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Why Do Catholics Choose A Saint’s Name At Baptism?

Jan 08, 2018 By Ashley Osmera

Candles are lit, the petite white gown has been donned by a squirming infant, and now the celebrant turns to the parents holding the child and solemnly asks:

“What name do you give your child?”

In reply, you might hear:

Ashley Elizabeth...

David Joseph...

Mary Joy...

Justin Michael…

There’s nothing that says “Catholic” quite like the names of saints and angels, biblical figures, or Christian feasts and virtues during the Catholic Rite of Baptism!

Catholic World Report

Early Christianity and Baptismal Names

The Catholic tradition of naming a child after a saint is not new. It is an ancient tradition that carries much significance, and rightly so!

In the 4th century, St. John Chrysostom strongly encouraged parents to choose for their children names of holy men and women known for their strength and virtue, in order that the children might look to them as role models.

Even earlier, St. Dionysius of Alexandria (c. 260) observed, “There are many of the same name as the Apostle John, who on account of their love for him, and because they admired and emulated him, and desired to be loved by the Lord as he was, took to themselves the same name, just as many of the children of the faithful are called Paul or Peter."

Canon Law and the Tradition of Giving Children Christian Names

Many Catholics choose a saint’s name for their child’s first or middle name (or both!). In the past, Canon Law required that parents have a Christian name for the child at Baptism. However, this is no longer a hard-and-fast requirement. In the current code of Canon Law, number 855 simply states:

“Parents, sponsors, and the pastor are to take care that a name foreign to Christian sensibility is not given.”

This statement is phrased negatively, meaning that, instead of telling parents what they must do, a few names are instead considered “off limits,” while the rest is left to the prayerful reflection of the parents.

For example, it would be rather unsettling for a Catholic to present the name “Lucifer” or “Zeus” for an infant at his baptism, and the priest might question what intention the parents had in giving their child such a name.

That being said, there is a long and beautiful tradition as to why Catholics do present a saintly or biblical name for their child at Baptism, and why those who convert to Catholicism may choose to take an additional name when they are baptized.

The Choosing and Changing of Names in the Bible

The Bible gives us many vivid examples of significant circumstances bringing about a change in name, especially in regards to moments of spiritual conversion:

  • When God chooses Abram to be the father of the Chosen People and asks him to be circumcised as part of this new covenant, He gives Abram a new name: Abraham
  • After wrestling with an angel and receiving the angel’s blessing, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel
  • The name changes of Simon to Peter and Saul to Paul in the New Testaments are deeply significant

Caravaggio's Conversion of St. Paul

In each of these cases, an important encounter with God led to the choosing of a name which reflected the solemnity of that event. When a child is baptized, he or she becomes a son or daughter of God the Father, a co-heir of Heaven through Christ the Son, and a sharer in the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

If there’s one event that inspires a Christian to take on a name matching the solemnity of the occasion, Baptism is certainly that event! (It is also a tradition to take on a new name at the Sacrament of Confirmation - read more here)

When Catholic parents have a child, they may choose a saint's name as the child's given name, and present that name at the infant's baptism. For those who receive baptism later in life or convert to Catholicism, the newly baptized may choose a name to reflect his or her new status as a Christian, and this name stands as a beautiful and concrete symbol and reminder of spiritual conversion.

Modern Thoughts on Taking a Saint’s Name At Baptism

Fr. Roger Landry, a theologian and writer in the diocese of Fall River, MA, has a very thorough and beautiful article on the importance of giving a child a name that will inspire him or her to live a life of virtue. I’ll leave you with a few of his thoughts on the subject:

To give someone a name, as we see from the beginning, is a sacred act, an act 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…The choice of a name can have a profound impact on the child’s development and self-identity."

"One of the questions pregnant couples should ask themselves is what their child will think of the name chosen and the reasons why it was chosen.

Was it chosen simply because they liked the way it sounded and no one had ever heard such associated sounds before, or was it chosen to honor a beloved family member whose influence and virtue really impacted them? Was it chosen nihilistically with no connection to anyone or anything whatsoever, or was it selected to link the person to a genuine hero in this life or in the next?”

Naming the child after a Christian saint or biblical hero is a concrete reminder for the child and everyone else that God is calling that child, like his or her Christian namesake, to holiness and heaven. A Christian name concretely indicates that there is, and is meant to be, a connection and continuity between natural and supernatural life, and between earthly and eternal life."

Comments

Nos Jondi says
Jan 13 2019 8:23PM
It's quite an unfortunate stance the Church takes on baptismal names, especially for non English speaking cultures. Priests in such countries never allow traditional namws, always insisting on English names at the expense of indigenous names. If people aren't allowed to name children based on their respective cultures, how do those names ever become worthy of being baptismal? I just had my kids baptized and it went the way of the asinine. I will make it my mission to fight the Church on this. It's just plain dumb.
Hi Nos, it is better to look at this in a positive light; having the name of a known saint means that the child receiving baptism has an intercessor to help them be faithful to their baptismal promises, and to be their life-long friend. The most important thing is the passing on of the Catholic faith, and one of the ways this is done is through baptismal and confirmation names. Very special relationships develop between saints and those named after them, and this can be a great consolation and help to the child as they go through life. Also it may not necessarily be true that the names used are all English; saints come from many countries, and the etymology of names often have roots in various languages (for example the name "Margaret" is derived from ancient Persian). Also names can be rendered into the native tongue, for example, St. Kateri was named after St. Catherine of Siena. The way to have more saint names coming from the language of a specific culture is for that culture to be Christianized, for citizens of that culture to become saints, and then the faithful from that culture can choose those saints for their baptismal names.
peter says
Oct 25 2018 4:54AM
Can I give baby boy Jesus as baptismal name?
Hello Peter. The answer to this is not black and white, and varies depending on cultural traditions. For example, it is heard of in Hispanic/Latin American cultures, but rarely seen in the US. This would be a good question to ask the priest or deacon who will be baptizing the baby.
Cat N says
May 9 2018 5:49AM
Thank you for this article. It is very informative and well written. With the knowledge that you seem to show through your article would it be okay to choose a non Christian middle name such as Sailor. My pregnancy was extremely rough and always something at every ultra sound screening. I have heard a saying that a smooth sea never made a skillful and strong sailor. This name/word has tremendous meaning for me as an ocean/sea can be very beautiful and at times tumultuous but weathering it and remaining calm and brave and strong gives incredible character. I believe my daughter “sailed” through some rough seas/patches through this pregnancy. By the grace of god she made it unscathed, healthy, no necessary nic u stay, early surgery, or early health interventions as so believed might have been the case the first few days of her life. Perhaps You May not be able to answer my question, but would love to hear your thoughts on my suggestion/logic.
How beautiful! Sounds like there were some real graces at work there! Like the article said, it's traditional to have either the first OR middle name to be a saint name, because that saint can be a powerful intercessor and heavenly mentor for your child. However, for the most part anything NOT anti-Christian is fine to baptize with. You can always ask your parish priest for more input.
Collins says
Mar 2 2018 11:00PM
Thank you for the insight. We are expecting our child soon. We chose JABALI as the first name. It is a Swahili word which means a strong rock. Is this an appropriate name for baptism?
Hello! We are not required to choose a saint's name, only one that isn't opposed to Christianity. (A name meaning strong rock certainly makes me think of Christ and St. Peter!) You can also always choose a saint's name for a middle name if you like. It's wonderful to be able to have a special Heavenly patron for your child. You can always talk to your parish priest as well.

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Commentary by

Ashley Osmera Ashley Osmera

Ashley grew up in Charlotte, NC and found her way back there in adulthood. She graduated from Belmont Abbey College with a degree in Psychology, and hopes to pursue a degree in Counseling at the graduate level. Ashley enjoys reading, being outdoors, and all of the fine arts, including writing, art, theatre, ballroom dance, and music. Her favorite devotion is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and she also has a newfound love for St. John Paul II and Mary Undoer of Knots. Ashley has written digital content for a variety of religious and secular institutions.

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