Catholics Do What?, guest post

What’s in a (Catholic) name? {an interview with Sancta Nomina}

March 10, 2017

I had the great pleasure of “meeting” Kate from Sancta Nomina, the completely rad Catholic baby name blog, back when Luke the Duke was still an interior baby. She did a consult for us and correctly identified the Marian and Skywalker significance of the moniker he ended up with, and I knew right then and there that she was good people.

A couple months ago, as I was picking up our 4 year old from his sweet Catholic Montessori classroom, I noticed that I was about to abscond with a lunch cube of a different color. But it did say JP? Oh. But ours said John Paul. I rifled in the mini fridge amidst a sea of lunch cubes and spied  Giovanni Paolo, Juan Pablo, and, aha, there in the back of the pile, plain old John Paul. I stuck JP back in and retried John Paul. 4 different Wojtyla iterations in a single preschool class. My thoughts immediately turned to Kate, and I knew I wanted to have her on to share her craft with us, and to delve into some of the background and the significance of names and what the Church has to say about them.

So, without further ado, I give you the lovely Kate.


The Church is concerned with the names we give our children because names are important! I recently read something our Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (or Papa Benny, as I like to think of him) wrote about the Patriarch Jacob wrestling with God in the book of Genesis, and the subsequent bestowing of his new name (Israel), and BXVI explained that “in the biblical mentality the name contains the most profound reality of the individual, it reveals the person’s secret and destiny. Knowing one’s name therefore means knowing the truth about the other person.”

That’s heavy stuff! And we certainly see names given a lot of attention in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, from God allowing Adam to name all the animals, to name changes that signified a change in identity and mission (Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Simon to Peter, Saul to Paul—we see this even today with Confirmation names, religious names, and papal names), to God Himself choosing certain babies’ names (John the Baptist, Jesus). Some of the most moving verses in the Bible, to me, are from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:9-11): “God greatly exalted [Jesus] and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”—every time I read them I feel a swell of emotion, they’re so full of the awesomeness and power of God.

Outside of the Bible—and certainly taking example from it—the Church has had a lot to say about names! According to The Catholic Encyclopedia “the assumption of a new name for some devotional reason was fairly common among [early]  Christians” and was usually associated with baptism, especially from the fourth century and later. Examples of new names included those of apostles, martyrs, and even peers who had helped effect one’s conversion to the faith. And St. John Chrysostom advised parents in the fourth century:

“So let the name of the saints enter our homes through the naming of our children, to train not only the child but the father, when he reflects that he is the father of John or Elijah or James; for, if the name be given with forethought to pay honor to those that have departed, and we grasp at our kinship with the righteous rather than with our forebears, this too will greatly help us and our children. Do not because it is a small thing regard it as small; its purpose is to succor us.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia offers several more references to the practice of Christian names being bestowed at baptism throughout history, including pronouncements by the Church (local and universal), and in the old Code of Canon Law, which was in effect from 1917 until 1983, parents were *required* to give their child a “Christian name” (which didn’t necessarily have to be a saint’s name—virtue names, for examples, were fine) or the priest would bestow a saint’s name upon the baby at baptism.

It wasn’t until the new Code of Canon Law took effect in 1983 that the wording was changed to say: “Parents, sponsors, and the pastor are to take care that a name foreign to Christian sensibility is not given” (Canon 855), which, as you can see, allows for a lot of names that might not have been okay before (see my CatholicMom article on names that are foreign to Christian sensibility). Basically, these days most names are just fine, and I feel like the change of wording in Canon Law is further evidence of the wisdom and foresight of the Church because modern parents love individuality and creativity in naming! According to name expert Laura Wattenberg, “it took a list of six names to cover half of the population of children born in England in 1800 (U.S. Social Security Administration records don’t begin until 1880). By 1950 in the United States, that number was up to 79. Today, it takes 546 names to cover half of the population of U.S. babies born.” To parents naming babies in this environment then, the names that are traditionally thought of when “saints’ names” are considered—John, Mary, Joseph, Anne—often feel restrictive and uninspired. Couple that with how many people seem to leap at any chance to dismiss the Church’s teachings as outdated or out of touch, and you can see how the new Canon on names came at a perfect time—now you can be a 21st-century namer AND a good Catholic!

I love how you phrased your question: “Why should we think with the mind of the Church when naming?” We’ve just discussed the Church’s history of understanding how important names are, and I also really like this explanation given by Cathy Caridi, J.C.L., at the Canon Law Made Easy blog:

“This is not merely a question of personal taste … if a priest is to baptize a child, there must be a well founded hope that the child will be raised in the Catholic faith … If the parents wanted to give a bizarre, unchristian name to their child, it would be altogether natural for the parents’ pastor to question their intentions! Are they serious about rearing their child as a Catholic? Or do they regard the whole baptismal ceremony as an empty tradition or even a joke? It is the pastor’s duty to find out.”

And I love how St. John Chrysostom pointed out that the purpose of giving one’s children the names of saints is to help us, and that by doing so we allow the name of the saints to enter our homes and strengthen our relationship with those holy men and women, and encourage our reliance on their example and intercession. That’s how I think of all the names that I consider to fall within the sphere of Catholic names (saint/biblical/virtue names, and names of prayers, Marian titles/adjectives and apparition sites and other holy places; other ideas here)—they all allow our faith to enter our homes and families and stay top of mind and heart.

What uniquely Catholic naming trends have you observed in the years you’ve been following/studying? Any crazy things stand out to you? Any commentary on the insanely wonderful JPII situation in my preschool, for example?

I really love seeing the variety of tastes among devout Catholic families! Among the families I’ve connected with through my blog and name consultations, I’ve seen children with really classic, traditional names, and children with totally outside-the-box names, and everything in between. I’ve gotten loads of ideas and inspiration from the names of the babies I’ve encountered—beautiful names connected to both little-known and well-known saints and other holy people (Servants of God, Venerables, Blesseds), and creative twists like double first names (Anne-Catherine) and names that recall prayers through their sound (Sylvie Regina, Agnes Daisy). Marian names are some of my very favorites, and there are so many! I’m also a big nicknamer, so I think it’s really fun to see a serious, sophisticated formal name with a playful nickname (like Romy for Rosemary or Bash for Sebastian).

I like to spotlight families on my blog who have done something different and eye-opening with naming their babies, in order to show others the wide array of Catholic naming possibilities—names like Vianney, Clairvaux, Kapaun, Lourdes, Bosco, and Tiber and combos like Indigo Madonna and Hyacinth Clemency Veil. Each one of those names has impeccable, uber Catholic ties to holy people, places, or ideas while still being unexpected. I also love encountering real-life babies with hardcore old-school Catholicky Catholic names like Perpetua, Philomena, Gerard, Augustine, and Clement, as well as sibling sets with a mix of names—traditional and modern, unusual and familiar—like brothers Michael, Benedict, Kolbe, and Casper.

I really really love the “insanely wonderful JPII situation” in your son’s class! I definitely see a lot of love being given to our St. John Paul the Great through names—your son and his classmates demonstrate perfectly the various ways to use his papal name, and I know both boys and girls named after him using his pre-papal name, Karol (Polish for Charles), as inspiration: Karol, Carol, Charles, Charlotte, Caroline, Karoline. I’ve even seen some Loleks, after his childhood nickname! I’ve also had several conversations with parents who want to use the name John Paul but aren’t sure how to handle it: is it a double first name, and therefore they should choose a middle name? Is it a first name and a middle name? Should they spell it John Paul or John-Paul or Johnpaul? I spotlighted one family who solved the issue of a middle name for John Paul in a really interesting way, and I really love that families are willing to wrestle with it for the ultimate goal of giving their boys such an amazing and beloved patron saint.

Another name that’s been really hot with Catholic families is Zelie, both with and without the accent on the first ‘e’ and in all its forms, including Azelie, Zellie, Zaylee, and Zaley, and also used in combos like Zelie-Louise, thus really reinforcing the connection to the Martin saints, Zélie (born Marie-Azélie) and Louis. (I wrote more about the whole phenomenon here.)

What advice do you give parents when they’re naming a new baby? Any do’s or don’ts you care to share? (don’t involve family/do involve family/social media silence/etc.?)

Hm, interesting questions! So many things that I believed in the past to be naming “rules” have shown themselves, through real-life examples, to not be so hard and fast and to be really changeable on a family-by-family basis. I really love hearing the song in a parent’s voice when he or she tells me the story of their child’s name, and sometimes the name they’re telling me about goes against all the “advice” I might feel like giving! I do have my personal preferences though, based on my own experiences—I like hearing feedback on our name ideas from friends and family, to be sure we aren’t missing some huge negative association of which we’re unaware. I think floating names in online discussion boards or running them by a name blogger (ahem) can be a good way to get feedback if going the friends and family route is going to cause rifts in relationships. At the same time, I think it’s important to feel free to dismiss others’ negative reactions if they’re based on pure opinion—we’re all allowed to like and dislike names, and in the end the parents alone have the gift and responsibility of naming their baby.

Pope Francis touched on this in Amoris Laetitia, saying: “For God allows parents to choose the name by which he himself will call their child for all eternity” (no. 166). The Catechism reminds us that “God calls each one by name. Everyone’s name is sacred. The name is the icon of the person. It demands respect as a sign of the dignity of the one who bears it” (2158). There’s reassurance in those statements (“For God allows the parents to choose the name”) and also responsibility (“for all eternity”; “Everyone’s name is sacred”; “The name is the icon of the person”). Keeping all that in mind, as well as approaching the naming process with maturity and prayer, will surely help lead parents in the right direction when choosing their children’s names.

And really, anything else you want to answer that comes to mind

I really like to remember that God meets us where we are—for example, a name chosen without regard to the faith might end up being the name of a saint that one comes to have a devotion to later on (I wrote here about how sometimes patron saints find us—sometimes through names!). Name norms also vary depending on cultural considerations and points in history, which is important to remember. Also, regarding the strife I see in families and online discussions surrounding a baby’s name, a good rule of thumb for all concerned is to be kind and reasonable.

Also, please share your social media locations and where my readers can read you, whether it’s on your blog or any recurring features you run.

My blog is http://sanctanomina.net, where I post several times a week on whatever namey thing’s on my mind—questions from readers, name spotlights, birth announcements, random thoughts. I also do name consultations (info here), and post one every Monday for reader feedback, which are a lot of fun.

You can find me @SanctaNomina on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. I also write a monthly column for CatholicMom.com (they can all be found here) and have had several pieces on Nameberry’s Berry Juice blog (all found here).

I have a couple of exciting things coming up: I’ll be on the Go Forth with Heather and Becky podcast, airing March 21—we’ll be discussing name ideas for Heather’s baby-on-the-way! Also, I contributed to the Catholic Hipster Handbook, compiled by Tommy Tighe (*the* Catholic Hipster) and published by Ave Maria Press, which will be available for pre-order this spring and released in the fall (2017). Here’s a little blurb about it: “Coming this Fall from Ave Maria Press, The Catholic Hipster Handbook is going to rock your world.  This book is going to cover everything about the Catholic Hipster life and features contributions from an amazing lineup  including Jeannie Gaffigan, Lisa Hendey, Arleen Spenceley, Anna Mitchell, Sarah Vabulas, and many more!” I’m thrilled to be included in an actual published book, and with such amazing people!

All in all, I’m humbled and honored at all that God’s allowed me to do with my funny little interest in names! Reading back over my answers, I see that I wrote, “I really love” quite a few times—I was going to try to change up the wording but it just expresses so exactly how I feel about the gift of my blog and my readers that I decided to keep it in.

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11 Comments

  • Reply Kara March 10, 2017 at 11:33 am

    This post brought up a fun convo in a women’s group I’m in about how they named their kids. I shared the following novel in case any other super nerdy super intense name lovers land on baby names.

    Mary-Therese Assisi…. I wanted her to be named Felicty but my husband didn’t. And he thought Mary (because he’s a convert who love his Mama) and Therese (my Confirmation name… because he is deeply moved by the Sacrament of Confirmation). Plus it’s a family name on my mom’s side. And Assisi because we love St Francis tearing the Church to the ground in order to rebuild it with virtue and love. And because she was conceived in Assisi on our honeymoon 😉

    John Peter Elijah… John the Baptist- family patron and hubby’s Confirmation name. Peter is my best friend saint and always has been. Before I even knew you could have particular friendships within the communion of saints. He’s emotional and makes bad choices based on those emotions sometimes but always turns back to God. And that same Church that needs humbled from time to time was built on the solid foundation of The Rock (Peter, not the 90s action movie about Alcatraz). And Elijah- because homeboy rode into Heaven on a chariot of FIRE! Dude!

    Mary-Felicity Benedicta… well, my devotion to St Zelie was growing and she beautifully and Providentially named all of her children Mary. And I want to be holy like her when I grow up. So we went the Mary route again. Felicity, because I have a devotion to the martyr pair and love virtue names and we needed a dose of happiness at the time of her birth. Things were heavy for us and we were starting to understand that we would not be welcome in the world with our particular beliefs and that would be our white martyrdom. But Felicity could be happy in that martyrdom. That’s pretty heavy. Benedicta was after St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. We feel loved and encouraged by her intellectual pursuit of her faith (she read herself Catholic as we largely have) but was also willing to die for her faith. Not something done on intellect alone. Ever read the litany of St Edith Stein (her other name)? It proves she’s a pretty big deal as far as modern saints go.

    Mary- Zelie Kathleen… Mary, again. Zelie after Saint Zelie… mother of 5 canonizable daughters. One of which is a Doctor of the Church. No biggie. She also made pretty things and cried because he kids were naughty. And she hung out with her girlfriends and was playful with her husband. What a gift! Kathleen is a family name. Irish for Katherine. Named for St Kathrine Dexel… educator and American.

    Mary-Flannery Stellamaris… Mary, again. Flannery after gothic Catholic author Flannery O’Connor- who tackles the ugly truths of humanity with a redemptive lens. This comes at a time of conversion in our family where we were faced with some challenging situations that made us carefully examine how we treat those on the margins… how we treat people with dignity even when they’re ugly and broken and sinful. Even when it feels impossible. All while using good humor and irony. It was weird not to go the saint route… but I think it spoke to our universal call to holiness. Stellamaris, because one Mary in a name isn’t enough 😉 But really, Mary, Star of the Sea… keep your eyes on the brightest star and it will always lead you home (to Heaven).

    What am I going to do if we have another girl and I’m feeling very close to my girl St Hildegard?! She might not like me for that. But it isn’t always up to us, is it? God wants what he wants.

    • Reply Veronica March 10, 2017 at 12:37 pm

      Just face the fact that Hildy is an adorable nickname for a little girl. ;p

    • Reply Kate @ Sancta Nomina March 10, 2017 at 4:39 pm

      Ohmygoodness I LOVE all your kiddos’ names Kara, especially all those Marys!!! And i totally agree with Veronica — Hildy/Hildi is completely adorable!

  • Reply K March 10, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    I have a friend who just had a Hildegard. I think it’s fabulous.

  • Reply Kathleen March 11, 2017 at 6:14 am

    Loved this post. Our youngest is named Linus and everyone thought we named if after the Peanuts character, except a few Catholics who know that he was the 2nd Pope. I asked St. Linus to intercede when the baby was breech at very late in the pregnancy, and not just turn the baby, but do so by Easter morning. And it totally happened. And seeing that the baby was over 11 lbs, that was pretty miraculous. We just love his name, and while we don’t know much about St. Linus historically, my husband and I figured that since he was the first to follow Peter he was probably awesome! Anyway, I am so happy to know about your website!

    • Reply Kate @ Sancta Nomina March 12, 2017 at 7:01 am

      I love that you used Linus! And your reasoning is perfect: “my husband and I figured that since he was the first to follow Peter he was probably awesome!” So great!

  • Reply Laura March 11, 2017 at 7:57 am

    Great interview Kate! When I was pregnant with my first way back in 2001, we briefly planned on naming him John Paul, but as I began to notice all the little John Pauls at church and in the Catholic community we decided to name him simply Paul. So while his patron has always been the Apostle Paul, our admiration of John Paul II led us to his name.

    • Reply Kate @ Sancta Nomina March 12, 2017 at 7:01 am

      Thanks Laura! I love that John Paul is sort of connected to your Paul’s name, very cool!

  • Reply Cami March 12, 2017 at 8:01 pm

    My kids names so far are Rex Benedict, Benjamin Eli, and Emily Jean. We are expecting baby #4 any moment but haven’t named him or her yet. My favorite name we’ve chosen was my first baby, Rex Benedict. We knew we wanted something very Catholic. My husband specializes in sacred music (he’s an operatic tenor) so we began thinking about Latin. We conceived Rex during advent so we named him Rex Benedict… Blessed King, in honor of baby Jesus.

    • Reply Kate @ Sancta Nomina March 13, 2017 at 6:31 am

      I love your kids’ names Cami! I love the Latin influence, and also how the middle names of each child are reflected in the first names of the next — very cool!

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