the last one). 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. My ulterior motive: We still haven’t managed to settle on a name for baby no. 3."  

First of all, V, can I just say how excited I am that you are having baby no. 3? It’s unusual enough in India nowadays to have more than two, that it’s already a counter-cultural witness. So congratulations on welcoming a new little one into the world.

So, baby-naming is a big deal! There are so many different traditions and customs associated with baby names, from people whose kids' names all start with the same letter, or find ways to combine the mother and father’s names, to people whose cultural tradition demands that they name their kids after their grandparents (so the same names keep getting recycled every other generation), to people like my parents who just picked names they liked without any great hullabaloo (we all got to offer suggestions for our youngest brother, the fifth one, who narrowly missed being named Abraham because his five year old brother really liked that name – not that there’s anything wrong with the name Abraham!)

What does the Church say about it? Very little – “Parents, sponsors, and the pastor are to take care that a name foreign to Christian sensibility is not given.” (Canon Law no. 855)

“In Baptism, the Lord’s name sanctifies man, and the Christian receives his name in the Church. This can be the name of a saint, that is, of a disciple who has lived a life of exemplary fidelity to the Lord. The patron saint provides a model of charity; we are assured of his intercession. The ‘baptismal name’ can also express a Christian mystery or Christian virtue.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 2156)

So what can we get from that? Well, apparently there are a LOT of articles about this from American Catholics, which is not surprising because many of them are parents of large families, and choosing baby names is probably something they have to do every year or two. Also, like I said, a name is a pretty big deal. Names have always had a big significance in the Bible, sometimes given directly by God, and almost always having a meaning.

So here are a few articles where far more research and background have been done:

What’s in a (Catholic) Name? {An Interview with Sancta Nomina}

From Ambrose to Zelie: For Catholic Babies, Old Is the New New (by my homegirl, Simcha Fisher, mother of 10 herself!)

Do Catholic Children Have to Be Given Saint Names?

The Catholic Answers Guide to Naming Your Baby

But maybe you did your research already, and you just want my take on the subject. If so, here goes! (Let it never be said Sue Zanna did not have an opinion on any topic)

1. You as the parents are FREE to choose a name! In other words, just because something is a custom in your family, or your mother has a strong opinion about the name of her first grandchild, or wants the priest to pick it, does not mean you have to agree. This is a very personal choice, given to YOU as responsibility by the Lord, since you are the ones to whom this child has been entrusted. Of course, if you feel convicted about it, you CAN follow a family tradition too. But don’t be coerced or pressured into it.

2. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you: This is just a general rule for everything that is not black or white! Which is a lot of things for Catholics. God leaves a lot of important stuff to our prudent judgement – what books we read, who we marry, how we spend our leisure time, and what we name our children. One of my favourite stories is from Jennifer Fulwiler about how she just knew what her daughter’s name was: A Name for Baby Joy.

3. You don’t HAVE to choose a saint or biblical name: Here’s my theory, if all we picked were saints or biblical names, then there would never be new saint names! You are raising your child to be a saint too, and maybe the world needs a Saint Priya, a Saint Kylie, a Saint Brian and a Saint Rohan. 

4. At the same time, a saint’s name can be very meaningful: Not only are you picking a lifelong friend and intercessor for your child, you are hopefully also inspiring your child and others to learn more about that saint. Maybe you have a saint who has been very instrumental in your life and your walk with the Lord, or maybe for that particular pregnancy and child. What a cool testimony to share when people ask you why you chose that name. Same for biblical names. A nice compromise with point 3 is that you could pick a second name that is a saint or biblical figure, and a first name that is not YET a saint name.

5. Be creative: If you already know more than five people with that name in your social circle, consider picking a different one. Things can get pretty confusing with the number of Rebeccas, Sarahs, Ryans, and Savios (I know more than five of each). If you love a particular saint, but so does everyone else, look into variations of that name. For example, I love Mara as a version of Mary, Avila for Saint Teresa of Avila. Also, there are many new saints that have not yet become super popular in Indian circles yet, so seize your chance – how about Zelie, Faustina, Maximilian or Kolbe, Kateri, Pio, or André?

6. But not too creative: You don’t have to pick a name JUST because it’s unique, as if it’s a competition with everyone else. That’s how you come up with weird names that no one can pronounce or spell, or everyone laughs at.

7. Honour your culture: I’m not sure why everyone is jumping on the Irish name bandwagon when they are not Irish, but I think it could be very cool to name your child something from your own local language, but with a Christian connection or significance. For example, Priya, Asha, Vishwas, Mariyam, Yohan, etc. Or someone from your life or family that you respect and want to honor (As long as you love the name too.)

8. Use your common sense: As much as you love a particular saint or biblical figure, consider that your child has to live in the 21st century, and if his or her name CAN be mocked, it WILL be. So don’t make it easier for your child to become a target. Perhaps nix Zerubabbel, Jedediah and Athanasius. (Sometimes I like to read the genealogy of Jesus from Matthew 1 just to announce to people that I’m going to name my child Uzziah or Jehoshaphat, and watch their faces.) Avoid names that can easily have undesirable double meanings. Or are the names of pop stars or movie characters that you probably will not care about in ten years.

9. Think of nicknames and spellings: Some names just automatically get shortened, so make sure you’re okay with the nickname too. And pick a name that your poor child doesn’t have to struggle to get people to spell throughout his or her life. Or don’t pick a normal name with a weird spelling.

10. Avoid names ‘foreign to Christian sensibility’: That means names of Hindu gods, names specifically associated with other religions, names of people who stood for or did evil, oh, and this may seem obvious, but perhaps not any names connected with Satan, like Diablo. Which a Catholic friend of mine had on her baby name list, because she thought it sounded nice. True story. Do your homework. Look up the names you’re considering.

11. Don’t tell people what names are ridiculous and you would never choose: Because depend on it, that was the name THEY were going to pick for THEIR child because it was so beautiful and meaningful to them, and then things can get very awkward very fast.

12. Feel free to ignore all my rules: YOU get to pick the name of your baby. If you and your spouse love it, and feel God is leading you to it, don’t worry, I’ll still love little Savio Zerubabbel.

P.S I didn’t put any of the names I am considering for my children (you know, all eight of them that exist somewhere in the future or my imagination or both) in this blog post, just so no one can steal them! Apart from Zerubabbel, because I know you guys won't steal that anyway.

Related Reading

Small Family = Happy Family... Really? 

Why Have Kids?

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