My Catholic-baptized husband and I have now been married 35 years, and still, I know little about the Catholic faith. The majority of his French and Italian ancestors are Catholic but he studied little about the religious traditions of the faith nor practiced them as an adult. Therefore, while doing research on his ancestry, I'm also trying to learn about Catholic traditions and practices in order to better understand his family's heritage.
One question that has arisen during research of his family is this- Why were so many of his relatives named Joseph or Mary? I was only vaguely familiar with the Catholic tradition of Christian birth names, and I never questioned the reasons behind the tradition. The question arose again today, so I decided to do some research. I found the answer while reading about Catholic tradition.
I found a news article, dated 11 January 2011, about a request from Pope Benedict XVI asking for a return to the use of traditional Christian names. The article stated, "During Mass at the Sistine Chapel, he [the Pope] said: "Every baptised child acquires the character of the son of God, beginning with their Christian name, an unmistakable sign that the Holy Spirit causes man to be born anew in the womb of the Church." He added that a name was an "indelible seal" that set children off on a lifelong "journey of religious faith". The full article may be read here.
An online article written by Father Roger J. Landry and published on The Integrated Catholic Life explained the importance of Christian names. Father Landry wrote the article in response to the Pope's statements, listed above. He wrote: "As the saying goes, a name is not just for a birthday, but for a lifetime, and Pope Benedict is reminding us that this audible personal symbol is meant for an eternal lifetime. We know from Sacred Scripture how seriously God took names. He famously changed the names of Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel and Simon to Peter. He commanded Zechariah to name his son John, to incarnate God’s graciousness, and Joseph to name Mary’s Son, Jesus, to enflesh and effectuate God’s salvation. In order to help Adam grow into the image and likeness of his Creator, God allowed Adam to name the beasts, the birds, the cattle, then Eve, then their sons. To give someone a name, as we see from the beginning, is a sacred act, an action that participates in God’s creative plan, a solemn responsibility that should be carried out with prayer and joyful seriousness rather than done capriciously and carelessly ignorant of the consequences. One of the questions pregnant couples should ask themselves is what their child will think later of the name chosen and the reasons for which it was chosen. Was it chosen to honor a beloved family member whose influence and virtue really impacted them or chosen simply because they liked the way it sounded and no one had ever heard such associated sounds before? Was it selected to link the person to a genuine hero in this life or in the next, or was it chosen nihilistically, with no connection to anyone or anything whatsoever?"
Father Landry went on to explain the relevance of the baptismal name: "A baptismal ceremony begins significantly with the minister’s asking the parents, “What name do you give your child?” This name is given before God. The Catechism says the child’s name and God’s name are thereby linked. “The sacrament of Baptism is conferred ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ 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. ‘Parents, sponsors, and the pastor are to see that a name is not given which is foreign to Christian sentiment.’” It adds, “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” (CCC 2156, 2158)."
In the same article, Father Landry expressed his written opinion regarding the significance of birth names. He wrote, "The name is a holy icon of the person. In our age of titular iconoclasm, Pope Benedict is calling Christian parents back to connect the names of their children with the name of God and the names of those who have lived — and continue to live forever — in God’s holy name, entrusting their children to their namesakes’ saintly patronage so that one day the Good Shepherd will call those children to his eternal right side by the names they’ve chosen for them."
I now understand why the names Joseph and Mary are so common in my husband's Catholic family and I'm even more appreciative of their choices for Christian names. To be honest, I had never given much thought to how meaningful the Christian baptismal name is. The article written by Father Landry helped me gain a new perspective on the topic and, for that, I am grateful.