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The Saints and Their Names

The saint making machine at the Vatican shows no sign of slowing down. We have just had released to us a list of those Servants of God who are now lined up for beatification. Almost without exception they are vowed religious/founders and foundresses, and priests except for the pacficist martyr (and married layman) of the Nazi period F. Jagerstatter. Amid all this saint making, however, it strikes me as odd that many of my young Catholic students are named Heather, Crystal, Madison, Ryan, and so on. Is this one of those small signs of the impending apocalypse about which the late (wonderful) Walker Percy urged us to be attentive? Some years ago, when informed that a now departed Notre Dame coach had a son named something like "Dwayne" an old subway alumnus snorted: "What the hell kind of name is that for a kid? Notre Dame coaches name their kids "Anthony" or "Patrick". A small ray of hope on the horizon: last year, the most popular name for a masculine baby in the United States was "Jose."

About the Author

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.



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Along these lines, back in the mid-1980s, I had the privilege of working with Gordon Zahn (who "discovered" the story of Franz Jaegerstaetter and wrote "In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jaegerstaetter" -- which, by the way is published by Templegate) at the Pax Christi Center on Conscience and War in Cambridge, MA. I recall a day when we felt that Franz's eventual beatification and canonization would happen: Gordon received a letter from a girl in Minnesota, reporting that she had chosen the name Franz Jaegerstaetter as her Confirmation name! Gordon and I took that as a sign that the "cult" required for eventual canonization had begun!Sad to say, the wonderful news of Franz's beatification will not be able to be understood by Gordon today. He has endured Alzheimer's disease for some years now, but remains "with us" in a nursing home outside of Milwaukee, at the age of 89 (in August). Blessed Franz, be with Gordon!

To anyone who has not read I highly recommend it. Zahm must get all credit for bringing Jagerstatter to the attention of the Catholic world. Some of the local Catholic Workers called me yesterday about the impending honors for this great martyr who is so loved in those circles.

The fact that the "most popular name for a masculine baby in the United States" is "Jose" is hardly the "small ray of hope" that Mr. Cunningham suggests any more than the news story today that said Muhammed (and all its various spellings) is expected to be the most popular boy's name in the UK by the end of this year. Rather, both naming trends reflect fundamental cultural shifts in both nations that do not bode well at all. Name one Hispanic or islamic country that is any way as economically prosperous, politically stable, freedom-loving, or tolerant as either the US or the UK ... it cannot be done. And thus the growing cultural influence of either group in either country is defintiely a concern--in the end, it may not need to be feared (if the US and the UK begin to defend their own cultural values), but it certainly is not anything to be cheered.

Another second for "In Solitray Witnes." A terrific book, but now it must be over 40 years old. I wonder how many Catholics have read it or will read it, even after the canonization.My own reflection was the need to stand up for what's right today in the Us is harder because we've so screwed up the notion of loyalty.I thought of this as Scooter Libby got 30 months from a judge who went beyond the pre-sentence recommendation and noted there was "overwhelming proof" of Libby's guilt.Yet already neocon loyalists are talking pardon - and Libby was a loyalist obviously also.Sadly this lesson is also one that the Church leadership needs to hear and impart. (See the homily to new priests above thread.)

I agree with Robert Reid that cultural transformation is an inevitable consequence of widespread immigration, but I must forcefully disagree with his evaluation of this transformation. Based on my fairly extensive personal contact with these immigrants I am very much more hopeful. I've come to believe that we have a great deal to learn from them, that they enrich us in many ways. As descendents of Catholic immigrants often misunderstood and marginalized upon arrival, we dare not respond it kind to the current wave. Let's embrace a more hopeful and catholic narrative.

I certainly hope that Mike McG is correct, but I must point out that there are vast, vast differences between earlier waves of immigration to the US (in which the immigrants had to cross an ocean, with little expectation of returning on a regular basis to their coutnry of origin) versus today's immigration in which both legal and illegal immigrants maintain much stronger ties to their country of origin than did earlier immigrants, where these immigrants do routinely return to their original countries, which are far closer geographically than were the home countries in earlier generations (thus strengthening their ties to that culture and weakening their assimilation to the US culture), where English-speaking Americans are increasingly forced to interact (in stores, restaurants, etc., close to their own homes and neighborhoods) with immigrants whose English is marginal at best (something that English-speakers in the past might only need to do if they chose to visit one of the ethnic enclaves), and where the very concept of assimilation into the US culture being a necessary and good goal is under assault. Indeed, some activists even declare that parts of the US are actually "occupied" territories of their home country--something that no earlier immigrant would have even considered (except possibly for some delusional French or Spanish immigrant longing for the days before the Louisiana purchase or for the glorious past of Spain's New World Empire). All these aspects make the current immigration experience so unlike the earlier experience that the two cannot really be compared at all.

Sometimes it's hard to to take the beatification process seriously. It has a whiff of being the domain of lobbying groups with resources at hand to devote to promoting "one of their own."It's not that I have a problem with dioceses promoting their priests or orders promoting their founders (or whomever). We all have and need our heroes.It would seem we need some intermediary stage: some way for the local church (be it a diocese or order) to recognize their heroes in a saintly or liturgical way without foisting it on other groups who have their own heroes. If, for example, Catholics outside of Peoria wanted to add Fulton Sheen to their liturgical calendars, and appropriate bishops were willing to sign off on it, do we really need documented miracles for it?Devotion to saints would be restored to an organic realm. If someone like Teresa of Calcutta were to break through in the Catholic consciousness during her life or after it, why not leave that to the Holy Spirit?

Three small observations:If Jagerstatter is certified as a martyr by the congregation, the need for miracles is otious.The sociology of canonizations has been widely noted (and criticized) for decades in the research.One element in the evolution of canonical procedures in the church apropos of canonization came about because the 'organic realm" turned non existent people into "saints". The instances of these are numerous and a few, hilarious.Finally: illegal immigration is a vastly complicated issue but hardly solved by hand wringing, warnings, and dooms day scenarios that sound eerily like what my immigrant forebears experienced when they threatened the nativist majority some generations ago.

Glad to hear that Lawrence Cunnigham supports action against illegal immigration--after all, if he opposes what he calls hand wringing, warnings, and dooms day scenarios he must instead support some sort of action (my tongue is firmly in my cheek, of course). Unfortunately, just as the church seems willing to churn out more and more saints as though the process were an assembly line, it also condones and practically encourages more and more illegal immigration ... I wonder how supportive the church would be, though, if the vast majority of those illegal immigrants were Hindus, Buddhists, or some faith other than Catholic?

Robert: your fears sound quite familiar: Jose or Muhammed with Pat, Colleen, Giuseppe .... you get the point.

I never imagined that my light hearted remrks about saints would end up in a debate about immigration - a debate I feel rather inadequately prepared to enter. When our men's soccer team played the Mexican National under twenty team this Spring the stands were jamed with Mexicans waving flags of Mexico and/or banners of Our Lady of Guadalupe. My wife and I were the only Gringos in our section but I felt quite at home cheering for Notre Dame (in Spanish) and took inordinate pride in the fact that we won in the 79th minute with a single goal. All the youngsters spoke in English to each other while speaking Spanish to their elders. Who knows who was there without papers but the idea that the INS would swoop down and send them all packing seemed unlikely to me.Some of those bilingual kids will be students here some day and they will get a welcome from me if I am still around.

I am delighted that Lawrence Cunningham's experience with a Mexican crowd was so pleasant. But there have also been examples of Mexican crowds taunting an American soccer team in the most obnoxious way possible (by chanting "Osama! Osama!") and of another Mexican crowd recently booing the Miss USA (or Miss America?) contestant at an international beauty pageant. But then those were Mexican crowds in Mexico--arguably a far more authentic taste of how Mexicans feel than how they might behave at Notre Dame.

Moreover, it is either disengenuos or suprisingly obtuse of Mr. Cunningham to be surprised by this discussion turning to immigration. He raised the issue (perhaps unintentionally) praising how popular the name "Jose" has become in the US--he did not simply metnion it, but called it a "ray of hope." He really has no call to be surprised. The names of saints are rather insignificant compared to future of one's culture.

I can only imagine what a lighthearted discussion about the latest ethnic eateries turns into when Mr. Reid joins in. At any rate, I have long since forgotten what rules, if any, apply to the naming of babies, but it doesn't seem that saints occupy the popular imagination quite the same way that celebrities do. My parish did have a halloween party one year where children were supposed to come dressed as their favorite saint, requiring research into saints, etc., and an explanation of why they chose that particular saint. It was a big hit.

How unkind of you, Barbara. Good food knows no borders and needs no documents--it is a passport to all nations.

I think this discussion has gotten far off the topic, and I thank Barbara for bringing us back to the question of naming and the saints. It was at one time mandatory under the code of canon law to name a child after a saint or some recognized manifestation of Catholic piety. When the code was revised, this requirement was dropped. Perhaps the life had gone out of the practice, and it was thought too constricting. The question is, it seems to me, whether weve lost something in the process. Catholic parents can, after all, freely choose to select saints names for their children, and many do. But are we witnessing the erosion of the value of ones personal name as a link to a living community of faith (unless one belongs to a strong ethnic community that is traditionally Catholic)? Might not the giving of a name, which is still part of our baptismal rite, be proposed to the faithful as an act which carries an intrinsic religious value? I have never heard even one homily that raises this issue. Historians have established that the giving of a name was not original to the rite of Christian baptism, but it does have a venerable history dating back at least to the middle ages. And a name, after all, is a numinous thing. To give a name or change a name is Gods prerogative in many of the crucial stories of the Bible. The fact that human parents share this privilege suggests that in this, no less than in the creation and nurturing of human life, they cooperate with divine grace. It's not like naming a pet.People have always been free to make of their names what they will. Nicknames abound. Names can be changed. And, of course, holy patrons arent everything. But if the saints do disappear from the Catholic role call, it will mean something. Thats what interested me in this post.

Golly, do you mean that there really weren't Saints Buffy, Muffy and Tiffany? I am shocked, shocked, shocked!

I can't resist. Jimmy, you have truly shown your age. That should be saints Britney, Ashley, Dakota, Taylor, Madison, Courtney (or maybe Kourtney), Amber, Brooklyn, and so on. Look here for the most amazing baby name finder ever: peaked in the 1970s, Tiffany in the 1980s, and Muffy was never on the list.

Barbara:Good show. I must add Saints Abigail, Emily, and Kayla.That name finder is incredible and it reveals how much of an upward spike "Caleb" has taken.One of my family members told me about a huge fight one relative had with a priest because the child's father wanted to name his daughter "Sally", but the priest would have none of it. Neither of them might have known that "Sally" came from "Sarah".

Barbara: If I were to go to "my age" I'd be talking Emma, Philomena, Gertrude ..... and, of course, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail & Peter.

To Rita Ferrone: Let the choir say "Amen!"My sentiments exactly. Nomen omen!

I am trying not to feel like a Catholic orphan. My father wanted to name me Biaggio after his father. But he hated the english translation, Blaise. And worse the nickname, Benny. But he loved "Billy."And that is what it is over the objections of the priest who said Billy was not a Christian name. And that's how the baptismal record reads, "Billy Frank Mazzella." Not even Francis. All those years telling my teachers that my real name is Billy.

If everyone will just be patient, given the new propensity for canonizing, there will be in a century or so, if there is another century or so, saints with all the new names. The right approach is not to fear to call your little darling Tiffany or Brittany. Rather, thoughtful parents will groom their so named offspring for future sainthood. Founding an ecclesial community looks like a promising path.

John Allen's NCR post this week is on possible canonization of Pius XII.Any thoughts?I found it most interesting in his posts from the Catholic Theological Society meeting in LA that there was much concern with the Bishops pulling back on support for minority ministries.To the point of this thread was a presentation by Professor Imperatore of Manhattan College calling for more "ordinary holiness" in our saints (after Elizabeth Johnson.)Take a look at Allen's reports from there and a brief discussion about the long dead pastoral on women.

Rita: You have probably noticed how Caleb has been a rising star of names within the past 10 years. It has especially been the case in the South where people familiar with Scripture understand the honor and esteem attributed to the warrior Caleb and they hope that their boy will act with such virtue and receive great blessings.Here's another thing about baptism names in line of "Jose" being popular: I celebrate Spanish baptisms and it is always interesting to see when a child receives an Anglo name, such as a girl receiving the name Krystal, and I have been told that such a name is given either because it sounds cute or because it makes Latinos feel a little more American. I bet that many people who post here can relate to such logic because it had to be huge when a boy was named Joseph rather than Giuseppe.Finally: One of the young ladies at my parish took the Confirmation named Tarcisius. She told me that she wanted to go deeper down the list than many other people go, but she was convinced that she would find someone who would inspire her in holiness but also had a name that few people around were toting. My only suggestion was that she go with Tarcisia only because the Italian endings sound cooler than some of the Latin endings. Come on, folks, Gennaro beats Januarius hands down.

"Billy Frank": You are owed an honorary membership in the Sons of the South or some such Southern heritage group. At least you're not "Billy Jack."Emma: Everything old is new again. I know half a dozen Emmas, including my best friend's daughter. A venerable, old German/Anglo-Saxon name that means whole or complete, it is now one of the most common names for girls in the U.S.I read an entire book on the evolution of English surnames (among the earliest in Europe), and one of the reasons why "last names" became necessary was because so many people began naming their children after someone else after the Conquest, e.g., important dignitaries (William the Conqueror, for instance) or saints, rather than trying to give their children names that were not in use in the community, which had been the previous custom. So that by the 16th century, more than half of all English girls were either Anne, Elizabeth or Mary. It also spurred a serious proliferation of nicknames, which often firgured in surnames (Hopkins = Kin of Hop, which was in turn a nickname for Robert (like Bob, Rob, Dob, Hob, etc.), the single most popular English man's name for close to 500 years after the conquest.

My wife's grandmother was named Frank. Her mother was six months pregnant when her father, a US Marshal with the admirable name of Benjamin Franklin Vandeventer, was dispatched by an associate of the late Mr. James in Missouri. So maybe she was a daughter of the South?And now here's a contest, double prize if the winner is a devotee of the Pian rite. Some time in the 1880's my grandfather's younger brother escorted his younger sister to her first day of school. Family was German (those were the unassimilable ones with their own language and newspapers "we" couldn't read back then), and when the girl was asked her name by the less than hospitable teacher she replied in a thick German accent "Agathe." Which meant nothing to the teacher. After four or five repetitions, the older brother finally said "Just call her Lucy."The question is, where did the "Lucy" come from?By the way, besides being the name of the last queen of Italy, Jose is a very common name in the Philippines, which certainly does not consider itself an Hispanic country.

I have long wondered about the popularity of Hector in Puerto Rico. And I recently read of a man from Central America named Anival. How marvelous is the persistance of the classical tradition! In fact the "Christian" name of Pius XI was Achille, but perhaps he was named after the martyr rather than the legendary and somewhat homicidal hero of the Iliad.

Lucy = Lucia? I have always loved the name Lucy. My grandmother's name was Lucile.I lobbied for my two favorite saints when my son was on the way: Joseph Aidan.My husband nixed both names in favor of John the BaptistI agreed with John the Baptist. This turned out to be fitting, since J the B was a live wire with an elderly mother, and I have taken St. Elizabeth as my patron since my kid was two.Plus there were Johns on both sides of our family, so both grandmothers could believe the kid was named after their relatives.I've always regretted caving in on Aidan, though. A mighty fine fellow and one who has always mitigated my dislike of being part Irish.

Ezra Pound once wrote "I've only known one Achilles and he ended up in the Vatican." It would be nice to think this was meant humorously, but with Pound that's usually too much to hope for.Pius XI is pretty much a mystery to me -- does anyone know of a good book that covers his crucial years in the papacy? I found the book on Benedict XV called (I think) The Unknown Pope very useful. I can't get my mind around Pius XI, since he seems to go in different directions at different times -- which probably means (a) my categories are not necessarily the right ones and (b) he had an awfully difficult job and that should always be taken into account.By the way, the quote from Pound was from memory, so corrections will be appreciated.

Thank you, Lawrence. Bill, I think you are justified in feeling somewhat deprived. Biaggio is such a beautiful name! And what a fine old piece of Italian filial piety that your father wanted to name you after your grandfather. The costs of assimilation are indeed high. Fr. Shawn, thank you for your comments on Caleb and Tarcisius. But I would pick a nit with you on Tarcisia. Thats perfectly good Latin too; it would depend on how one pronounces it. Gene, here is my crack at solving your puzzle. Could it be because Lucy follows Agatha in the list of martyrs enumerated in the old Roman canon (now Eucharistic Prayer I)? Theyre not linked in martyrdom, like Perpetua and Felicity (who precede them in the list), but the ear hears Agatha and Lucy together. My guess would be that the childs full name was Agathe Lucy, inspired by the canon of the Mass, and her brother thought that if the teacher couldnt pronounce Agathe, her middle name would do. (And no, Im not a devotee of the Pian Missal.)Now, here is my trivia question. When I was in New Mexico a couple of years ago, I came across the most astonishing story Ive ever heard concerning Confirmation names. Someplace in Mexico, the children were obliged to take as their confirmation name the personal name of the bishop who confirmed them. Anybody ever hear of such a thing? I wanted to call in anthropologists what could this possibly mean? Confirmation names are an American custom; was this a rough attempt to copy it? Did the bishop want to be able to identify later the children he had confirmed? Was there some idea here of spiritual paternity on the part of the confirming bishop? My informant couldnt answer these questions. It was just what they always did.

Rita Ferrone is basically correct, except that her middle name was not Lucy. The name change was a family mystery for quite a long time until my late uncle put it together about twenty years ago. What the older brother (also a late uncle, now that I think of it) did was, when confronted with a name that was not culturally acceptable, turn to the name it reminded him of, namely the name that followed it in the Roman canon. I too am not an especial devotee of the Pian rite, although I do love (if it's not too strong a word) the Roman canon -- certainly enough to check out the associated churches.What interests me in the story, other than its strangeness, is that it seems to indicate that ca. 1880 a kid who knew German and minimal English in a midwestern rural town knew the mass text well enough that it was the first thing he thought of in terms of names. We Catholics, particularly amidst the present controversies, tend to do our history with a very broad brush no matter what side of the dispute were on, hence the sentimentality or vitriol and very little else on the pre-V II church.I think a history built up of little pieces of remarkable evidence would be far more useful (my current desideratum would be the recollections of the first generation of lay lectors as they leave the scene). This is something that Mormon historiography handles far better -- I think (among other things) or a remarkable lecture by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich that combines personal memories with significant analysis of a faith tradition.I believe I too have heard the story about the bishop's name as the confirmation name, but I don't know if I was in New Mexico at the time. It does stick in my mind that it is a Hispanic tradition, which means I'm in over my head.

I have loved the exchanges on names. Some years ago I received an unexpected check with which I bought the twelve volume version of Butler and have, over the years, read each morning the daily entry. Ah the names! [To say nothing of the improbable stories about some of the saints]. Nothing pleases me more than to hear the celebrant choose Eucharistic Prayer #1 and actually take the time to read that great roll call of martyrs including the ones in small print.

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