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From Ambrose to Zelie: For Catholic Babies, Old Is the New New


Jeffrey Bruno

Simcha Fisher - published on 05/17/16

Fulton and Vianney, Felicity and Avila, Giorgio and Elias are all showing up in 21st century baptismal books
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Once upon a time, Catholic families had a girl named Mary, without fail. Maybe “Elizabeth” or “Rose” made its way into the mix, but you had to have a Mary — or Marie, or Maria, or at least a Regina. Even boys often had some form of “Mary” as a middle name.

Now the name “Mary” has sunk below the top 100 names in the U.S., and the hunt is on for something new to name the baby — or something so old, it sounds new again.

“I’m seeing a lot of vintage/retro/throwback names,” says Kate Towne, who writes Sancta Nomina, a blog devoted to Catholic baby names. “This follows the taste of American society as a whole. Those names are due for a resurgence in popularity.”

Old is the new new

American parents are returning to names that were popular when our grandparents were in diapers. Emma, Olivia, Sophia and Ava top the chart for girls, and Jacob, William, Michael and Alexander are holding strong for boys.

Catholics take names and their implications seriously, so they’ve always been ahead of this nostalgic curve, borrowing names from scripture, from Church history, and even from virtues. It’s only icing on the cake if a beloved patron saint brings some hipster cred along for the ride.

Edie/Edith is all the rage, and it sounds even edgier if you’ve encountered that edgiest of Carmelite nuns, philosopher, martyr, and Jewish convert Edith Stein. Likewise, Leo and Sebastian have that sought-after retro sound, with the bonus of some spectacular saintly backstories. Jude and Blaise sound bold and fierce, but their hagiographies are even more thrilling.

What other old-fashioned names are back in style with Catholics and non-Catholics alike? Ask the question on Facebook, and Lucys abound. Veronicas and Josephines are blooming everywhere. Gaggles of Dominics, Georges, Henrys, and Theodores fill public and parochial kindergartens.

But some retro names are enjoying a heyday mainly around the baptismal font, and are less likely to catch on in the secular world. Ambrose and Augustine, Pia and Pio, Kateri, Philomena and Felicity are very hot right now, and Caeli is inching up the Catholic charts.

The last shall be first

Another trend, and a dashing one, is to give a child a surname for a first name. For Catholics, it’s a stealthy way to honor a holy man or woman while still enjoying a little creative cache: Kolbe/Kolby/Colby works for Maximilian Kolbe; Siena honors Catherine of Siena and Avila sends a nod to Theresa of Avila. Some parents drop the “John” and just name their son or daughter Vianney. If Thomas is too common, Becket is a strong name, especially for parents who value religious liberty. If “Edmund” isn’t exciting enough, maybe “Campion the Undercover Jesuit” sounds a little fresher.

And oh, those nicknames! It sounds so hip when your son answers to Iggy, Nacho, Nash, Nat, or Ace — but to his altar boy pals, he’s Ignatius Athanasius.

When the brand new saints go marching in

Towne says, “I receive requests for name consultations all the time, and almost all of those families want ‘a super saintly name that’s not too weird.’” Luckily for these families, the last few years have brought a spate of canonizations, and with them, a surge of new (or newly-remembered) saint names:

Zelie/Azelie is exploding in popularity, because so many mothers have lost their hearts to the newly-canonized Zelie Martin, a working mother who didn’t breastfeed all her kids and who somehow managed to raise St. Thérèse of Lisieux. St. Zelie Martin worried about her children, groused about fasting, loved her husband passionately, couldn’t handle all the housework, and prayed for her kids incessantly.

Venerable Fulton Sheen’s canonization is still in the works, but 37 years after his death, he’s nearly as popular as he was when he was on TV. Little Fultons are popping up everywhere, reminding us that (as the name of Sheen’s popular show said) life is worth living.

St. Gianna Beretta Molla, beloved of pro-lifers, physicians, and working women, was canonized in 2004. St. Gianna was a joyful and courageous woman who has come to the aid of many a pregnant mother both before and after her death, and now she is lending her name to countless Catholic girls.

The Jubilee Year of Mercy has put the spotlight on Divine Mercy visionary St. Faustina, and her name is surging in popularity as parents meditate on God’s mercy. The name “Faustina” has that perfect combination of, as Towne says, “Catholicky, but not too weird.”

The name family of Chiara/Ciara and Claire/Clare/Clara is enjoying a renaissance (with a boost from Doctor Who) in honor of the lovely and valiant Bl. Chiara Luce Badano, as well as the magnificent St. Clare, companion of St. Francis, who stood firm against the Saracens and whose thick blonde hair is on display in a reliquary in Assisi.

Are patron saints mandatory?

Towne points out that the Church used to require parents to choose a name of a saint or a Christian virtue or mystery, but that “the new naming requirements are not so strict.” Now we must simply avoid names that are “foreign to Christian sensibility.”

“Basically,” says Towne, “most names are totally fine.” If you choose a name mainly for its sound and it happens to be a saint’s name, she says, “I think is sometimes a way of saints choosing us!  I love that, no matter what your taste in names is, you can find ones you love that hearken back to amazing patrons and role models.”

And then there’s Gemma. Why is this name suddenly all the rage? Maybe parents like the idea that, when St. Gemma herself was baptized, her mother reportedly feared that the child would never get into heaven without a saint’s name. The priest reassured her, saying, “Let us hope that she may become a gem of Paradise.”

So if mom and dad adore a name, but there’s no saint attached to it, maybe it’s just a matter of time.

Simcha Fisheris a freelance writer and speaker who writes for several publications, including the National Catholic Register and Catholic Digest. She is the author of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, and lives in New Hampshire with her husband and ten children. To read more of Simcha Fisher’s writing visit her blog “Swimming in the Dark” at Aleteia.

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