There are three girls who I met at Church. The first is named Elena. I call her "the Lovely Helena." She is an organist. The second is named Cecilia. She is very beautiful (I once thought that perhaps she was the most beautiful girl in the world). The third is named Marie Therese. What a perfect name. The Blessed Mother and The Little Flower.
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
William Shakespeare (The Bard)
Every summer as the days creep forward to the Vigil of Our Lady’s Assumption, my mind turns eagerly toward the list of names soon to arrive in my inbox. There’ll be names of boys and of girls, ages 5-8, years when the hearts should be yet tender. How many names? Anywhere from a dozen to twice ten is the norm. Some will be familiar to me, a surname from years past. Some will be in English, given name easily distinguished from surname, girl recognizable from boy. For others, I’ll need to telephone for information. Up to half the names will likely be foreign to my Western eyes and ears. Once I have the list properly understood, I shall make three copies, one for my Missal, another on my phone, and the third printed neatly on the first page of my Lesson Plan Book. In case you have not guessed, I am a teacher; a first grade teacher acquainted with my pupils only by names.
Some will think a name list of little use, but that is wrong. On the contrary, names are very important! Why? They are akin to Sacraments in that they imprint a personal character or identity upon the soul. The names Elena, Cecilia, and Marie Therese referenced above are indeed beautiful.
Parents ought to name their children for Saints, that they may call upon that soul in Heaven for intercession and to be formed in his or her character. A person’s identity is inextricably tied to his name, thus, when I pray for my as yet unseen pupils by name, I call upon their guardian angels and patron saints who carry them before the thrones of Our Lord and Our Blessed Mother, Mary. How marvelous is the Communion of Saints, especially when I consider that many of these little ones lack the graces of Catholic parents and Catholic homes. Lack of knowledge presents no barrier to the recipients of intercessory prayer. The names of the ignorant are known to God.
Think for a moment of a noble, wise, loving, or holy individual. What is the person’s name? Chances are, he or she carries the name of a Saint. We hear or read names in print, and make unconscious judgements without having any knowledge of the person. While there is certainly some cultural explanation for this phenomena, and sometimes the judgement is incorrect, there is, nonetheless, a spiritual dimension whose influence extends beyond the realm of human invention. This is because names reflect spiritual reality, known in full only to Heaven.
When a newborn is Baptized, he exchanges spiritual death for spiritual life. He is born again by Faith into Christ’s Holy Catholic Church, his new identity signified by the baptismal name. Again, at Confirmation, the soul identifies as a newly inducted member of the army of God, thus he chooses or is given the name of a Saint for his guide and mentor in the battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. A woman who marries takes her husband’s family name for she now identifies with and through him. Her offspring will be known by the family surname. When a soul becomes a religious, again a new name is taken representing identification with the sacrifice of one’s entire life to Christ. Finally, in Heaven, Our Sovereign Lord reveals our Heavenly name by which we’ll be known for eternity.
With how much care, then, ought parents to name their children, keeping in mind that Christ has already known them while yet in the womb, and that a good and holy name is required for Godly formation. Usually, my pupils’ parents name their children with concern for their well-being. The odd sounding foreign names, which at first seem peculiar, even distasteful, are, by month’s end, natural and fitting. I often learn their meanings, names from Scripture or praiseworthy Christians from nations of origin, Saints unfamiliar to Westerners. Some Korean martyrs, Kim Tae-gon, Chong Ha-sang, Kim Hyo-ju, Yi Yon-hui. From India, Chavara, Rani, Mariam, Juze, Prashant, Vaadwadi. Other names when translated, denote character traits and virtues such as Faith, Grace, Hope, Charity, Chastity, Loyal, Valor, Justice, Mercy, Victor, Noble, Honor.
How sad, then, when the occasional pupil is burdened with a frivolous, unGodly, or unsuitable name. In such cases, the parents or parent—-single mother—-was or is carried away by popular fads of fashion, racial, ethnic, or gender identity, politics, feminism, Hollywood, or modern music. Over the years I’ve taught boys with names like Elvis, Ganeshi, Bucky, Golem, Abdullah. (Presley?, Ganesh is a Hindu idol, a boy with an elephant head, possibly a nickname? In the English speaking world, people will find it difficult to take seriously, a man named Bucky. The Golem is a mythical Jewish monster. Abdullah is a Muslim name.). I’ve taught girls named Luxury, Kashika, Rasheeda, Johnson, Mulan. (Named for a vice? Meaningless, made up, supposed to sound African, the false prophet Mohammed’s daughter, a masculine surname, a Disney warrior princess who disguises herself as a boy). Last April, one of my little girls acquired a new half-brother, Chaz, born to her birth father and his partner via a surrogate. The names Chaz, Chas, Jazz are “gender-fluid” just in case the child wishes to “transition” to other than his God-given sex! May God have pity on this child!
As a teacher, it’s not within my authority to change a child’s name, as much as I may wish to do so. It IS my place, yes, my duty to pray, do penance, and make reparation on behalf of these unfortunates. I try to discover the child’s positive qualities, those that please Our Lord, and teach about Saints who embodied them in their lives on earth. I cannot say my poor efforts have resulted in actual name changes. Yet, I know children remember the lessons about meanings of names, particularly their names. If a child has a poor name, I take part of it and relate it to virtue. For Golem, I took Lem and told the story of Lemuel in the Bible. It is referred to in the Proverbs as an Hebrew king and means, “devoted to God.” This led to short vignettes of the religious life, people who are wholly devoted to God. Little Mulan knew all about her Disney namesake, and had viewed the movie many times. Without criticizing her, I one day asked if she’d like to learn about the life of a real Christian warrior princess. Nearly the whole class was enthusiastic. We learned about St. Joan d’Arc and performed a skit for the Kindergarten class.
What’s in a name? We have Shakespeare’s answer. Let us conclude with Holy Scripture.
“ A good name is better than great riches; and good favour is above silver and gold. “
~Proverbs XXII, i.