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Saints alive! Don't name our child after a luxury car: what's in a name? For Catholics, one would hope a saintly role model. But that's less likely these days thanks to the popularity of trendy, creative, and even consumeristic names.

I WORK IN HIGHER education, so I have the good fortune of working with a new group of young people every year. When I began my career, about every third young woman I met was named Jennifer, Stephanie, or Jessica. Now I meet Ashleys, Tiffanys, and Kaitlyns. Many of these young people were born to Catholic parents and baptized in Catholic parishes.

Popular names, it seems, change like popular fashions and popular music. At a dinner party I once asked a Catholic couple with a daughter named Courtney how they had settled upon this name. Courtney's mother gave a little sigh and said, "We just liked the way it sounded." (I should note that it is alliterative with their last name and does sound kind of nice.) She then added, "I sometimes wish we hadn't because I would have liked for her to have a saint's name."

This got me thinking about the way we name our children and the impact our naming decisions have on them as they grow and develop as people. It occurs to me that the names we give our children reflect our Catholic identity and probably influence the development of theirs.

Over the years the church has exhorted us, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to name our children for holy men and women. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs, "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.... The patron saint provides a model of charity; we are assured of his intercession." Despite its exclusive language, I believe that this passage is intended to apply to the naming of baby girls, as well.

Some bishops, like Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, New Mexico have taken this as a directive that requires saint names for all Baptisms and Confirmations. For Archbishop Sheehan a request to baptize a girl "Crystal" was the last straw. The Catholic Encyclopedia, however, acknowledges that "there has never been a time in the history of the church when these injunctions have been strictly attended to."

A AMERICANS AS A WHOLE SEEM TO PREFER SAINTLY OR RELIGIOUS names for their children, according to the Social Security Administration's online database (www.ssa.gov/ OACT/babynames/), which of course includes all Americans, not just Catholics. The top 10 most popular monikers for baby boys born in 2002 are all saints or biblical figures (in order: Jacob, Michael, Joshua, Matthew, Ethan, Joseph, Andrew, Christopher, Daniel, and Nicholas). Although I initially thought the top 10 names for girls that year (Emily, Madison, Hannah, Emma, Alexis, Ashley, Abigail, Sarah, Samantha, and Olivia) were not, I discovered that most of them are, as it turns out, either saints, biblical women, or feminized forms of male saints or holy men--albeit lesser known ones.

As you move down from the top 10, the boys' names continue to have pretty consistently holy origins. Only five of the top 50 are not derived from a saint or holy person (Tyler, Ryan, Dylan, Austin, and Hunter). The baby girls do not fare quite as well, with only about half of the top 50 derived from saints. Alyssa, Kayla, Jasmine, Destiny, Haley, Savannah, and others all make the top 50 with nary a saint nor a biblical reference among them. Other girls' names in the top 50 include feminized versions of male names like Brianna (St. Brian) and Amanda (St. Amand), as well as names of male saints that have become popular for girls like Megan (St. Meigan) and Jordan (there are six St. Jordans, all male).

I am certainly not suggesting that all these popular names were chosen because they were saints' names. I doubt, for example, that many parents who named their little boy Kyle realize that there was exactly one St. Kyle, who was a Scottish woman.

I was also struck by one omission from the top 50: Mary. Mary was the undisputed queen of girls' names in this country, ranking No. 1 in popularity from 1880 through 1946. Over the years Mary has been temporarily supplanted by Linda, Lisa, and Jennifer. But in 1972 she fell out of the top 10, never to return. Today Mary, the literal queen of all saints, is gone from the top 50.

So why do we name our children what we do? While some pick a name for their children because they like the way it sounds, others are more purposeful. A young mother who had named her (now 13-year-old) daughter Madison explained to me that she wanted her daughter to have a gender-neutral name so that she would have confidence, and, when she had a job interview, prospective employers would be surprised to see this self-assured young woman enter the room.

In hindsight her plan may have backfired, as Madison is pretty much exclusively given to girls after it burst onto the scene following the release of the film Splash in 1986. So not only will the employer know that Madison is a woman, they'll probably be able to guess about how old she is. (If you want your child to have a name that won't give away his or her sex, try Jordan, which is in the top 50 for both boys and girls.)

The success of this woman's naming strategy (and her dreams of business glory as opposed to, say, virtue) notwithstanding, I admire her intentionality. She gave her child a name that she believed would help her develop an identity as she grew. But she would have done better with a saint or a holy person.

Trendy names are like trendy hairstyles, and we all have photographs of ourselves sporting the embarrass mg colts of yesteryear. At least they were temporary, unlike a name. Do you want your child to have the nominal equivalent of a beehive for her whole life? When our children get to an age when they ask why we chose their name for them, we owe them a better answer than, "That was the Super Bowl MVP the year you were born," or "There was this popular TV show called Friends and Chandler was really funny." (FYI, Chandler means "candlemaker," and St. Ambrose is their patron.)

THE NAMES WE GIVE OUR CHILDREN ARE A REFLECTION OF our own values and our hopes for what our children will become. Some who value family name children after relatives whom they admire. Some value fame and name their children after famous athletes or entertainers. Some (thankfully, a small number) have even adopted the supremely unfortunate practice of naming their children after things, products, brand names, or even cable networks. Columnist Froma Harrop wrote recently of children who have been saddled with depressingly shallow names like Lexus, Chanel, Armani, Cartier, and the unpronounceably banal Espn, which found its way onto the birth certificates of at least two boys in this country in 2003. The catechism teaches that the names we are given at Baptism are our names for eternity. Poor Espn!

"Wait," you say, "if I limit my selection to only the names of saints and holy people, won't that dramatically reduce the number of choices I have?" But the choices may not be as limiting as you think, and the pool gets bigger every year. During the papacy of John Paul II the number of saints has increased by almost 500! And there are plenty more in the pipeline with over 1,300 beatified.

"But," you protest, "saints' names are all so Western. How can I reflect my cultural identity, which I value right along with my Catholic identity?" Many of the New Testament saints and the holy people from Hebrew scripture did not have the names we know in English; we have since Anglicized them. I am named after Andrew the apostle, yet I am confident he was never actually called that. His name, which is Greek, was pronounced on-dray-us. So there is nothing preventing parents from translating a saint's name from one language to another. In a wonderful example of choosing a name that honors both Catholicity and ethnic heritage, I know an African American couple who named their baby son Jiwe--the Swahili word for rock. "So," they explained, "he is named for St. Peter."

For parents-to-be looking for help on choosing a name for their child or young adults searching for confirmation names, I recommend Thomas W. Sheehan's Dictionary of Patron Saints' Names (Our Sunday Visitor). It is a terrific resource for thousands of saints' names and their meanings.

As Catholics, the names we give our children do reflect our values, and our values should reflect something deeper than devotion to a television show, enthusiasm for an athletic franchise, or loyalty to a particular brand. Let's give our children names of people who reflect the Catholic virtues to which we would have them aspire. We should bless our kids with the names of holy women and men and leave the names of football players for our pets.

Advance copies of Sounding Board are mailed to a sample of U.S. CATHOLIC subscribers, Their answers to questions on the topic of this Sounding Board article and a representative selection of their comments follow in Feedback.

By ANDREW P. MANION, provost at Aurora University in Aurora, Illinois. His children are named for Saints John, Kevin, and Clare.
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Title Annotation:sounding board
Author:Manion, Andrew P.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Words:1557
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